Sam Shepherd

Meet the Yemeni-Jewish musician singing soulful Jewish R&B

Canadian singer-songwriter Erez Zobary shatters assumptions about Jewish music and hopes day schools will start teaching non-Ashkenazi history
Erez Zobary (Gia Ochoa)
Erez Zobary (Gia Ochoa)

This story originally appeared on Alma.

When you think of Jewish music, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s an epic Hebrew prayer chanted by a group of congregants in a synagogue, or the sound of a somber, minor-key klezmer band. Or perhaps you think of a poetic (if not slightly racy) Leonard Cohen lyric.

You probably wouldn’t consider jazzy, soulful R&B to fall under the umbrella of “Jewish music,” but Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter Erez Zobary is here to shatter that assumption.

Born and raised in the Greater Toronto area, Erez has been singing since she was a toddler. After a bout of vocal nodules in her teens (ouch!), she has since embraced a low, vocal register reminiscent of the late Amy Winehouse. Yet the half-Yemenite musician’s style tends to veer more on the side of uplifting and joyous than sultry and secretive.

“July Clouds” is an acoustic love song reminiscent of a lazy midsummer day back before life became inundated with Zoom meetings and endless commitments. In “Before I Knew You,” Erez sings about a transformative relationship in her life with contagious enthusiasm.

Oh, and this rising R&B musician wears her Judaism as a badge of pride. In fact, the music video to “Love Me” includes several snippets of a Shabbat dinner, as well as some gorgeous, scenic shots of the Canadian outdoors. Amid soulful riffs and impressive key changes, Erez’s music overflows with a sense of warmth that transports you back to those large, communal fires at Jewish overnight camp.

When not producing earwormy hits, Erez juggles multiple jobs as a high school teacher and social justice educator. Her work often addresses racism within the Jewish community, and she has also been involved in some inspiring volunteering initiatives. I recently had the chance to talk with the rising singer-songwriter to discuss music, Judaism and social justice.

First off, I just want to say that I love your music. I listen to it as I study, as I drive, as I work out. I’m totally obsessed. You merge R&B and pop together in a way that is smooth, fun and totally danceable. Who are your musical inspirations?

It’s interesting because there’s always been a lot of music in my house all the time; my parents are very fun, but different, people. I was born in New York. When I was there, we were going to shows all the time, listening to live music. When we went to Toronto, it didn’t have the same live music scene, but there were always records playing at home. With my dad, it was always Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and he also fell in love with disco in Israel when he was living there as a teenager. With my mom, it was a lot of Joni Mitchell, a lot of Amy Winehouse.

I can hear the Joni Mitchell in your album “July Clouds.” Your music has that same buoyant energy that’s also not afraid to get raw and emotional. Plus, you’re both Canadian.

Thank you! My mom loves Joni Mitchell.

We both grew up in a vibrant, developed Jewish community in Canada. How do you feel that the Jewish institutions of your upbringing shaped your love for music?

The camp I went to, Gesher, is the most colorful group of human beings I have ever met. I never felt like I quite fit in during private Jewish day school. I never really felt like I could be me. But camp was that place where I could be me a lot more. There was always music going on, whether it was staff playing guitar or us singing Jewish melodies around a fire.

We mentioned your family earlier. I know you told me that you’re half-Yemenite. What’s that culture like compared to Ashkenazi culture?

I love being Yemenite. I am Ashkenazi and I am Yemenite, but I feel so connected to my Yemenite culture. I love the energy, the dancing, the food. Yemenite Jews are known for their singing. I don’t know if every Yemenite-Ashkenazi Jew feels that [sense of connection to their Yemenite heritage], but I do.

How has that sense of connection to your heritage informed your career as a musician?

Growing up, I always felt different. I wished I looked like everyone else. I had curly hair and darker skin tones than a lot of my classmates in Jewish day school. I even think that insecurity can sometimes show in my music. I wrote a song called “Gold, Blonde,” which is all about a sense of not fitting into the narrow mold of Eurocentric beauty standards.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in between — not fully Ashkenazi, not fully Mizrahi. But at the same time, my heritage is also a unique gift because it doesn’t make me uncomfortable to have those difficult conversations about whiteness in Judaism. I actually think it allows me to come to conversations in a different and interesting way.

In day school, I remember my education on Jewish history was strong, but it was Ashkenormative. We touched upon Sephardic history a little bit, but I don’t think I ever learned anything about the Mizrahim until my history degree at McGill.

I don’t even think I realized how Ashkenazi my Jewish education was until I went to university. In second year, I had this existential crisis learning about a lot of genocides I had never studied in the Jewish day school system. I didn’t even learn about the Residential school system in Canada until university. I think [overall] Jewish day schools are getting so much better when it comes to teaching both secular North American history and non-Ashkenazi Jewish history, but that omission really disappointed me.

[In second year], I started speaking with my dad and he told me all about the racism and discrimination my grandparents faced in Israel, and I learned some crazy histories. There was the Yemenite Jewish Children’s Affair, where Yemenite children in Israel were kidnapped and sent around the world for illegal adoption. Some of the children were even adopted by childless Holocaust survivors living in Israel. It’s a difficult, messy history, not something to be proud of.

My hope is that Jewish day schools can bring that history in, and in a safe and brave way learn to interrogate how our communities work. I hope we can acknowledge how racism exists within Judaism. In order to do the work [of combating anti-Semitism] outside our community, we need to do the work inside as well.

Right. And that’s so tricky because we live in a world where anti-Semitism is still a legitimate danger for all Jews, especially after the pro-Trump raid on the U.S. Capitol. Yet there can also be these ugly inequities within our communities. Both these forces exist at the same time, which can be difficult to address without coming across as antagonistic. What do you think that delicate, sensitive work of tackling intracommunity racism looks like?

Just as a teacher, education is everything to me. The Jewish community has taken so many steps to improve equitable education and address issues such as racism, classism and homophobia head on. There’s a group within the Canadian Jewish community that is working on an initiative called No Silence on Race that aims to address how racism still plagues Jewish spaces in Canada. The team — Sara Yacobi-Harris, Akilah Allen-Silverstein and Yoni Belete — is working with Jewish institutions to create spaces for dialogue and necessary change. I think it’s about listening, sitting down together, making space for Jews of color, and then absorbing all that knowledge to take concrete steps to change our communities for the better.

I also think my Yemenite Jewish upbringing informs a lot of the work I do within the Jewish community because I am committed to shedding light on my grandparents’ experience with racism after immigrating to Israel in 1948. I challenge attendants in my workshops to consider the continuing, contemporary impacts of racism within our Jewish communities, such as the treatment of Ethiopian Jews both in Israel and in North America. I love being Jewish and I am proud to be part of this community, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done so we can envision and pave a more inclusive path forward.

Erez Zobary is streaming on Spotify, YouTube and wherever else you get your feminist, Jewish R&B-indie-pop music.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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