The last thing Don Was expected to get out of his late father’s pre-wedding ceremony three years ago in Los Angeles was an album. But the multiple Grammy Award-winning producer’s experience at the Nashuva Jewish worship community led to the new Heaven On Earth: Songs of the Soul, whose video for the prayer “Lechu Neranena” is premiering exclusively below.
The 13-track set, out just in time for the Hanukkah season, showcases Rabbi Naomi Levy and the 10-member Nashuva Band playing customized, often world music-flavored arrangements of a variety of prayers and songs. Was took the troupe into Apogee Studios, where he’s worked with the Rolling Stones, John Mayer and others, also bringing in some congregants to help recreate the experience of ceremonies at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Nashuva leases space.
“I was really impressed by the way the prayers and music resonated with the congregation there,” Was, whose father, William Fagenson, was a highly regarded Detroit-area educator and administrator in both secular and religious schools, tells Billboard. “I just thought it was a really positive vibe and a very interesting way of readdressing these traditional prayers, and I just wanted to capture that. All I did was hit ‘record’ and we got one or two takes of them performing live, and I think we captured the spirit of it.”
“It’s been overwhelming,” Levy — who calls Was a “hipster Hassid” because of his omnipresent hat and dreadlocks — says of the Heaven On Earth project. “He’s been so generous with his talent and with his time and with his heart. Once in awhile we would talk about the possibility of making a recording, recording some of the prayer, but we never in our wildest imaginations would have dreamed we’d be making an album like this. But that’s the amazing part of life; Blessings come in when you least expect it.”
The interfaith Nashuva Band was formed 14 years ago as part of the spiritual community’s mission of “infusing joy and meaning into Jewish prayer and practice,” and to, according to Levy, “to reach out to Jews who have walked away from Judaism or who have never had a meaningful or spiritual Jewish experience.” In addition to founding Nashuva, the internationally recognized Levy has also published several books, including this year’s Einstein and the Rabbi. But, she acknowledges, Heaven On Earth stands out even among those accomplishments.
“It’s crazy,” she says with a laugh. “When you talk about Hanukkah miracles, this was definitely something — we’re this tiny little grass roots organization…and here we are with a legend in rock n’ roll, in this legendary studio. Don would tell us along the way, ‘When I was recording with this one here, that one there, John Mayer, the Rolling Stones,’ and we’re like, ‘Here?!’ It just seemed so crazy, in the most beautiful sense of crazy.”
For Was, meanwhile, Heaven On Earth is a personal tribute to father, who became an active participant in Nashuva during his 90s before his death in February at the age of 93. “My dad was not one to go to services, but he just loved it at Nashuva,” Was says. “He was, like, the senior guy there, the oldest guy and right up until he got sick and passed away he was in great shape and really alert and fit, and everyone was so inspired to see him there in his 90s. It was mind-blowing and heartwarming to see that he’d developed this whole world of friends through his involvement at this place, and they loved him. So I loved it for doing that for him and making him feel like he belonged to something.”
The Heaven On Earth album is available online and via www.nashuva.com.