God is Right Here: A Conversation with Levi Robin
On his website, singer-songwriter Levi Robin introduces himself as “a heart, a soul, a voice, a guitar, and a journey. But mainly a journey.”
The word is a fitting one. While the SoCal native was studying in a Yeshiva in Israel, he played a couple songs for a friend who, as it turned out, was friends with reggae artist Matisyahu. A year later, the two met up with the singer and his manager in a Manhattan hotel room, where he played his song “Breathe Easy” – and “really, really quickly,” Robin was preparing for a cross-country tour by venturing off to an Alabama farmhouse to record a self-titled EP. He eventually connected with Stu Books, a longtime collaborator of Matisyahu, resulting in the new single “Days of Our Youth”. Another friend, director Natalie Schapira, provided cinematic visuals filmed in upstate New York (video above), kicking off a whole new chapter in the young singer’s career.
The song’s lyrics are powerful, prayerful, and universal – like a modern Psalm of David or confession of Augustine – and I wanted to know more about the spiritual dimension of the singer’s journey. I reached out to Levi and ended up speaking with him for an hour about his journey into Hasidic Judaism; his thoughts on God, suffering, and spiritual growth; and how music can help people of different backgrounds build bridges instead of walls.
Like the song itself, Robin’s story – his diminished sense of “God” as a young man, the excitement of discovering an ancient tradition filled with wisdom, and endless awe of the Creator who permeates his creation and purifies it through suffering – is a story that any seeker of ultimate truth can relate to.
Without further ado, my conversation with Levi Robin.
Can you tell us about your journey as a musician?
As a musician, I didn’t really start until I was about 12 or 13. That’s when I got my first guitar. And it was a very pivotal point in my life, because prior to that I was the all-American kid who just loved baseball and sports and that whole dimension of life. Once I started playing the guitar and learning more, I started developing a sensitivity to art that I never had. I never had an eye for aesthetics or an ear to really be moved by music. As soon as I learned a few chords, I started trying to write a song.
I’ve read you were raised in a non-observant Jewish household, but felt an awakening to spirituality when you were young. What was this awakening and how did it help you land where you landed?
For full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve landed. I don’t think an awakening is really an arrival. I think it’s a beginning. It’s the beginning of a journey of really sinking into life.
For me, things started when I picked up a guitar. The more I started feeling the resonation of my guitar going into my chest, it started reverberating to a deeper place within me that I didn’t really know what it was. I didn’t have context or a language to have any clarity or definition of sort of that feeling that I was starting to get. But the more I started writing, the more this dormant place within me was awakening. And I started noticing that I was writing about things in more and more existential ways, and that there’s a lot of Jewish Biblical allusions happening in my writing. I didn’t really know what to make of that because I wasn’t studying Torah. I grew up with some. I learned a little bit with my grandfather as a child. But we weren’t formally observant and there wasn’t a consciousness of God I would associate with Judaism.
In that same interview, you even talk about understanding Judaism as being “Godless” when you were young. I thought that was fascinating.
I really did not expect to find spirituality in my own people, in my own tradition, in my own heritage. I seemed to be looking everywhere else besides that, because I started feeling this spiritual bone in my body and started feeling a thirst for God in my life. I never knew of God in Judaism. I knew there was such a thing as God in the Torah, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I don’t think the word God means anything to a lot of people these days. In the Torah itself, there is no word for God. There are different names, divine names, associated with different ways that God sort of reveals himself and conducts the world, which is very different than sort of just this stamp of God from the English language. So if somebody has a negative connotation or a totally false connotation associated with the word God, that’s it. You’re sort of done, in Judaism at least. So I started looking around, I guess you could say. Though a friend, I became acquainted with Eastern spirituality, and started getting into very basic forms of meditation. That also started very much opening me up to my own soul.
