Before this summer, I last saw Avi Kaplan perform in 2019. An ethereal haze hung cozily over the downtown New York venue, teeming with adoring fans and wholesome vibes. Just days after the show, I had a ring inscribed with the Hebrew translation of one of his lyrics: “When I die, you can bury me way down by the trees so that they can grow stronger, so we all can breathe.” To me, the plea felt rooted in a deeply Jewish ideal, in the sense that we come from soil, and ultimately return to soil. These lyrics felt infused with the same energy as the songs I had spent all summer singing at my Jewish summer camp, acknowledging how much we receive from the earth, and how we can live our lives in ways that give back.
In 2017, Kaplan left Pentatonix, the multiple-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling a cappella group, to work on new music. He released a studio album under his band name (aptly titled Avriel & the Sequoias), two albums under his own name and several singles. The songs are all rooted in the profoundly touching, deeply inspirational messages that fans have come to expect from this California native, including a deep appreciation for our natural environment, perseverance, and reminders that better days are to come.
Since Kaplan’s first solo release, “Quarter Past Four,” I have approached his music much like prayer, turning to his lyrics and music the way I might pick up a psalm or piece of resonant liturgy. After the 2019 show, I began to wonder more specifically about his lyrics’ tentative roots in Judaism. So, at his most recent LA show this past June, I asked him: Were the connections I was drawing between his lyrics and Jewish symbology purely projected? Or could the subtle allusions be intentional?
“You know, both sides of my family are very religious, and I think that has definitely impacted my writing. And also, obviously, my life,” Kaplan told me, adding that his songs “All is Well” and “It Knows Me” stand out to him as particularly inspired by Jewish hymns.
After Kaplan confirmed for me the influence of Judaism on his own writing, I began to think through his music anew, noticing how his Jewish roots have been present in his music all along.
And so, here’s my best, definitive case for Avi Kaplan’s Jewish influence.
Song: All is Well
“All is well
Heaven, hell, wherever I go
All is well in my soul, all is well.”
Liturgical reference: Elohai Neshama, from the daily morning service. “My God! The soul (alternatively, breath or breath of life) which You bestowed in me is pure. You create, form and breathe in me.”
Kaplan’s lyrics are reminiscent of Elohai Neshama, in that they both recognize that the essential Self is unchanging. Elohai Neshama is a prayer said every morning as part of the preliminary prayers, thanking the Source of souls for creating, forming, and breathing that soul into us, and preserving it within us continually, renewing it in its essential purity.
In other words, Elohai Neshama reminds us that we are formed in purity, will be taken in purity, and will ultimately be returned in purity. While both ancient and contemporary scholars have labored over the definition of purity for centuries, the definition that resonates most for me is underlined by Kaplan’s lyrics. Heaven and hell, as concepts, are conditions we experience within our lives, but have no impact on the essential nature of our souls. To me, purity is presence, well-being. Kaplan’s lyrics often relay a story of rise and fall, deep pain and healing. This song, performed in collaboration with Joy Williams, has become a prayer for me and a reminder that wellness springs from within me, independent of my circumstances.
Song: Song For The Thankful
“Goodbye darkness, hello to the light
Every morning is an end to a night
Every season is bound to bring a change
There’s a new chance given every day
And it brings it back to me.”
Liturgical reference: Modeh/ah Ani
“I am grateful as I face You, living eternal breath, that has mercifully restored my soul within me”
Modeh Ani are the first words many Jews utter after waking from a night’s sleep. It’s the first prayer of the morning liturgy, an acknowledgment of the morning’s renewal and an offering of gratitude for the “return of one’s soul” (wakefulness) and the opportunities accompanying the new day. In addition to greeting the morning with gratitude, each verse of “Song for the Thankful” concludes with the line, “and it brings it back to me,” much like the last line of Modeh Ani, which expresses gratitude for the return of the soul or breath of life to the body. “Song for the Thankful” is also told through three verses which seem to mirror the three daily prayer services of Judaism: Each successive verse ushering in the morning, evening, and night, similar to the way the Shacharit, Mincha and Arvit services mark dawn, afternoon and nightfall. (Avi, if you’re reading — inquiring Jews need to know; was this intentional?)
Song: It Knows Me
I couldn’t confidently draw a direct Jewish source to any lyrics in this song, but in his response to my question Kaplan explicitly stated that “It Knows Me” was uniquely inspired by his Judaism. So here is the connection I found: As Jews, we acknowledge God’s omniscience and omnipresence over and over again in our liturgy. In this song, “It” could be God, or the universe itself, and the idea that “It” knows us could be cathartic, in the way that taking stock of our actions and acknowledging misdeeds on Yom Kippur brings catharsis. Being known, and seeking to be known, is deeply Jewish. Kaplan’s abundant awe for nature is also really present in this song, reminding me again of the three daily services and how each is inspired by the respective ventures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into the wilderness to pray.
Song: Try To Get It Right
“Sure ain’t easy but I got to try
To fight that darkness and to love that light
To keep on walking to the promised land
To find my way any way I can”
“There’s good and there’s evil on the loose
So while I’m alive
I’ll try to get it right”
In this song, Kaplan yearns to stay on a path toward peace, toward light, and toward love. The reference to “the promised land” is one of only two times he references Israel, with the other being a lyric in “On My Way” where he describes reuniting with a brother who has “gone to the Galilee.” The promised land here is metaphorical: This is a song of teshuvah, or return, to a place that proceeds the break in consciousness which created notions of separation, darkness, and chaos. This is also a song of tikkun olam. Kaplan is gesturing at the finite nature of our lives, and how it is incumbent upon us to devote ourselves to repairing our world, inclusive of our wounds and “missed marks.” Big Jewish Energy.
Song: Song For The Seeker
“It ain’t in my eyes
It ain’t in my ears
It ain’t in the statues that were built on sweat and tears”
“It ain’t the sun
It ain’t in the moon
It ain’t in the silver linings made for me and you”
“Song For The Seeker” is essentially a list poem about all the places “It” can’t be found. While “It” is easily defined as satisfaction or fulfillment, to me this song felt deeply reminiscent of the Hebrew pre-school classic “HaShem is here, HaShem is there, HaShem is truly everywhere.” It also reminded me of the third line of Yigdal, a hymn based on the 13 principles of faith recited in the daily morning liturgy, which proclaims God’s incorporeality. When I hear this song, I hear Kaplan giving voice to the familiar questions — When will I know I’ve made it? Who am I and from what am I composed? Seekers of all traditions, at some point or another, find themselves gesturing at the celestial bodies overhead, contemplating who or what sets it all in motion. While I can’t say for sure that Kaplan was intentionally channeling the first canonized monotheistic quandary (possibly panentheistic, depending on who you ask) in these lyrics, they do feel very reminiscent of the midrash about a young Abraham, praying to each of the celestial bodies, hoping to discover the mysterious Source that puts it all in motion, only to retire his search, knowing that the ruler of all could not possibly be contained in a corporeal form. Regardless, this song has become a salve for my seeking soul.
Those are my best attempts at documenting the subtle, pervasive Jewish influence running through Kaplan’s music. I thank Kaplan for providing me prayerful, contemplative alternatives for when the millennia-old liturgy begins to feel a bit contrived. And if folk is your thing, check out the above!