TheArts-Sages
TheArts-Sages

Conjuring up the Sages: Oakland-based musician puts a Burning Man spin on God, Creation

Mikey Pauker easily could have missed his flight back to Oakland. The 30-year-old Bay Area–based musician was in the Phoenix airport, speaking to J. by phone so passionately about his newest project, “Sages,” that he suddenly realized his plane might be boarding.

He was trying to make it back home in time for Wilderness Torah’s sacred fire demonstration for Shavuot and, later in the week, he’d be off to Wisconsin for the annual song-leading and music workshop Hava Nashira. He took a moment to listen to the airport announcements and learned he’d make the flight in time. Phew.

“Sages” is important to Pauker because the single is the first release of a musical project he’s been working on for two years. He’ll release more singles over the next six months, whenever there’s a new moon, he says.

The new track was inspired by the story of Creation, the Book of Genesis, the Zohar (Kabbalah), birth and the feminine side of God. It’s an ethereal, poignant song he released on May 26 as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp, SoundCloud and other sites. “Music now is a nice business card. It’s a way for people to have a viewpoint and a connection to what I do,” he explains.

Like previous releases, including his 2013 album “Extraordinary Love,” Pauker’s newest sonic offering is a hybrid of folk, hip-hop, electronica and reggae, with a running lyrical undercurrent of ancient texts sung in both English and Hebrew.

“The song is really about the idea of creation,” Pauker says. “I grew up with a patriarchal reference to God, really masculine. But living in the Bay Area, I’ve come to see there are a lot of Jews here — and actually around the world — who connect with God being a ‘divine feminine.’

“At the same time, [it’s about] knowing that God isn’t just one or the other, masculine or feminine. Up here, in the Jewish community, I feel like there’s a lot of radical inclusion of all genders and citizens. It’s like Burning Man year-round!”

He would know: Pauker has coordinated and led Shabbat at several Burning Man festivals. “Wherever I’m at, I’ve found myself holding sacred space. Part of my goal is to bring Shabbat to other festivals, to the masses.”

He says he does so through a variety of arts, including song.

When he’s writing new music like “Sages,” he’ll record himself free-styling whenever inspired (usually following text study, yoga or meditation). He plays around with electronic instrumentation but also has fellow musicians playing different types of drums, Native American flutes and other instruments.

The video for “Sages” is an important accompaniment for the single. It opens with a group of 30 expressive dancers writhing and moving as one being, eventually breaking into smaller clusters for modern, interpretive dances.

Pauker says the communities he’s been a part of in the Bay Area and his journeys to Israel opened his eyes to unique ways to participate in Judaism.

He grew up in Orange County in the Reform movement, had a bar mitzvah and confirmation, was a member of the NFTY youth group and later Hillel and the Jewish fraternity AEPi at San Francisco State University. He played music but wasn’t particularly fond of Jewish music, and was drawn more to punk.

After he graduated from college in 2007, someone suggested he work at Camp Newman playing music. He says he had a realization during Shabbat, looking out over the enthusiastic audience at the Santa Rosa camp, that Jewish music was what he was meant to do with his life.

He wrote his first Jewish song and began working in synagogues and playing at other summer camps and Jewish festivals around the country. He also began practicing yoga with a yoga rabbi, Rabbi Sara Brandes.

Pauker later went to Jerusalem to study at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, a yeshiva inspired by the teachings of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Learning the connections among yoga, meditation and Jewish mysticism in turn informed his music. “It was a really beautiful way for me to look outside of the box,” says Pauker, who continues to study Hassidic text daily.

In Israel, he toured around the country and found success within the country’s folk movement, performing a few years at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival.

Since returning to the States in 2012, he’s lived and worked in Los Angeles, San Francisco and, since December, Oakland. Pauker creates music and performs nationally, teaches yoga, leads Shabbatons for synagogues and youth groups, and says he is looking for work as a cantorial soloist in the Bay Area (a job he recently held at a Phoenix synagogue).

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Pauker says as he gets ready to board the flight home.

For information about “Sages,” see mikeypauker.com