It’s the culmination of three decades of songwriting. It was recorded in the shadow of two divorces. It’s classically inflected rock, it’s stuffed with references to Chasidic legends and Torah tales — and it’s being adapted for the stage.
It’s “Baal Shem Tov-meets-Broadway, 12 music videos, one epic story,” said Aryeh Shalom, writer and performer of “Exile And Redemption: A Neo-Hasidic Rock Opera.”
Shalom, 47, directed 12 “Exile and Redemption” videos, which star Shalom, his family, his friends and local actors. The first video, for the song “A Little Peace in Our Time,” was released on Sept. 15; Shalom plans to release the ensuing chapters periodically until next August (the album itself will be available in full in October). The release of each video — cinematography by Shaia Erlbaum, Chana and Norman Cohen as executive producers — will be accompanied by a Facebook Live discussion hosted by Shalom.
It’s an elaborate release schedule for an elaborate project — and surely the only visual album released this year featuring thank yous to The Rebbe, Mekor Habracha and the Innova Riding Stables in Gilbertsville.
“God’s unconditional love is unwavering,” Shalom said of what he hopes to get across in his music. “And we’re always given the chance to rise again and find forgiveness. This struggle, and our ability to choose, is our greatness, and the purpose of our existence both individually and collectively.”
Shalom is forthcoming about the struggles that forged the music and lyrics of “Exile and Redemption.”
He bounced around schools in Philadelphia growing up, a few years at Lower Merion High School here, some time at what was still called Akiba Hebrew Academy there. He moved to a kibbutz in 1991 in what he terms an “act of solidarity” with Israelis living under fire during the Gulf War. Raised mostly secular, Shalom had questions about Judaism, God and more that had long troubled him — questions that felt more pressing than ever on the religious kibbutz.
In Jerusalem, he found himself awed by the teachings of a rabbi at the Aish HaTorah World Center. The religious journey he began there is certainly recognizable as that of a ba’al teshuvah, but Shalom resists applying the term to himself. “I don’t really feel like I’m a ‘master’ of anything,” he said.
It was during this time that Shalom, who learned to play the cello growing up, began to write music for the first time (he plays guitar and piano as well). The cultural texts that mattered to him once — the music of The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and others — found new life in dialogue with the Jewish texts that became central to his understanding of the world.
Shalom experienced what he called his first “manic-depressive episode” during his yeshiva studies, an episode that ended with him back home in Philadelphia. Though he still struggles with mental health issues, music is one of the few things that’s kept him grounded through highs (the births of three daughters) and lows (two divorces and his mother’s death).
“Traumatic life events make for heartfelt ballads, and I have always found music to be cathartic,” he said.
Since his return to Philadelphia, Shalom has worked with the Aish outpost in Bala Cynwyd, and co-founded The Chevra, a social organization for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Now, he hopes that his music will connect people in a similar way.
Ever since those days in Jerusalem, he’d harbored ideas about an album and it was an ambitious concept, based on stories of the Chasidim and of the Torah. It was a melancholy evening in the studio, he said, that finally made it clear: He could do even more with the idea.
To reach actors and others who would be needed to make the album and its accompanying videos, Shalom used the connections he’d made in the Philadelphia theater and performance scenes over the years, developed through The Chevra and his production company, Old City Theater.
Moshe Stern, a friend of Shalom’s, plays “Messenger” in “Exile And Redemption,” and worked as an assistant director, too. Though Shalom could be demanding — Stern recalls multiple 12- to 14-hour shoots — Stern was excited by the opportunity. He’d done some directing in Israel, but never anything that allowed him to give substantial creative input.
“I feel like people will connect to the emotions and emotional energy that he brings to the table,” Stern said of Shalom.
Shalom was also able to snag Barrie Maguire as an executive producer for the album. Maguire, a friend of a friend of Shalom’s, is an original member of The Wallflowers, and a producer for the likes of Amos Lee and Natalie Merchant. Maguire said that the spiritual aspect of Shalom’s project was new for him, and that the emotional sincerity of Shalom’s songs won him over.