Chicago Jew Ruby Harris, a pioneer of Jewish rock music, plays a variety of instruments, a range of genres but, as a rabbi and chaplain, he gets most of his satisfaction from bringing comfort to those who are suffering.
By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Renaissance man Rabbi Rubin (Ruby) Harris started out his musical life playing classical, then evolved to jazz, bluegrass, rock (American and Israeli), rockabilly, Irish and blues.
He plays the violin, sax, clarinet, bass, drums, guitar, harmonica and mandolin.
Harris has jammed in all the major Chicago blues clubs, the Kingston Mines and for real prestige, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center.
But no matter where and how he has entertained, no performance venue equals the nursing homes, hospitals and private homes where he has channeled music with divinely-inspired impetus to the infirm of mind and body.
Native New Yorker Harris, transplanted to Chicago’s music scene via a long stop in Israel, could have rested on his musical laurels a long time ago and felt satisfied. He transformed ancient Hebrew texts and liturgies with a new-age rock beat.
Yet always moving, always questing for new knowledge and emotional rhythm, Harris became not only an ordained rabbi, but also a clinical chaplain a decade ago. Music was his backup band for his own version of tikkun olam.
“I really love helping people, and I help people every day,” said Rogers Park resident Harris. “I play therapeutic music for people who can’t move. People who are in hospice. People suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“The fact that I play all these different genres of music is interesting. But the fact that I went on to become a rabbi and a chaplain makes it much more interesting.”
More than any other moral enterprise or religious observance of his 64 years, Harris believes being a good Jew is employing his talent to bring a light to the lives of the far less fortunate.
“I have a patient who cannot move at all,” he said. “He has a degenerative nerve disease. All he can do is grunt. His wife, his children and all the medical staff agree that his favorite time of the week is when I play therapeutic music for him. He is a completely confined patient in a nursing home.
“Don’t think you have to be dying to get benefit from music. For children, teen-agers and adults, music has a calming, relaxing and inspiring, pleasurable effect. “
But to generate such results, to adapt to any kind of music, the inspiration must come from the inside-out.
“The key to good blues is you got to play with soul,” Harris said. “Ray Charles said if anyone can play blues well (besides African-Americans), it’s the Jews. We are the people of G-d. We are the people who were given the Bible and given the land of milk and honey. I play music with G-d consciousness. It’s instinctive. Same thing as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, any of the great baseball players who played by instinct.
“You talk to James Brown, you talk to Eric Clapton, you talk to Big Mama Thornton, you talk to Elvis, and they all said they play the gospel, the blues, from their soul, from their guts. I don’t even have to tell anybody about Aretha Franklin’s and James Brown’s gospel roots. Buddy Guy was from Mississippi, from the Bible Belt.
“All great blues players, all great Irish (music) players, are all devout. Nowadays, you got atheists and agnostics (in music). But I’m talking about the roots. How is it that I can play different genres of music? I go right to the roots of the music. I know the root songs, where they come from. The roots of Irish music are thousands of years old. The roots of Jewish music come from the Temple, it comes from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, from King David. The roots of all different music come from the same place. It’s not complicated.
“The roots of all music came from G-d.”
“Like a fantastic chef or cook, or a brilliant journalist, like a great politician, like a carpenter who builds all kinds of furniture, or an auto mechanic who knows how to repair every single nut and bolt in your Porsche,” Harris said. “Like any of these talented people, a musician has to have some kind of (inner) nature.
“You give one kid a guitar, he may not be able to play it even if he plays every day for 100 years. Give another kid a guitar, within an hour he’ll play well. The kid who can’t play will never be a musician. He’ll be something else. He could grow up to be a lawyer or doctor.
“All instruments are beautiful. These are just instruments where (natural musicians) can pick them up and play very well. They have it in their nature to play. I go into a room with a doctor and a lawyer, and I can only talk about rabbi-chaplain (and music) things. I can’t talk about medicine. They’re the experts on medicine. I’m the musician, and everybody else does what they do.
“Most (top) musicians play one instrument. But they can learn to play the other ones, because they have the music in the brain, they can apply it. I did that. I have made it my choice to play a variety of styles and a variety of instruments. I evolved.”
Harris recently put out his latest album, “The Kid on The Mountain,” accessed at rubyharrismusic.com. His roots are in the Chasidic community of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Then, all his musical experiences began their grafting process as Harris’ family followed a diaspora-within-a-diaspora, to Great Neck, Long Island. Modern culture seeped into his personal portfolio.
