Inspiration Through Music: An Interview with Tani Polansky
Tani Polansky is a man who hears music speak to him! Whether you recognize him from his music, the Times Square Kumzitz, or the Brotherhood of the Bands, his music has touched people from around the world. On the verge of releasing a new album, The Commentator got the opportunity to sit down with him and find out his backstory.
Avi Lekowsky: Give us a little background about yourself.
Tani Polansky: I grew up in Woodmere and moved to Israel with my family when I was in seventh grade, which was really challenging. I ended up bouncing from school to school, community to community, meeting all different types of people. By the time I finished ninth grade, I’d been in around six schools, including a Breslov yeshiva in Beitar, a dati leumi (religious Zionist) school in Bet Shemesh and a yeshiva in Mea Shearim which I loved, because there was so much joy and dancing and music. It was of the more open-minded of the Chareidi places I’d been. When I was in tenth grade, circumstances forced my family to move back to America.
I finished up high school in Darchei Torah — not so typical YU. I went to Rabbi Shmuel Brazil’s yeshiva in Israel for about a year and a half after that. That yeshiva was where music really started for me. Rabbi Brazil is one of the most underrated composers of the Jewish world. He wrote [the tunes for] Shalom Aleichem, Bilvavi and many classic songs we sing today. The yeshiva was bursting with music, chassidus and the pure joy of those who were free to express their Judaism in their own unique way. The first song I ever made was during that period. It was one of the hardest days I had there, and [I] ended up writing [the song] at the Kotel. Through my tears and Tehillim, I began reading and singing Mizmor L’Dovid, which evolved into one of my favorite niggunim (tunes). I came back to the States and decided to go to YU — once again, not an ordinary move from someone in my background. I didn’t know anyone coming here, but from day one, I was welcomed into the community, became a part of multiple student organizations — as well as the Camp HASC and NCSY worlds — and began really exploring music and Jewish leadership here. I’m currently in the RIETS/Ferkauf program here, and gearing up for PhD applications while working for NCSY and on my album!
AL: You mentioned R’ Shmuel Brazil’s yeshiva and how you picked up a lot of musical interest there. However, your latest single, “Long for the Day,” sounds very different than his type of work. So how did you get there? What was the journey like?
TP: “Long for the Day” is a different kind of song than the rest of the music I’ve been producing. I wrote “Long for the Day '' with my NCSYers, and left it on the back burner. One day, I was in the hospital with a family member who was going through a really rough time. The lyrics to that song popped into my mind, and I thought the line “You can destroy or rebuild your world, the choice is up to you” was something they really needed to hear. When I sang it, nurses came in from the hallway, and we started singing and jamming out to it; the look on their faces when we finished said it all! With the help of my parents and a dear friend we produced it and it sort of just came out sounding like a country-rock record! Once I started recording that, I realized I couldn’t slow down; I had a ton of other songs to record. I made a fundraiser and ended up getting $10,000 with the help of friends, family, even random people on the street.
Part of the journey that I’ve experienced in seeing many things and being in different places is trying to find the nekuda tovah (inner good) in everything, just like Rabbi Nachman [of Breslov] says. Wherever you go, whoever you meet, you have the mission to find the good point in them and help bring it out. I’ve been in many different communities and [have played] many different genres over the course of my life. I’ve drawn inspiration from all different zones… whether it’s country, pop, folk, alternative or even gospel. You’ll hear “Soulful Living,” which has a slightly more electronic sound, and then there’s “Elokai,” which is a whole different world.
AL: You have an album coming out soon – “TeFEELah” – where’d that name come from?
TP: I came up with that name when one of my rabbis, Rabbi Daniel Katz, taught me that the way you pray is the way you live. Whether in shul (synagogue) or out of shul, t’fillah (prayer) has the capacity to be — and is supposed to be — such a transformative, deeply personal and moving experience. Every time we yearn for something, every time we cry, dance, sing, these moments all have the potential to be moments of prayer. T’fillah is the emotional expression of our deepest selves. And I know that when I’m not feeling it, I know I’m not tapping into my truest self in the right way. We have to find ways to open our hearts, and music is one of the deepest ways to do that. Niggunim are deeper than words, which is why they were brought into the Beis Hamikdash. It’s truly an expression of the neshama (soul); music is the language of the soul. Music has to inspire people, and I truly believe this music has the capacity to do that, as my friends Shlomo and Zach of the band Zusha sing so beautifully: “niggunim hayotzim min halev, nichnasim el halev,” (songs that come from the heart will penetrate the heart). It can really be challenging to be different, especially in our Jewish communities where conformity is preached as a virtue and the development individuality isn’t emphasized enough. These of course come from good intentions, but we often see it manifest in our music. And I’m doing what I can to change the status quo.
AL: What’s up next for you? Anything else you want to plug?
TP: My second single, “Soulful Living,” will be out on March 13th, and the album, “TeFEELah,” should be out in the next few months. Make sure to stay tuned to my social media channels to find out more. I’m really excited to let you guys know what I’ve been working on! I also want to plug a message. A year ago, I had all this music that I didn’t know what I was going to do with. I decided to go all out and make this fundraiser, and I hit that goal. If anyone can take any lessons from this, it would be to not give up on your dream. I went for something, and with enough work, it ended up working out. It doesn’t always work out, but eventually you will hit something, and you’ve got to go for it. The last thing I want to plug is your dream. Don’t be afraid to go for it!
Photo Caption: Tani Polansky
Photo Credit: Tani Polansky