Guest post by Ted Merwin, senior writer, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)
After 18 months, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the nature of work and worship in our society and wrought profound changes in how we create and sustain connections to one another.
Just ask Distant Cousins, an up-and-coming indie pop band in Los Angeles that has collaborated with dozens of Federations and other Jewish organizations to create—remotely—a series of original music videos. By employing an innovative, high-tech twist on the age-old concept of the mosaic that substitutes Zoom boxes for static ceramic tiles, Distant Cousins uses the Internet to bring Jewish communities together at a time of flux.
The three band members, Dov Rosenblatt, Duvid Swirsky, and Ami Kozak, all have roots in Jewish music. Swirsky, for example, grew up on an Israeli moshav founded by Orthodox composer and religious leader Shlomo Carlebach. And their star is on the rise. Not only have they composed theme songs for a number of animated DreamWorks films, but they also appeared as a fictional synagogue band in the 2019 Billy Crystal film Untogether, and their song “Are You Ready” was featured during the closing credits of This is Where I Leave You, a 2014 film starring Jason Bateman and Tina Fey about four grown siblings who reluctantly return to their childhood home to sit shiva for their dad.
As the band members explained in a recent interview conducted (how else?) over Zoom, Distant Cousins’ Jewish communal songwriting and video projects sprang from an in-person workshop they conducted for teenagers at the Limmud Conference in New Orleans in 2018 and continued with a similar session for students from Jewish schools at the Prizmah Conference in Atlanta a year later. The band realized, in Kozak’s words, that they could “give young people the experience of being in our world, of making music for film and TV.”
Then came the pandemic.
The Diller Foundation, which sponsors trips to Israel for teens, asked the band to create a virtual end-of-year program for the high school students whose Israel trips had been canceled. The band members scrambled to learn Zoom, along with video editing, so they could stitch together a grand mash-up of hundreds of videos that the Diller students sent in of themselves singing the songs that the band had helped them to create. The result, “All Dillers are Distant Cousins,” brought together 32 Jewish communities from around the world to write a total of sixteen songs, which were then compiled into a single video.
Their work caught the eyes and ears of Seth Katzen, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Delaware, who had already brought Distant Cousins to play a few concerts in Wilmington. He enlisted the band to create a song with the Jewish teens in his community and with their peers in Arad, which is Delaware’s sister city. Representatives of the two Jewish communities collaborated over Zoom to develop the theme, “Stronger Together,” along with the lyrics in both English and Hebrew, and the musical style for the melody. Then, after the band took a week to write the scratch demo, each of the teens recorded themselves on their phones singing it.
The result was a colorful, three-minute video that gave the illusion of real-time performance, weaving together individual performances with clips from the brainstorming session. It was uploaded to YouTube, bringing viewers into the experience of being in the recording studio as part of the powerful group bonding that the production of the video made possible.
The group has now worked with ten different Federations, plus the executive team of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet—the latter’s video, “Courageous Heart,” included JFNA leaders Eric Fingerhut and Mark Wilf.
“It really drove home our theme about standing up in difficult times, including for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” said Lindsey Glantz, co-chair of the NYLC. “The video enabled our team members to open up to each other in a unique way and find their own courageous hearts.”
The band members mimic the process that they use when a film studio requests a song for a particular scene. They are thus obliged, in Swirsky’s words, “to egg on the Muse, rather than sitting around and waiting for the inspiration to strike. The process pushes you to get creative and write a song in a short period of time.”
“Even though it’s over Zoom, we feed off the energy of the crowd,” Rosenblatt added. “It feels like a regular gig; each group brings their own energy, just like at a concert.”
And while, as Kozak put it, “songwriting can be amorphous and hard to know where to start,” the brainstorming process that the group developed “makes people feel safe—all you need is this initial momentum and then it builds upon itself.”
The band members agree that singing and songwriting together fosters a sense of common purpose and common humanity in Jewish communal organizations. They also see potential to bridge divisions between Jews and different groups. They’ve created a song with a Jewish school and a Muslim school in East Los Angeles, which the students performed before a Clippers game, and worked with Rana, an Arab-Jewish choir in Jaffa that brings together Muslim, Christian and Jewish women. They are working on producing a surprise video to be featured at this year’s JFNA Virtual General Assembly.
“Creating these songs fulfills a need for people to connect in a fun, meaningful way. It’s not uncommon for adults to cry in the middle of these sessions,” Rosenblatt said. “And with the magic of the Internet, you never know where the song will go.”