Full Circle | Interview with Doni Zasloff of Nefesh Mountain

May 05, 2022 / 4 Iyyar, 5782

Doni Zasloff stood on the Grand Ole Opry stage, just inside the hardwood circle that has fueled the dreams of generations of musicians, and sang in Hebrew.

It was a poem she and Eric Lindberg, her husband and co-leader of Nefesh Mountain, had written for the title track of their new album, “Songs for the Sparrows.” The song was inspired by the sparrows they’d seen in 2018 as they visited the Eastern European towns where their families were from. “They represent the voices of our ancestors, small but mighty, and those everywhere who have been discriminated against.”

And here they were, making their debut on country music’s most famous stage, radiating their love of Judaism. “I was standing there, in shock that we were able to be there. I was thinking about the history of our people, and pretty sure that I was one of the first to sing in Hebrew on that stage. We were so proud and grateful to be representing Jewish heritage, the continuity of Jewish life and the world, and being the voice of the sparrows in the Grand Ole Opry,” she says.

Temple Emanu-El is thrilled to welcome back Doni and Eric and their inimitable blend of spirit-fueled bluegrass. Doni took a few minutes in the run-up to Bluegrass on the Bimah to chat with Window editor Connie Dufner about life and career in Covid, having a newborn, making music and her passionate love of Judaism.

We are in a season of journeys in the Jewish calendar. You’ve certainly been on a whirlwind yourselves!
We were really very busy right before Covid and had finished recording our third album. Then everything stopped. All our 60-70 concerts got canceled.

We really had a chance to reflect, and there was one beautiful miracle that happened. We tried one more time to have a baby, and we were blessed with a beautiful little girl in the midst of this crazy time of life for everyone.

We’ve been back on the road since this past September, when Willow was 4 mothns old. She was born June 10, the album was released June 11.

Talk about a silver lining!
It’s such a special time for our family. The weather is getting warmer, we’re praying the pandemic is coming to an end, we’re thinking about everything we’ve been through. We’re starting to think and talk about our next album, and how can we turn our next album into something about where we are now.

You sang in a Zoom service last spring in which my grandson was named. One of the songs, “On and On (L’dor Vador),” affected me so deeply. And a few months later, Willow was born!
I remember that beautiful moment. For me that was really special…I could barely sing L’dor Vador without bursting in tears. This is what it’s all about, everything we talked about in our last album, everything that’s happened in Eastern Europe, in America, up to today. For us with a new baby, plus older kids, this coming year—it’s all l’dor vador.

I love the idea behind your new album. Tell us more.
About six weeks after we returned from our trip to Eastern Europe, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting happened in Pittsburgh. It left me thinking that we’re back in America, but we didn’t feel so safe anymore. The album is really about our experiences, our efforts to put out the hatred and antisemitism, racism of any kind, to have hope and pour love on these very painful realities of life.

The Grand Ole Opry, wow!
We’ve always been blown away at the love we’ve received. We feel this music is bigger than us and hope it can shift people’s perceptions of what a Jewish person is. Our music is about inclusion and love and kindness. We’re just these hippies. The fact that we’re playing in so many places and venues means that sometimes we’re playing to people who have never seen a Jewish person. We’re trying to exude the kindness and love that’s a part of Jewish culture and spirituality.

You’ve had mainstream success and Jewish community success. How do you balance the two? We don’t want to lose the chance to hear you in a spiritual setting!
It’s something that Eric and I are talking about a lot. We have booking agents, we have all these requests coming in. What I know is that I can’t not do the spiritual side of it, I can’t not do Shabbat services. I need the Shabbat services, the synagogue community concerts and residencies, I need it for myself.

Our booking agents know that. This is my mishpocha, these relationships mean everything to me. Just because we’re going to start playing Opry doesn’t mean there’s not room for the synagogues.