Connecting people and traditions through Prayer Songs

When Lior Tsarfaty toured his native Israel recently with his new CD “The Prayer Songs Project,” he found himself constantly answering the question: “Are you religious?”

Journalists saw the word “prayer” and thought it a fair question. Rather than answer them with a “yes” or “no,” instead Tsarfaty explained what prayer meant to him: “It’s this personal space between you and what you call God, and you sing from there. It’s people using their own traditions from this open, deep God-space.”

Lior Tsarfaty photo/denna bendall

Had the journalists listened to his CD, they would have heard singing not only in Hebrew, but in Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindi and English. Perhaps, then, they would have posed a different opening question.

Tsarfaty and the musicians who helped him with “The Prayer Songs Project” will play a CD release party at Berkeley’s La Peña on Thursday, Dec. 5. A concert is planned for Palo Alto as well (the date is pending).

Tsarfaty, 34, of Berkeley, began playing guitar at age 7. Raised in Herzliya and Tel Aviv in a secular family, he studied journalism at Tel Aviv University, but quickly realized that’s not what he wanted to do.

In his mid-20s, he began meditating, and wondered whether he could make music his career — he began to think of it “as a tool that could help me grow.” His sister was studying at San Francisco’s California Institute for Integral Studies, and through that connection, Tsarfaty learned about the institute’s certificate program in Sound, Voice and Music Healing.

“You learn how shamans in Tibet use music, for example, and how doctors and scientists study music in labs to see how it affects the nervous system,” he said. “It merges West and East. You have to go deeper on your own, but the certificate gives you a tray full of goodies from all over the world.”

Tsarfaty spends much of his time playing music with Alzheimer’s patients, and believes music helps them access parts of themselves they’d forgotten.

A few years ago, while working at Café Fanny in Berkeley, he met Jennifer Berezan, a performer and producer of spiritual music. She invited him to assist her in teaching, and he traveled with her to South Korea to teach there. (She sings on one track of the CD.)

He also was looking to tap into the local musician scene, and had visited Chochmat HaLev, a Berkeley Renewal synagogue known for its ecstatic musical Shabbat services. It just so happened they were in need of a new guitar player.

Tsarfaty had rarely set foot in a synagogue. “Many Israelis are wounded from Judaism,” from the way it’s practiced in Israel, he said. Chochmat was totally different from anything he’d imaged.

Three years later, he’s still playing once a month at the synagogue.

“Chochmat and just living in the Bay Area connected     me to my own Judaism,” Tsarfaty said. “In Israel you’re Jewish no matter what. But here, I can use the liturgy and bring this to my music; it’s part of who I am.”

Two songs on the CD come straight from the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Chochmat; one is a version of Oseh Shalom, written by Jhos Singer, now the maggid at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. In addition to Tsarfaty’s Hebrew vocals, he is joined by local Moroccan singer Bouchaib Abdelhadi on the oud, and with Arabic vocals. Abdelchadi appears throughout the CD.

Abdelchadi, like all the musicians Tsarfaty chose, sings from a heart-centered place. “Even if you’re not used to Arabic music, he touches you no matter what,” said Tsarfaty.

Noting that many Israelis simply cannot listen to Arabic, he said, “There’s a bridge that can be built in music. I don’t come from a radical left-wing place. I was worried how it was going to be in Israel, whether people could hear it and connect to it. I had to tell my mother to ignore the Arabic and listen to the texture of how he sings.”

Another track — one of Tsarfaty’s favorites — called “Erev Ba,” (Evening Comes), begins with him singing in Hebrew, and morphs into his fiancée, Karina Jacinda Small, chanting “Jaya Jaya Shiva Shambho,” which praises the Indian deity Shiva. Then the oud begins, and Abdelhadi joins in, praising Allah, which then turns back into a Hebrew prayer. The entire track is 12 minutes long.

“This is my way of connecting people and traditions, through music,” Tsarfaty said. “This is where it happens. If you’re in the audience, you get it.”

Calling his CD a “cross-cultural human experience, with people singing in different languages but coming from the same place, all feeling connected about the same thing,” he concluded, “We’re all in this together, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

Lior Tsarfaty and the Prayer Songs Project performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Advance tickets $20, at the door $24. The CD is available at, or the MP3 can be downloaded from Amazon.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."