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Music

Bluegrass group incorporates Jewish heritage, will play free concert this weekend

Patrick Varine
| Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, 5:33 p.m.

Like so many people around the world, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff were floored by the news of the fatal attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The husband and wife, who form the core of bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain , responded the only way they knew.

“It really, really devastated us,” said Zasloff. “We wrote a song the day after the shooting, called ‘Tree of Life,’ which we recorded in our house, and did a little iPhone video to post on Facebook just to send some love out to people who were hurting.”

The song started being passed around, and eventually the pair decided to offer the sheet music for free through their website, “and we started getting a lot of messages about people performing the song in church,” Zasloff said.

On Jan. 12, Lindberg and Zasloff will bring their unique blend of American bluegrass and Jewish heritage and tradition to the University of Pittsburgh’s Bellefield Hall in the Oakland neighborhood for a free concert.

Nefesh Mountain formed four years ago, according to Lindberg.

“It’s sort of based on the love story between my wife and I,” he said. “We fell in love, and our mutual love for each other as well as for bluegrass and Jewish culture and heritage led to us starting to write material, getting a band together and going to Nashville to record.”

Rather than incorporate a traditional Jewish style of music like klezmer into their bluegrass tunes, Lindberg said Nefesh Mountain’s sound is “not really Jewish music, it’s really from the Jewish soul.”

Zasloff said the couple’s lyrics hit on universal themes.

“There are Jewish themes of love, pain, troubled times, and those sort of ideas that we’re all drawn to,” she said. “Some of the songs are all in English, some have a Hebrew phrase here or there, and some are written more in Hebrew.”

Nefesh Mountain released their self-titled debut in 2016, and their unique take on bluegrass immediately began to attract attention.

It also didn’t hurt having legendary progressive bluegrass mandolin picker Sam Bush adding a few touches. That trend has continued with their newest record, “Beneath the Open Sky,” which features not just Bush but bluegrass heavyweights Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka and David Grier.

“We were lucky enough to have made those connections through friends of friends,” Zasloff said. “We couldn’t be more grateful to work with such a high level of musicianship and have them join us. It made us feel — and continues to make us feel — brave enough to keep doing it.”

The concert will be presented by the Dor Hadash congregation, one of three that meet in the Tree of Life synagogue. The performance at Pitt’s Bellefield Hall is also significant, as the building was once the Oakland branch of the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association.

Zasloff said the past two months have brought she and Lindberg into contact with “so many people who are connected in some way to the Tree of Life tragedy,” and coming to Pittsburgh to perform will be an emotional outing.

“My parents from Philadelphia are flying in to be at the show, and Eric’s parents may come as well,” she said. “This show just means a lot to us.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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