“I started the violin at age 6 in the school orchestra, then continued on with classical for a few years,” Harris said. “Then at 15, I joined The Brad Brickman Big Band, one of the first of the swing revival bands. Then at 17, I formed The Smokin’ Bluegrass Boys, also pioneers in the Long Island Bluegrass scene in the late 60’s and early 70’s.”
Harris was a typical Baby Boomer with a solid Jewish sensibility. He went to all the rock concerts to see the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, among others. “A musical Garden of Eden,” Harris described the momentous era. He attended Vietnam protest marches and peace rallies, “a good time to absorb music.” In the process, Harris hitchhiked around the U.S., Canada and Mexico several times.
“It was great to get to know this country in those days, before malls and computers had replaced farms and clean air,” he said. Then he went to the School of Visual Arts in New York to study with among others, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage, two major influences. He also continued his violin studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
His wanderlust resumed with a long trip from top to bottom in Europe, “to study in the great galleries of art, the Uffizi, the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Vatican, and the music of different cultures. It was amazing. I traveled for a whole year from the Isle of Sky in Scotland all the way to Crete at the bottom of Greece.”
By 1976, Harris moved to Israel. “A month of touring the Holy Land and I was ready to settle down and learn a little Jewish culture,” he said.
He fell in as violinist with the newly-formed Diaspora Yeshiva Band.
“The world was really absorbed in the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, (Jimi) Hendrix and all those bands,” Harris said. “When we got to Israel, we discovered a beautiful history of Jewish music. There were songs written by King David, Moses, Adam. They were composers. But we had grown up with (the great British and American super groups). That’s the kind of music we loved.
“So one day we started banging on the drums and guitars, and started singing (traditional Jewish songs). We started rocking (the songs). Nobody ever did that before. They would only do it the old Jewish way – ‘da yup up up up.’ In Israel you had rock. But it was not Jewish rock. They were Israelis playing rock ‘n roll. Bob Dylan, and members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were Jewish. But was that Jewish rock? No.
“That’s all we did – modernize traditional Jewish songs. We played it in concert, and people came up to us afterward and said the same thing they (once) said to Elvis and Ray Charles – how dare you play that holy music with this evil devil rock ‘n roll music? We said we’re singing the words of the Torah, but we’re playing it with electric instruments. We don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Eventually, like the pioneer rockers, Diaspora Yeshiva Band won over their audiences.
“We started to take old passages from the Psalms, the Siddur, the Bible and created a rock n’ roll rhythm for these passages,” Harris said. “Many came up to us and said I never knew you could play the music (rock) that I love with the Bible and Torah that I love. You’re the first one to ever do that, and we like you. I’m very proud of what we did.”
The Jewish stand-up humor part of Harris insisted rock music is condoned by the Bible, such as “The Rock of My Salvation…that passage says we can be saved by rock. You can say the rock is G-d.”
Harris’ path to the Midwest was triggered when he married native Chicagoan Beth Harris in Israel in 1988. He at first presented an upturned nose at the concept of moving to Chicago due to his Brooklyn-Big Apple upbringing.
“I had never met a New Yorker who had the consciousness or desire to move to Chicago,” he said. The Jewish rocker was asked to compare the music scene in his hometown and Chicago.
“New York had fallen apart and was in very bad shape at the time,” he said. “Beth said you could make a good living in the home of the blues in Chicago.”
Using his artistic adaptability, Harris fell in with the top blues performers in town. Eventually he’d perform at the funerals of Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor. Meanwhile, he also performed with local Irish bands. Harris mastered the art of traditional Irish fiddle playing after having performed in Ireland with the Chieftans. The guy with the sidecurls became star soloist with two local Irish bands.
Harris has not forgotten the kosher side of his creativity with a wedding band, specializing in Chasidic music, that is available for all kinds of Jewish events.
And as if he has time in his six-days-a-week work schedule, performing on Saturday nights after sundown, Harris has time for even more artistic pursuits. His “Advance Advertising Signs and Wonders,” specializing in Hebrew signs and art, operates out of West Rogers Park.
But he is most grounded in his chaplaincy that uses music as a universal language of hope.
“With our music, we’re going to make the world a better place, right now,” Harris said.