JERUSALEM—When the men of Shtar walked into a Tel Aviv bar on Halloween to perform, the audience was left guessing as to whether the band was in costume.
Five guys in black velvet kippot, white collared shirts and black pants, the typical garb of haredi men, is not the norm at Mike’s Place in Israel’s secular capital. But Ori Murray, Brad Rubinstein, Dan Isaac, Avi Sommers and Tzvi Solomons are the real deal.
“I think to a good portion of the world it’s still a bit shocking,” says 29-year-old Murray—who goes by “M’Ori”—rap lyricist for the hip hop, pop, electronic fusion band, in an interview with JNS.org. “I just think they don’t associate normality with us. Definitely not rap, or any music style, they would not associate with us.”
Though the band—whose name is a Talmudic word meaning contract—is used to hearing initial chuckles in Israeli venues, such as when they played the independent artists festival “InDNegev” in October, they say their music is bringing people together all over the world and changing minds, and once they start playing, they always get a venue bouncing.
“I think we can build bridges,” says the 40-year-old Rubinstein (guitarist/songwriter/producer), a father of six who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh in a neighborhood a stone’s throw away from Murray, his wife and three kids, as well as 27-year-old Isaac, his wife and two kids. “Being a frum religious observant yid doesn’t make you weird or restrict you in any way shape or form. You can definitely build bridges and create shalom.”
Shtar releases its new EP, Boss, on Dec. 5—18 months after the release of its debut album Infinity, which was a collection of funk-inspired prayers like “Adom Olam” and “Shir Hamaalot,” original spiritual grooves and smooth, Sephardi choruses alongside eloquent raps.
Infinity is more religiously themed and features more Hebrew than Boss, which is all in English, says Murray, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Seattle. Rather than lines like “Who is like you in this living world/Who is like you in the heavens above/Who will last for eternity/Who created infinity,” from the Infinity title track, Boss features more of a pop and electronica sound, and songs about an individual’s struggles, as told through Murray’s own experiences.
“On pretty much every track there’s a story,” he says. “I have ups and downs in my life. That’s what makes life life. You gotta take those emotions and bring them out. It’s beautiful to be able to connect to people on all levels.”
Shtar hopes Boss can appeal to a broader range of listeners.
“People that don’t speak Hebrew or don’t have a religious connection or aren’t Jewish may not have been able to connect or latch on or really appreciate the Infinity album to its fullest extent, and we didn’t want that to happen this time,” says Murray. “We wanted to make this album more universal for everybody.”
Still, spirituality continues to inspire their music, such as on “Rabbit Hole,” whose unique rhythm line sounds similar to a niggun (wordless melody) from the Shabbat liturgy that Rubinstein and Murray heard a cantor sing.
“Overload” is about reflecting on the choices we make and our precious time on this planet, while “Rabbit Hole” is about realizing what’s real and what’s fake, or as Rubinstein calls it, “a song of clarity.” In the video for “Overload,” shot in downtown Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, a young man comes to a violent realization about the consequences of his actions. They collaborated with Grammy award-winning producer and engineer Adrian Bushby on “Overload” and “Gone Again,” and with Producer Nissim Black (formerly D.Black) on “Rabbit Hole,” a rapper from South Seattle who became an Orthodox Jew.
The band plans to follow up Boss, five songs, with a second EP by the early summer and a U.S. and UK tour next year, where they say they’ll play at any venue, from a club to a JCC.
Shtar formed in 2006 when Rubinstein and Murray were studying together at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, which specializes in educating Jews raised with little tradition. Though the two, who came to Orthodox Judaism as adults, were focused on their intense studies, they started creating music together, with Rubenstein singing and playing guitar and Murray rapping and making the beats. They had set aside music to focus on Judaism, but with rabbinic encouragement and a desire never to look back with regret, they re-embraced their passion.
Murray came to Israel at 21, leaving behind a promising career as a rapper and MC on Seattle’s Drum and Bass scene, while Rubinstein, a native of Essex, had been the guitarist and songwriter for Lisp, an electronica band signed to London Records.
Rubinstein recalls his wife’s reaction when he put his guitar back on after three or four years of not playing. “That’s the man I married,” she said.
Looking back on his recording days, he says, “I felt I had never reaped any true benefits out of it… It all came together when I was at yeshiva. I realized there was a reason for recording so many years ago; to start recording and producing again.”
Over the years, they teamed up with Sommers, Solomons and Isaac, a native of London who comes from a line of Sephardi cantors and also works as a Torah scribe.
Though they released Infinity through Shemspeed Records in the U.S. and 8th Note Records in Israel, this time around they are taking the independent route, recording themselves, handling their marketing and bookings.
“We feel confident in our fan base and what we’re doing with our album, it’s not such a risk,” says Murray, adding that thanks to Facebook and YouTube, they have fans from all over, and recently new Muslim fans in particular.
“Whether or not the band is successful, hopefully we will be,” says Murray. “We’re just gonna keep making music because it’s an expression of who we are.”