by Arie Kaplan
David Bryan, keyboardist and founding member of Bon Jovi (a 2001 Grammy nominee for their album Crush), is that rarity in the pop music scene: a successful rock musician who's also a practicing Jew.
Born David Bryan Rashbaum ("Not a very good stage name," he jokes), David is a classically trained musician who was raised in Edison, NJ, where he still lives with his wife and three children. He still attends the synagogue of his youth--Temple Emanu-El in Edison. In fact, David is Temple Emanu-El's official ba'al tekiyah, High Holy Day shofar blower. "The kids take out their stopwatches and time the t'keyah G'dolah," says Rabbi Alfred B. Landsberg, the congregation's spiritual leader for the past thirty-three years and David's mentor since he was in second grade.
"Rabbi Landsberg has taught me the essence of being Jewish," David says: "'do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you,' and respect women. Rabbi Landsberg always said, 'Not Mankind, Peoplekind! Not King, but Ruler!'"
David says his compositions are informed by Judaism--particularly Jewish music in minor keys. The Kol Nidre, he says, is a classic example. "Its intensity brings tears to your eyes." As an artist, his beliefs and spirituality are channeled into the music. Most of the music David writes, both with Bon Jovi and on his new solo album Lunar Eclipse (Moon Junction Music/Rounder Records), is instrumental, but occasionally he writes lyrics reflecting spiritual themes, as in this verse from the love ballad "In These Arms" off Bon Jovi's 1993 album Keep The Faith: "Our songs are our prayers. These prayers keep you strong. It's what I believe. It's where we belong." David calls this song "very Jewish in terms of ideals of commitment, fidelity, and love," but, he says, the songs are created to be appreciated by everyone, regardless of religion. "The music is all about life, and that's spiritual. God is everywhere. When you look at a baby, that's God. You're a blank human being. Someone's gotta program it. That's God."
Today, David Bryan's life seems relaxed and focused. And yet, there was a period when things could have best been described as "fuzzy." During Bon Jovi's early years, from 1984-1990, the band was performing at such a breakneck pace that David was home for a grand total of six months. "People don't realize the commitment," David says. "This is not something you do on weekends, if you feel like it. It's a life's work. Every day. We work in dog years. Every year is like seven years." This "tour-till-you-drop" life style couldn't last forever.
The breaking point came after the Slippery When Wet tour in 1990. Then, David and the other Bon Jovi musicians made a pact. "We came through the fog and said, 'Let's lighten up the pace.' We decided to go into a 'human,' not 'superhuman' phase." Now, David has time to spend with his family. The band tours for six months, but take breaks in between. "I think when you're at questioning points in your life, that's when religion kicks in for people," he muses. "It enables you to get through things, to dig down deep in your soul."
David's newfound freedom has opened him to musical genres beyond the realm of rock and roll. He's currently writing the music and lyrics for two Broadway-bound musicals--Fast Breaks, based on the Sweet Valley High series of children's books by Francine Pascal; and Memphis, a rock musical with a book by Joe DiPietro, author of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. He recently performed a cover of Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" during Bon Jovi's annual holiday benefit concert at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ. And he continues to win the praise of his rabbi: "Some people who get big have no time for 'the little people,'" Rabbi Landsberg says. "David always has time. And he'll always stop to sign autographs for the kids in the congregation. When he and I see each other, we hug. Because I represent the temple and because we love each other."
Arie Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bop, and Teen Beat, among other publications.
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