For the second year in a row we hosted Zusha at Chabad of Brandeis, a soulful band of three young men, recent college graduates, whose popularity is on the rise. The Shabbat at Brandeis was part of their Boston visit as they tour the country celebrating the release of Kavana, their latest and well received album.
Their brand is the Chassidic musical style of neegoon, wordless melody, and they seek to inspire people of all backgrounds to live with intention, meaning and love. On stage they dance with each other in the chaotic and soulful Chassidic style, one arm wrapped around each other’s while the other arm sways directionless in the air.
Elisha, the percussionist, with his short hair, neatly trimmed blond beard and casual clothing, looks and dresses like anyone who recently graduated from college. Not so for Shlomo, the vocalist, or Zach, the guitarist. With their full grown and untrimmed beards, large and long sidelocks adorning their temples, and shin length black frocks, they appear as Chassidic Jews from the heart of Jerusalem.
Despite their old shtetl appearance and style, Zusha is attracting college students and recent graduates in large numbers. They are selling out their venues including their appearance at Brandeis that was filled to capacity.
Being already familiar with Elisha, Shlomo and Zach from last year’s visit, I wanted to dig deeper and understand their secret. What drives them and what’s attractive about them and their original music to today’s youth?
These three guys grew up in today’s world of hyper-connectivity, introspective neglect, and utilitarian aspirations. Where being alone is not associated with self reflection but with loneliness, and where one senses their peers’ feelings towards them not by the look in their eyes but by the likes on their posts.
At some point after they left home and went to college they began an independent journey. Devoting time and effort to self exploration and pursuing a life with no utilitarian goals, instead, following a spiritual one.
On their journey of exploration they discovered the two fundamental elements of life itself-what I describe as the Subjective I and the Objective It.
The Subjective I is what each person begins life with. It seeks self preservation and sustenance, alongside self aggrandizement. It instinctively embraces pleasure, recognition, and benefit, while with equal impulse rejects hardship, criticism and loss. With its limited vision it has difficulty seeing beyond itself, and even when embracing the other it is the self found within the other that is underlying the connection. Ultimately the Subjective I is insecure and dependent.
The Objective It on the other hand, is absolutely secure and free from any dependency. That’s because it preceded everything that exists and is the cause of it all, the Creator. Subsequently everything is dependent on It and It is dependent on nothing, making it truly objective and free. It is also known as G-d.
Ironically, the Objective It gave the Subjective I, humans, the capacity to incorporate Its objectivity into themselves. This enables each person not to be wholly blinded and handicapped by their natural self-absorption. The more objectivity that successfully penetrates the subjectivity, the freer the person becomes as well as the greater.
Consequently each person can acquire characteristics associated with greatness. Humility, generosity, compassion, vision, strength, and courage just to name a few. However it’s not the kind of humility that compensates for arrogance, or compassion stimulated by narcissism, nor the strength that overpowers others.
In addition, because these characteristics are drawn from the Objective It instead of the Subjective I, all forms of obstacles in one’s life, whether people, circumstances or ideas are viewed as opportunities to embrace and ladders to rise upon, instead of causes of helplessness.
However every attempt to incorporate the Objective It into the Subjective I is met with resistance. It comes in the form of laziness, fear of what others may say, or the herculean weight of habit. The attempt at their fusion will turn into a battle that at times is fierce.
These three courageous young men made a decision and commitment to not shy from the struggles and battles within themselves. They continually bring the Objective It into their Subjective I, drop by drop. Their music is the voice describing this journey. At times it’s the cry of being trapped or the craving for freedom, while sometimes it’s the voice of nirvana.
Elisha, Shlomo and Zach stand in contrast with their contemporaries who shy away from conversing, engaging, not to mention seeking a relationship with the Objective It, G-d. Even those who identify as observant and are fully practicing Jews seem to be more concerned about the Community, Halacha or even Tikun Olam, than to have a relationship with G-d.
As one student wrote to me, “It’s kind of crazy how my community (Jewish community as a whole but also my specific friend group), brilliant young people, can talk about anything — politics, science, sex, texts, arts, culture etc. — except about the most important thing that defines our existence, why we’re here – G-d.” Or as another student recently shared with me that when one mentions G-d in a conversation it is done in a tone that compensates for simply bringing it up.
This contrast between Zusha and the culture of today’s youth, and I suspect beyond the youth, is what makes them so attractive. They are a gust of fresh air in the polluted world of college campuses and young urban America.
I pray that Zusha never gives up their yearning for the Objective It nor shies away from the battle of fusing it with the Subjective I. I pray that their message and music penetrates the hearts of today’s youth so that they explore the horizons beyond the Subjective I.