The evolution of the Abrams Brothers

The evolution of the Abrams Brothers

Brother John with Brian at the beach at Jacob's Ladder (photo: Debbie Zimelman)

When Yehudit and Menachem Vinegrad booked the Abrams Brothers to appear as the main act at this year’s Jacob’s Ladder festival, they probably thought they were treating the audience at Israel’s (and one of the world’s) pre-eminent folk shows to the Brothers’ down home bluegrass and country stylings. Instead, they got Coldplay…with a fiddle.

This was the Abrams Brothers third time playing Jacob’s Ladder (they first appeared in 2007), and they have been consistent crowd pleasers, inspiring many of the more than 3,000 attendees to jump to their feet and boogy big time.

The Brothers (actually two brothers and their cousin, all under the age of 21) are devout Christians who say this is “their favorite folk festival” – both for the religious location at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee, and for the laid back vibe that brother John Abrams told me, when I met up with him on the beach collecting sea shells from the Holy Land, gives the event a “feeling of family.”

But the Abrams Brothers who took to the stage this year were barely recognizable from their debut here four years ago. Gone was the banjo player from the Grand Ole Opry. So too was their dad who provided a link to the multiple generations of bluegrass picking that runs in the family.

Instead, the Brothers have transformed themselves into a tight trio of pop rockers in the spirit of the Jonas Brothers or even –and this is hard to say in the same breath as “I really liked them” – Justin Bieber. Their new album, entitled Northern Redemption, was released for the first time at Jacob’s Ladder and was produced by Chris Brown who also produced fellow-Canadians The Barenaked Ladies.

The new Abrams Brothers tunes don’t abandon their roots entirely – brother James fiddles his way through nearly every song. But the emphasis on cousin Eli’s electric guitar and the way James leaps in the air and lands in a stadium rocker leg split are a far cry the wholesome family band that’s performed together for more than ten years, since James was only eight. Their latest video now playing on YouTube even features the trio pining for a sexy mermaid in a bikini.

I asked John what prompted the change. “We have a wide variety of music playing on our iPods,” he told me at the beach, “and we wanted to express that as well.” Indeed, the band has come into their own as they’ve gotten older, he added, and the family has been completely supportive of their new direction.

The “new” Abrams Brothers also have more of a shot of achieving teen stardom as rockers with country roots (just look at Taylor Swift). Their music has the pop sensibilities of early 1970s Eagles or Pure Prairie League (remember “Amie?”)

My own survey at the show was mixed. Many of my friends said they missed the bluegrass and were politely dismissive of the band’s transformation. I thought they were fantastic, as did the younger festival-goers who danced up a storm, but I’ve never been a particular fan of Nashville plucking.

The Abrams Brothers dropped numerous hints saying they wouldn’t mind being invited back next year. I hope Yehudit and Menachem got the message and that pop isn’t anathema to a folk music festival.

The Brothers’ love of Israel, professed repeatedly on stage, should be enough to sustain their continued participation. For their closing number, they chose a country-fied version of Coldplay’s Vida la Vida, with its religious chorus that starts “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing, Roman Cavalry choirs are singing…” As one of my friends told me afterward, “Yes, I prefer the bluegrass, but I just can’t get that song out of my head.”

You can see it above and on YouTube and, with any luck, next year on the main stage at Jacob’s Ladder.


Do you like Like?

Ah, that’s such a cute baby picture you’ve posted on Facebook. I’ll go ahead and “like” it. So, what’s her name? “Like.” Yes, I liked her on Facebook. But what are you calling her? “Like.”

If it sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine, that would only be half the fun – or weirdness, take your pick – in an Israeli couple’s decision to name their new daughter “Like.” The couple – Lior and Vardit Adler of Hod HaSharon initially downplayed the Facebook connection in an interview with Haaretz. “Like” simply has a nice, international ring to it, the father said.

He elaborated further: “To me it is important to give my children names that are not used anywhere else, at least not in Israel.” He then added, with a grudging nod to Facebook: “If once people gave Biblical names and that was the icon, then today this [Facebook] is one of the most famous icons in the world.”

I imagine his parents would have preferred their granddaughter to have received a traditional Jewish name like “Ahuva,” which essentially means “like” in Hebrew.

But that wouldn’t be in keeping with the names of the other children in this media savvy family: Dvash (“honey” in Hebrew) and Pie – as in the old Beatles song?