It really wasn’t until I had a conversation with my Dad that everything changed. I was speaking to him about something I was learning in Eastern philosophy, and he said that something in it reminded him of Torah. And I was taken aback. All I remembered of the Torah was these painfully cryptic stories. So I was almost offended, to be honest. He saw that I was in a reactive mode and he assuaged me and said, “Listen, it’s not your fault – this is my fault – but you’ve never really met a real rabbi. Why don’t you do some research, so when some rabbi asks you why aren’t you being Jewish, you can at least tell him something out of some sort of knowledge rather than just complete ignorance?” He told me about a spiritual master – he’s passed away now – the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was a great saint, in Hebrew a tzaddik, a real righteous person. And immediately my ears just began to perk. Spiritual master? I thought I’d be finding a spiritual master in India. I didn’t know there were spiritual masters in Judaism. That was an important thing for me to hear.
So I found some clips of this Rebbe speaking about how the Torah parallels a human being. Just as a human being is comprised of both body and soul, so too the Torah. There’s the body of the Torah, which are like laws and statutes and down-to-earth directives. Then there’s the soul of the Torah, which is esoteric. It’s the Kabbalah, it’s the Hasidus, the teachings of the soul, the soul dimensions of reality. Just like a body devoid of soul is a corpse, so too we face a similar danger if we separate and don’t transmit the innerness of the Torah. That was very validating to me. That really is how I saw the Torah. I saw it as being dead. I didn’t see it as a living word of God. It didn’t speak to me.
I ended up looking into Kaballah and Hasidus and it rocked me. It totally spoke to me in a way that nothing else did. It was almost like it was the clearest mirror that reflected me to myself. I got to see who I was beyond the limitations of time and space. I saw who I am as an old soul, not just a kid growing up in surf town in Huntington Beach, California. Our people are just ancient. Our roots are very deep.
When you first shared this single, “Days of Our Youth,” you said you were sharing it with “great joy and trepidation.” Why trepidation?
It’s been quite a journey to get to this point. And I have a lot of awe and respect for the intricacy of the path that God is leading me on. It’s been very mysterious walking into the unknown these few years. Definitely joy, because finally there’s this new chapter opening with the release of this song. But there’s also trepidation – the connotations of having a deeper respect and awe for a divine providence that I feel, at least intuitively, taking place. Trepidation, in the way that I think of it, as not being contradictory to that joy, but serving as the left wing, with joy being the right.
That’s a good segue into the song itself, which is very prayerful, but which I think a lot of people might experience as a sad song. What is this song about to you and why did you write it? I’m sure that’s a tough question.
Tough wouldn’t begin to describe it. I feel at a loss when having to just explain. I’m not much of a speaker or classical writer. When I’m writing lyrics, more than just free brush strokes, it parallels chiseling a sculpture. It’s trying to say a lot very simply, but it also ends up coming out in a little bit of a riddle, which is how I think it should be. I think me saying what it is in such a flat-out way would betray a little bit of that. Part of what I love in whatever arts I’m into is a bit of mystery. I think the greatest artist, God himself, leaves a lot to the imagination, leaves space for the human being to kind of have that toe-to-toe dance with the unknown. That’s something that I want to reflect in my music, which I notice in the world around me: there’s a very delicate balance of that which is revealed and that which is unrevealed.
In the chorus, you talk about being in shadow and sorrow. Was there a sense of being lost and downtrodden in your younger days before your awakening?
I wouldn’t say that this is actually about my youth prior to discovering my soul. Youth, in the template of this song, is when it starts. Youth is the moment of awakening. A person has to not just grow up physically; a person has to grow up spiritually. This song for me is not for somebody necessarily who is totally uninitiated. This is for somebody who’s maybe even very seasoned in spirituality.
What do you when you’ve totally awakened to the fact that there is a soul, a living part of God within, and yet, still go through these tough times? There’s still distress and sorrow and loneliness, almost like there’s a shadow I can’t shake, that’s hanging over my shoulder. God chastises those he loves. We learn that from King David. The struggles don’t really start until after you’ve awoken, I would say. This is just being very real about that – engaging that and trying to guide a person to experience these struggles as a more holistic movement of salvation. The chorus – “Wisdom come speak to me, don't let me be in the shadows / Wake up these tired eyes, raise me high from sorrow” – this is a prayer. This isn’t lacking consciousness of God; this is very much in dialogue with God, until the very end of the song, which is giving myself over. “I place this hammer in your hand, let me break, let me shatter, start again.” Let me break these residual idols that are blocking me, that are blocking my being a conduit for the divine will. “Tear down these walls, let the roof cave in.” It’s breaking these constructs, these living constructs.
