Lior Ben-Hur had to leave his native Israel and travel 8,000 miles to discover his spiritual roots. He found them in San Francisco, the town he now calls home.
The Jerusalem-born musician says he, like many Israelis, grew up secular, with little knowledge of Judaism. Since moving to the Bay Area in 2004, he made up for lost time, working as a song leader at various congregations and receiving the Jewish education he never had in Israel.
His strongest spiritual statement to date is “World Light,” the debut album by his band, Sol Tevél. The group will perform at an album-release party Thursday, Dec. 13 at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco.
The album features 11 tracks, most of them based on traditional Jewish texts, including familiar prayers such as “Modeh Ani,” “Hinei Ma Tov” and “Oseh Shalom.” Granting himself creative license, Ben-Hur made changes to the lyrics — for example, adding a new verse to “Modeh Ani” in which he offers praise not only to the traditional God of Judaism, but to Mother Nature as well. “I don’t think of God as a king or as a male,” he says. “I approach God as a female.”
One other difference between Ben-Hur’s music and that frequently heard in American synagogues: Sol Tevél rocks with a distinctive world beat.
“I love Debbie Friedman,” Ben-Hur says, referring to the late Jewish American liturgical songwriter. “But kids today want something new. Jewish-American music is rock- and folk-based. I felt there was a need for musical expression not only of that style, but also that shows a bit of the Jewish community around the world.”
For Ben-Hur, who turns 30 next week, that meant including the Caribbean, reggae and Latin styles he loves. His band includes two female singers, a bassist, two percussionist/drummers, an accordion player and Ben-Hur on guitar and lead vocals.
The story of “World Light” begins long before Ben-Hur set foot in the recording studio, of course.
Like many young Israelis, Ben-Hur intended to travel after completing his military service. He arrived in California in 2004, carrying nothing more than a backpack, intending to find work for a few months before heading to South America for an extended sojourn.
Instead, San Francisco became, as he puts it, “the biggest love story of my life.”
“My first day I said, ‘I’m not traveling anywhere,’ ” he recalls. “I felt the vibe really strongly. That day the plan changed.”
Ben-Hur began working as a song leader with temple youth at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel, Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and others.
“I was amazed to see how they encourage talking about God to first-graders,” he recalls. “I wished they would do that in Israel. I was really attracted to that. I would say I’m still secular, but I connect to things on a spiritual level.”
He also got involved with the local music scene, jamming with friends and playing gigs. “The San Francisco artist community really supports each other,” he says.
A lifelong amateur musician, he decided to amp up his musical education, applying to San Francisco State University to earn a degree in world music.
That’s where he met his band mates, as well as music professor Hafez Modirzadeh, Ben-Hur’s mentor, friend and an expert on world music. Modirzadeh played sax and flute on one of the new album’s tracks. Ben-Hur also enlisted the help of Israeli bass player and producer (and part-time Marin County resident) Yossi Fine, who assisted on production and the final mixes of the album.
Ben-Hur insists the music of Sol Tevél is universal and meant for everyone (the Hebrew word “tevel” means “universe”). “It was never my goal to create a Jewish thing,” he says. “This project is to shed light for the Jewish community and to bring something new, and not make this Jewish music. Music has no religion.”
Sol Tevél, 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, Brick & Mortar Music Hall, 1710 Mission St., S.F. $10-$13. www.brickandmortarmusic.com
“World Light” (Sol Tevél, $8.99)