Beth Am singing rabbis trio to take stage on Sunday

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Rabbi Josh Zweiback gets by with a little help from his friends. The rabbi, whose day job is senior educator at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, also is one-third of Mah Tovu, a musical group that has produced four CDs and performs at congregations and Jewish conferences around the country.

Mah Tovu will perform in the Bay Area twice on Sunday, first at 9 a.m. at Beth Am, and then at 1 p.m. at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

It's a long distance thing. While Zweiback lives in Los Altos, his colleagues, Steve Brodsky and Ken Chasen, live in Colorado and New York. Brodsky is president of ARE (Alternative Religious Education) Publishing in Denver and Chasen is a rabbi in Scarsdale.

"We get together four times a year to write music, rehearse and give a concert," Zweiback said last week. "The rest of the time we send a lot of tapes back and forth."

Mah Tovu writes its own music and an eclectic mix it is. The most recent album, "Turn It," runs a musical gamut from the jazzy title song to a couple of numbers with a Sephardi feel to full-blown country and western. A lyrical piano solo, almost worthy of Chopin, is prelude to a soft rock version of "Sim Shalom." Some of the lyrics are original, while others are drawn from liturgy.

"There's no grand plan," Zweiback explained. "We're influenced by rock, folk, pop, all kinds of music. We're just writing music that we like and hope other people will enjoy.

"We're trying to make Judaism live through our music and we also see it as an extension of our teaching function."

The group began as a duo, when Zweiback and Brodsky were youth group advisers in the Midwest. They brought their guitars to meetings and retreats and began singing together.

"It was a lot of fun so we invited our friend Ken to join us," Zweiback said.

They made their first recording later that year, choosing the name "Mah Tovu" (how good) for the fledgling trio. "Maybe that was a little bit of chutzpah," he said laughing, "but we liked the way it sounded. It's also the opening of one of the morning prayers."

The Omaha, Neb., native comes from a highly involved Reform Jewish family. His father has been active in numerous Jewish philanthropies while his late mother kept busy with Hadassah and sisterhood while he was growing up.

His interest in music was sparked at Jewish summer camp.

"I saw those counselors with their guitars, singing, and I thought, 'I want to do that,'" he recalled. "So I learned." He began writing his own music at the age of 18. Strongly drawn to the rabbinate, he had little desire to become a cantor, he said, but he frequently joins the cantor in the music at Beth Am services.

In addition, he recently came out with his own CD and booklet, "Days of Wonder, Nights of Peace: Family Prayers in Song for Morning and Bedtime." "Some of my earliest memories are of an aunt who used to bring her guitar to our family seder every year. She would lead us, in this wonderful voice, in 'Go Down Moses' and 'Dayenu.'"

That aunt, he continued, went on to form her own performing group, which leads various services at community centers and synagogues in Kansas City.

"And," he said with pride, "some of the songs she uses are mine."