Sunday, May 1, 2011

Visit to Amuka and the Making of Kaddish

Amuka, in northern Israel, is the gravesite of Rabbi Yonathan ben Uziel, one of the greatest students of Rabbi Hillel from 2000 years ago. I was there with three friends. An Ashkenazi, an Ethiopian, and Pincus, dressed in a dusty, black coat and kippah, covered with soot from head to foot and wreaking of pure kindness. He was a total tzaddik, or holy man, reminding me of Eliyahu ha Navi, the angel and prophet, frequently disguised as a beggar.

Except for us, the place was completely deserted. It was dusk, time for arvit or mincha, evening prayers, and my companions complained about being short six men for a minyan. We were only four and ten is the necessary quorum in our tradition. Pincus leapt upon a rock and began, “If you have faith, then we will have our minyan!” he exclaimed. "Emunah!" he cried. I looked up at the road leading to Amuka and saw a desolate site among the trees. There was nothing… nothing, only trees. Where this minyan was going to appear from was certainly a mystery to me. We went inside the small building there in the wilderness, which housed the tomb of the great sage and began our prayers.

Somewhere in the middle of what we were doing, I heard a noise outside and poked my head out the door. I saw a car gradually winding its way down the hill through the trees. When it got to the parking lot, completely empty except for our car of course, the doors opened and one by one, six guys piled out and headed our way. We were four, combined with their six, there was our minyan!

Pincus lost all control. He started jumping up and down and dancing, singing. He was the happiest man on the planet. “See? I told you to have faith!” Moments later, another car appeared with more men. And then another. Lots of minyans. In fact, by the end of all this, three busloads had shown up, full of people visiting Amuka, the women lighting candles, so many that it turned into a bonfire.

The acoustics sounded so good in that little stone building that I whipped out my trusty recorder and got the Ethiopian guy reciting Kaddish. It turned out to be the first of many sound samples I was to use in the track I ultimately called Kaddish. Eventually I was to gather many other samples of this prayer but this was the first and would be followed by Hungarians, Moroccans, Persians, Yemenites, the Sephardim from the Abu Hav synagogue in Tzfat, all recorded over a two-year period. Miraculously, when I assembled the recorded samples I was to use in the song, they were all in the same key, only one of them being off by mere semitones! What are the chances of that?

I spent a month in the studio, putting all the pieces together and adding caxixi (basket shaker), balalaika, beats, and more percussion from Tim Bolling.

Kaddish is on the "Change The World With A Sound" album and is still one of my favorites. Listen to it here.


  1. I have had many inquiries about the song, "Kaddish." It is very powerful and often closes RebbeSoul concerts. It is also the first that ever incorporated recorded samples in our live performances. This is the story behind the making of the song.

    It started with a trip to Amuka, the burial site of R. Yonatan ben Uziel, the student of Hillel of 2000 years ago and holy rabbi who was so absorbed in his studies, he never took a wife. Toward the end of his life, he deeply regretted that he ignored something so important and promised to those who would visit his grave after died, that he would do whatever he could in "olam ha'ba," the world to come to advocate on their behalf that they find their soulmates.

  2. I had a very cool experience at Amuka. The year was 1985 and I was touring with Israel's leading all-woman band, Tofa'ah ( We had a concert booked as part of the Klezmer Festival in Tsfat. We traveled from Jerusalem, performed a great concert for an audience of all-women, as per the Halacha of "Kol Isha" and had a wonderful time in Tsfat. We were about seven women, all single at the time, and all looking for a good "shidduch" (match). We had heard about Amuka and about Rav Yonatan ben Uziel's promise to advocate for finding a soulmate. The women decided that on the way home to Jerusalem we would make a stop at the burial site.

    We piled into our rented van together with all our "gear" and asked the driver to take us to Amuka. He knew the site and also the way to get there - down a dirt path, through the trees and to the site that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The site was exactly as you describe it here in your blog, Bruce. There were are few people there praying when we arrived. We all got out of the van and each woman found her own private place to convene with G-D and also with Rav ben Uziel. Each had her own "siddur" and read or recited prayers and blessings too. When done, we piled back into the van and the driver took us home.

    Over the course of the next year, one by one, each woman had found a "soulmate" and by the end of the year each woman, including myself, had gotten married! Was it the trip to Amuka?

    Thanks for sharing this very cool place, and the stories about it, with us.

    Rahel / Vintage Gold Muse