I wonder if Honey Pie will like Like or if Like will like Ike, and… oh you get the idea…


L’ag b’Omer is Saturday night. Or maybe not

The Jewish “bonfire” holiday of L’ag b’Omer is this Saturday night. Or maybe not.

L’ag b’Omer commemorates the day some 2,000 years ago that a plague that killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ended. L’ag stands for lamed-gimel – in Hebrew the number 33. The Omer refers to a period of 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. So L’ag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer.

There’s a bunch more symbolism – check out this Wikipedia entry – but in modern times, the holiday has been celebrated by building bonfires, toasting marshmallows and barbequing steaks (what Israeli holiday doesn’t involve the ubiquitous mangal?)

This year, the 33rd day of the Omer falls on Saturday night. But since kids tend to get started early, hauling their cache of wood to an open space and getting the fire going before sunset, there is a not unlikely chance of “Sabbath desecration” where prohibited activities might take place before Shabbat has officially ended.

Which led this week to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef along with Israel’s chief rabbis issuing a ruling that the holiday should be put off until Sunday night.

All well and good. It’s a religious holiday after all and the rabbis know best. But the general population might not have gotten the message.

You see, L’ag b’Omer is school holiday too. Sunday is an official day off. Sunday night, it’s back to the books as the matriculation exam season races towards an unholy conclusion. Are all those kids – especially the ones who don’t give much of a hoot what the chief rabbis say – going to push off the burning a day? Will there be two L’ag b’Omer’s this day?

Another question lingers: what took them so long. The ruling about the delay of the holiday was only issued last week. Didn’t the rabbis know about this holiday, well, like a hundred years ago? The calendar is fixed these days – we no longer mark the start of the new month by burning torches on the tops of hilltops.

Delaying the holiday would be just fine for our family. We’ll be away this weekend at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival and won’t get back home until late Saturday night. But I have a feeling that we’ll be smelling a few roasted  marshmallows on the way home.


Is there a doctor in the House?

House star Lisa Edelstein at Wolfson Medican Center in Holon

House himself couldn’t make it, but members of the cast of the popular TV medical drama “House,” along with its creator and executive producer, were in Israel last week as part of a tour organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Foreign and Tourism ministries, and the America’s Voices in Israel group.

The press also highlighted the Holon hospital’s “Save a Child’s Heart” program, which brings youngsters from all over the world for heart surgeries. The photo of actor Lisa Edelstein, who plays Dr. Cuddie (always one of my favorites) on the show holding a baby from Tanzania certainly increased the PR value of the trip.

Show creator David Shore also got to visit with his family – his two brothers have made aliyah.

I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the trip was: was it to help the actors and lead writer better understand the types of procedures they perform on the show – the crew visited the medical simulation ward in Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer as well as the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon – or was it a junket intended to make good press – the actors also swam in the Sea of Galilee, toured the tunnels under the Western Wall and visited Yad Vashem?

Probably a little of both. It certainly made the front page of the local Jerusalem Post over the weekend and was written up in most of the Jewish and Israeli press – Haaretz, Ynet, JTA, the Jewish Journal – as well as a host of House-related fan blogs (I did not know there was a site dedicated just to Dr. Cuddy).

Where the coverage didn’t appear: outside the Jewish press. Perhaps if lead actor Hugh Laurie had come, it would have been different. But Dr. House apparently had other commitments.


A post-Independence Day chuckle

Comedian Benji Lovitt on stage

Every year, local comedian Benji Lovitt publishes a list of the top things he loves about Israel. This year, in honor of Israel’s birthday, he’s up to 63 reasons, an achievement in itself given that there’s little duplication between this list and year’s past.

Some of his jokes fall flat: Adam Sandler kind of killed the humous joke for other funny-men forever. Others are more whimsical observations than laugh out funny (no one will bust you if you take out your tefillin on El Al; Shai Agassi of A Better Place is a really good guy).

But others still tickle the old blue and whites. Such as when the Schusterman Foundation paid for 700 children from Gaza-border communities to see Justin Bieber in concert, Lovitt cries “haven’t they suffered enough!” Or Lovitt’s discovery of a want ad reading, “experience in schwarma required.”

You can find Lovitt’s latest list (as well as past years) here on his blog. Read it for a few post-holiday chuckles.