Ishay Ribo, Religious Pop Star, Is Winning Over Secular Israel

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The singer and his songs were highly religious. His concert venue, on a kibbutz developed by secular leftists, was definitely not. His audience of many hundreds? It was somewhere in between: some secular, some devout, an unusual blending of two sections of a divided Israeli society that rarely otherwise mix.

Ishay Ribo, 34, is among a crop of young Israeli pop stars from religious backgrounds, some from Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whose music is attracting more diverse listeners, and featuring prominently in the soundscape of contemporary Israeli life.

This has surprised Mr. Ribo himself.

“I never imagined I’d play to this kind of crowd,” he said, backstage after the show earlier this year at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, a town in northern Israel originally founded as a collective farm. A decade ago, he said, “This kind of crowd just didn’t really exist.”

In addition to Mr. Ribo, other singers from a religious background — like Nathan Goshen, Hanan Ben-Ari, Akiva Turgeman and Narkis Reuven-Nagar — have also in recent years gained a wider audience. And their popularity reflects a changing Israeli society.

The religious right has expanded its influence on politics and society, escalating a clash between secular and sacred visions of the country that underlies the country’s ongoing judicial standoff. At the same time, religion has taken on a more prominent, and less contentious, role in the mainstream music scene.

In less than two decades, religious singers have moved from the cultural fringe to widespread acclaim, “not only among their people, but in all Israel,” said Yoav Kutner, a leading Israeli music critic and radio presenter.

“If you don’t listen to the words,” Mr. Kutner added, “they sound like Israeli pop.”

Mr. Ribo is perhaps the clearest example of this shift. Forgoing the erotic and the profane, his wholesome songs are often prayers to God — but sung to pop and rock music played by his band of guitarists. Cause of causes,” he addresses God in one of his biggest hits. “Only you should be thanked for all the days and nights.”

In 2021, that track, “Sibat Hasibot,” was the most played song on Israeli radio stations, religious and secular alike.

“It’s part of my duty,” Mr. Ribo said in a recent interview. “To be a bridge between these two worlds.”

Mr. Ribo’s journey toward that bridging role began in the early 2000s, on the bus to his religious school.

His family had immigrated from France a few years before. They led an ultra-Orthodox and ascetic life on a settlement in the occupied West Bank, just outside Jerusalem.

The family did not have a television, and Mr. Ribo attended an ultraconservative Jewish seminary. He listened to music on religious radio stations — often liturgical poems sung in synagogues. He typically heard secular music only on the bus to school, playing from the driver’s radio.

“I had this musical ignorance,” Mr. Ribo said.

At age 11 or so, he began recording simple songs on a portable cassette player. Then as now, his lyrics were infused with piety, Mr. Ribo said. But the tunes were inspired by the mainstream singer-songwriters he’d heard on the school bus.

Some four years later, Mr. Ribo bought a guitar and formed a band with another seminary student. He began to practice and dress as a Modern Orthodox Jew, forgoing the dark coats and wide-brimmed hats of the ultra-Orthodox for jeans and sweaters.

But his awareness of contemporary music and its customs was still patchy. At his band’s first gig, Mr. Ribo played with his back to the audience, unaware of the need to engage with the crowd.

Unlike many Israelis from ultra-Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, he paused his religious studies at age 22 to serve for two years as a conscript in the army. After finishing service in 2013, he tried to build a hybrid musical career — playing religious music to both secular and devout audiences.

He imagined his melodies might sound like Coldplay, the popular British rock band, but his lyrics, he added, “would be about God and faith.”

The challenge was that there were few templates then for such a crossover career.

Only a few religious artists, like the folk singer Shlomo Carlebach, had built a secular following. The most successful religious artists were often those, like Etti Ankri and Ehud Banai, who had started out secular, became more devout, and then took their original audiences along with them.

Mr. Ribo’s problem, initially, was that the music industry “didn’t understand what I had to offer,” he said.

When he sent his music to mainstream record labels, they all turned him down.

Mr. Ribo forged ahead, self-releasing the first of five albums in 2014. He hired a secular manager, Or Davidson, who marketed him as if he was a secular client — booking him to play at mainstream venues and securing him airtime on nonreligious radio stations. Gradually, his secular fan base expanded.

It was sometimes a fraught balancing act.

Religious Jews criticized him for playing at secular concert halls. Secular Jews opposed his performances at religious venues where men and women sat separately. And when he played to both audiences at secular venues, the staff could not provide kosher food for his religious fans. Even his parents were too religiously observant to attend some of the venues.

But the two-pronged approach ultimately worked. Four of his five albums were classified as gold or above — selling more than 15,000 copies in the small Israeli market. Secular pop legends, including Shlomo Artzi, began to perform duets with him, and he began to build an audience among diaspora Jews. Later this year, he is scheduled to headline Madison Square Garden, Mr. Davidson said.

To an extent, Mr. Ribo’s appeal is rooted simply in the catchiness of his songs, his clean-cut demeanor and sincere performances.

“Even though I’m secular, I came to watch him because he’s lovely,” said Adiva Liberman, 71, a retired teacher attending his concert at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel.

“Not everyone is paying attention to the lyrics,” she added. “They’re just attracted to the melody.”

Mr. Ribo’s rise comes amid not only a political shift rightward in Israel, but demographic changes as well. Religious Israelis, who have more children than secular Israelis, are the fastest-growing part of the population, allowing them to exert greater cultural influence.

Daniel Zamir, an Israeli jazz star who turned religious as an adult, said Mr. Ribo’s broad appeal is part of “a bigger process of Israeli society moving toward tradition.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Ribo’s rise embodies a converse but complimentary trend: greater willingness among some religious musicians to cater to and mix with mainstream audiences, and greater demand among religious audiences for music with a more contemporary sound.

It’s “a dual process,” Mr. Zamir said. Mr. Ribo is emblematic of “this new generation that saw that you could be religious and also make great music,” Mr. Zamir added.

For some secular consumers, the rise of “pop emuni” — “faith pop” in Hebrew — has been jarring. “I am not interested in hearing prayers on my radio,” wrote Gal Uchovsky, a television presenter, in a 2019 article about the proliferation of Mr. Ribo’s music. “I don’t want them to explain to me, even in songs that brighten my journey, how fun God is.”

Mr. Ribo’s latest song, “I Belong to the People,” also caused discomfort among liberal Israelis. Released in early April, it is an attempt to unite Jews at a time of deep political division in Israel. But critics said it unwittingly sounded condescending to people from other faiths, implying they were idolatrous.

Mr. Ribo has also caused discomfort within the religious world. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly their religious leaders, feel he has delved too far into secular society.

Early in his career, Mr. Ribo personally felt so conflicted about this that he sought his rabbi’s approval for his work. To avoid alienating his religious base, there are still some lines he refuses to cross.

“I’d love to write a classic love song — but I won’t,” Mr. Ribo said. “It’s not my job or duty.”

Still, some feel he has already compromised too much. In a popular sketch performed by an ultra-Orthodox comedy duo, an ultra-Orthodox man is asked if he knows any secular singers.

The man pauses, then replies: “Ishay Ribo!”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, Israel.


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