Bob Dylan. Carly Simon. Paul Simon. Adam Levine. Paula Abdul. Drake. Barbra Streisand. Billy Joel. Neil Diamond.
What do all of these legendary musicians have in common? If you guessed “Judaism”, you’re reading the right newspaper. Though it may not be well-known, the list of Jewish pop musicians is a solid list and includes the leads for bands such as Dire Straits, KISS, and Van Halen. We may want to add another name to that list: Josh Polack.
Josh, a senior at Burke high school, was recently selected as a member of the School of Rock’s AllStar performance group, an elite troupe of teens who spend the summer on tour playing at major concerts. The School of Rock is an international organization that teaches students, ages 8-18, the art of performing Rock’n’Roll music. Josh joined the School of Rock around two years ago after a friend encouraged him to enroll. Josh told me he has played guitar for more than a decade. He pestered his parents for a guitar, and they finally relented, surprising him by taking him to his first lesson. Ten years later, Josh, a graduate of Friedel Jewish Academy, embarked on a concert tour of the Midwest.
Unlike most incoming students at the School of Rock, Josh’s skill level was determined to be high enough that he skipped the educational groups and went straight to a performance group. Within a few months, Josh moved up to join the school’s House Band, the top group for the Omaha school. The big honor came a few months ago, when the Omaha School of Rock nominated Josh to the AllStar group. The AllStar performance group is composed of seven smaller tour groups, each with 20 performers. That means that, from a program of over 15,000 students worldwide, less than 0.1% earn one of the coveted spots in an AllStar group. Josh tells me that, following his nomination, he had to conduct several live auditions, both in-person and via video. He found out in May that he had been accepted and began preparing for his tour. The tour would see him perform in concerts and festivals at legendary venues across the Midwest. These included the Marquis Theater in Denver, Lollapalooza in Chicago, the Red Rocks Amphitheater also in Denver, and Omaha’s Slowdown.
The tour, which consists mostly of high school upperclassmen, is hardly educational despite being a School of Rock program. Once selected for the AllStar group, the teens are no longer students; they are performers, expected to learn and perform the sets on their own just as any other performer would. This was especially challenging at Red Rocks, where the group performed an additional set in tribute to David Bowie.
Josh’s role in the group consists mainly of guitar and bass, as well as some vocals. He enjoys listening to and playing the music of Pink Floyd, and St.Paul & The Broken Bones, as well as various soul and jazz pieces. His favorite song to perform, however, is the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post, from the Omaha School of Rock’s house band set. At the School of Rock, Josh says, you grow by playing outside your comfort zone. New styles of playing are introduced, and Josh explained that he had difficulty mastering the rapid pace of hard rock music, including “shredding”, which involves hard and fast playing on an electric guitar solo.
Josh wasn’t the only Jewish teen looking to join the ranks of music royalty on the AllStar tour. In his group of 20 was another Jewish teen from Los Angeles, and the six other tour groups also included many Jewish performers. It got to the point, Josh recalled, where it was not uncommon to log on to the AllStar performer’s Facebook group page and see musicians having discussions in Hebrew.
For his part, Josh completed the tour wearing his Led Zeppelin kippa and a pair of Converse tennis shoes signed by Mark Schulman, a Jewish rocker currently touring with Cher and formerly with Pink. Schulman included “Jews Rule!” as part of his signature. So while most people might conjure up images of Fiddler on the Roof when asked about Judaism in music, Josh knows as well as anyone that Jews are a staple of Rock’n’Roll. He hopes for the opportunity to audition for the AllStar group again next year, the last year he will be eligible. For now, it’s all about the music.