“Restart, rebuild, relive.” That’s what it’s for. That’s what we believe. Why is it that God chastises the ones he loves? A person could mistakenly think that that’s saying basically God is kind of a sociopath. But it’s not that at all. God chastises the ones he loves because he doesn’t want you to keep running astray and being lost. It’s like the sides of the road, I guess you could say. It’s keeping you on, keeping you directed, leading you somewhere.
C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but “shouts” through our pain. He also has this passage describing the soul as a living house that God breaks down to rebuild into a palace for him to dwell in. Do you see a parallel there?
Sure. This is a concept very much rooted in the Torah. The idea of the Mishkan, and the tabernacle and the holy temples. It is very much we believe that a person is like a Mishkan, a temple, a microcosm. For us, God destroyed our temples, but we very strongly believe that destruction is for the sake of rebuilding something better and more lasting. The parallels and applications in our own life are just so profound. When we feel like we’re just being pummeled by life, and the pressure is just destroying and crushing me, it’s kind of a purifying process of breaking a lot of idols, and finding out a lot of constructs I’ve been building are really not truthful. At some point those walls have to come down so you can really build a true, lasting divine temple for God.
I like that you begin the song saying “my” youth, but the title refers to “our” youth. There really is a universal quality to what you’re expressing about the spiritual life. How do you see music in terms of potentially building bridges in a world that’s so focused on building walls? With people separating from each other based on their traditions, do you see music as playing a role in bringing people together?
Yeah, definitely. I think that so much of what’s really painful for me in seeing the world right now is how poor communication is between people. I think that there are a lot of walls between people. Music in a way is part of the solution and human remedy for this, because it’s not like the rest of the languages of man. It’s more of a soul language, and I think that’s more of what people need today. I think we need to talk less politics and more soul. Soul to soul. We’re human beings. Look me in the eye and really let down your guard, and allow us to be two souls in this wondrous body that God has given us, and this wondrous world. The world could easily be so good. But we have these walls, and that causes a lot of pain in this world, for ourselves and for others. And it doesn’t need to be that way. My hope for my music is it brings in a new dimension of communication – of seeking truth, not seeking sides.
You mention your father at one point in the lyrics, and in the video there’s the picture of a father and son. Was that an important aspect of the song to you?
There are multiple levels of reasons why in the lyrics I speak about my father. There’s different things that the father represents in this esoteric tradition of Torah. At the very least, universally, this is a voice of guidance that starts entering the picture at that point in the song after really praying for some sort of a sign. It’s almost like getting hit with this nostalgic memory. There’s a saying in Torah that the remedy comes before the illness, that the cure comes before the disease. So even in the middle of whatever pain and hardship or whatever a person’s going through, often times we can re-explore our past and find the great depth and wisdom that was already communicated to us. But it can speak to us anew when there’s a proper context for us to receive it. “Like my father used to say, good luck ain’t no mistake / Know you have destiny, don’t you hesitate.” It’s like how I view a good father. Just by looking in his eyes you should see a belief in yourself. For me, my father was that for me.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s easy to have faith in God, but hard to have faith in ourselves. Because God isn’t just separate and aloof. God is also permeating and indwelling within us. And it’s our soul. It’s not enough just to believe in God as being transcendent. God is right here, in the pain, in the struggles, in every step along the way. Accepting that there is a certain destiny, there is a divine forethought as an undercurrent in our lives, is in a certain way to agree to go along and really play our part and give it our all. “Don’t hesitate.” You know why you’re created. You know you’re here for a reason. So why are you hesitating?
To close, when we can look forward to a full-length album?
There’s going to be an album sometime this year, God willing. Can’t really give more than that, unfortunately. Stay tuned. I really want to give a lot of myself in this album, and I’m really looking forward to having the honor of doing so.
Thank you so much, Levi. It was such a great conversation. God bless you.
God bless you as well, brother. Peace and love.