New album from Tzimmes is a delicious mix of sacred and secular melodies

Tzimmes album cover, "The Road Never Travelled."

Tzimmes is the Yiddish name for the traditional holiday dish, a mash-up of carrots or sweet potatoes and dried fruit cooked in spices and wine.

Tzimmes is also the name of the Vancouver Jewish music ensemble whose rich new double album, The Road Never Travelled, like their repertoire, is a mashup of secular and sacred Jewish music. Tzimmes founder Moshe Denburg is the lead vocalist and lead guitarist on most tracks. 

The title track on Disc One, “The Road Never Travelled”, written by Denburg, is a jazzy love song that recalls a failed relationship. However, in the album’s liner notes, Denburg writes it can also be viewed as a midrash on the adage from Pirkei Avot, “Im Lo Achshav Eimatai” (“If not now, when?”), because the lyrics address procrastination and self-doubt and the possibility of moving forward.

Disc One also features Denburg’s sunny arrangement of Lennon/McCartney’s “In My Life,” Tzimmes’ send-off song for celebratory events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. He wrote the arrangement in 1968, when he was 19 and living in Jerusalem, while he was a member of a group there that performed original Hebrew rock songs.

“I really love the Beatles. I used to do a lot of their songs myself as solo, unplugged, on guitar. I felt ‘In My Life’ was a lovely piece and I wanted to write something that would create chords and harmonies that were different. It’s been with me for many years and it’s been simmering, getting a strong flavour,” Denburg said.

Denburg’s original tune “Sweet Melissa” is another thread to the Beatles on Disc One. While he was studying music in India in 1983, Denburg found himself in Rishikesh, the Indian city where the Beatles studied transcendental meditation and where Beatle George Harrison was influenced by Indian music. 

Although Rishikesh is a spiritual place for Hindus, Denburg stressed he wasn’t there to receive religious instruction. The time he spent as a guest in an ashram in Rishikesh was the springboard for “Sweet Melissa.” Along with Denburg on vocals and guitar, it includes Indian instrumentation—a bowed string instrument called the sarangi and the bansuri, a bamboo flute. The song sounds like a raga, a central feature of the classical Indian music tradition. 

Disc One also includes a lively rendition of “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” (“When King Nimrod”), from the Ladino repertoire, and the upbeat “Ahavat Hadasa—Libi V’Mizrakh” (“The Love of Hadasa—My Heart Is in the East”), based on a Yemenite melody. Denburg created a delicate musical setting for Itsik Manger’s Yiddish poem “Oyfn Veg” (“On the Way”), about a child’s wish to be free as a bird. The jazzy “Mashiakh Hazaken” (“Messiah the Elder”) is Denburg’s arrangement of the popular Israeli song, featured in the 1964 movie Sallah Shabati.

Denburg has a rabbinical and musical background. He’s the son of the Montreal modern Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Denburg and singer Miriam Ben-Ezra, who recorded children’s music and Israeli folk songs. Until Denburg attended Yeshiva University, he was a self-taught musician, writing songs during his childhood and early teen years: “The truth is, that comes from hearing the melodies in the synagogue and the folk music of the Jewish people,” he said.

A musical turning point came for Denburg when he enrolled in the music department of Yeshiva U. “Until then I was playing guitar, but I didn’t have an understanding of how music was put together on the page. I never had an ambition to become a rabbi, but because you grow up in that milieu in the synagogue with a true rabbinic scholar, which my father was, you pick up all these things,” he said.

The album’s “Liturgy Lane” is a compilation of prayers and texts set to lovely melodies. Several could be incorporated into services and one of them could be used for Shabbat candlelighting and on holidays. Denburg sees these compositions as a gift.

“It’s about offering something to the community. It’s being part of the community and it’s bringing people closer together and creating music that helps people to create connection with each other,” he said.

Disc Two opens with “Hashmi-ini” (“Let Me Hear Your Voice”), a verse from the Song of Songs for which Denburg created a canon, a composition in which the same melody is begun in different parts successively. He wrote the canon in 1966, when he was 17 and studying music at university.

“A lot of friends and family have known this canon from me for a long time. I finally put it together with multiple cellos and multiple violins,” Denburg said. He added that once people learn the four lines of the canon, it’s easy to sing.

Denburg wrote the sublime melody for “Shiviti Adonai L’Negdi Tamid” (“I Have Set Hashem Always Before Me”), the opening line of the Yizkor service, at the request of his friend Rabbi Shmuel Birnham of Congregation Har El in Vancouver. On the track, Denburg and cantorial soloist Naomi Taussig’s voices blend beautifully. Denburg suggests the melody could be incorporated into Yizkor services.

Meanwhile, the melody for “L’Hadlik Ner Shel Shabbat” (“Lighting the Sabbath Candles”) that Denburg wrote, was inspired by his spouse, Naomi Arney. “She said, ‘I don’t like having to sing the Hanukkah song for Shabbos candlelighting,’ which to me always seemed ridiculous. There have been other melodies but they’re not known,” Denburg said.

The double album celebrates Tzimmes’ 35th anniversary and features some of the original Tzimmes members and musicians who joined the group over the past 20 years. This is the ensemble’s fourth album.