Dan Nichols Promises a “Rockin” Sukkot

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi James Bennett finds it easy to remember one of the kids from back when he worked at Goldman Union Camp Institute in Indiana.

“I don’t know that we knew he’d be a rock star but we knew he’d be something special,” said Bennett, now senior rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth. “A lot of people who knew him back then said, ‘Yeah, it figures. He’s just a creative, unique person.'”

How unique?

“I’ve seen him emerge over the past quarter century as one of the finest and most talented musical voices anywhere,” Bennett said.

It’s high praise but with seven albums to his credit, Dan Nichols is working hard to earn it and thanks to Shaare Emeth and the rest of the Reform community, St. Louis will soon get to judge Nichols’ abilities for themselves. The 42-year-old and the other two members of his trio will give a free, hour-long outdoor concert at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at Olivette’s Stacy Park sponsored by St. Louis City and County’s six Reform congregations and Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy.

The event will mark the last leg of a 10-day Sukkot-themed tour of the Deep South set to begin today in Pensacola, Fla., playing dates in such cities as Birmingham, New Orleans, Little Rock and Memphis before finishing up on Oct. 21 back at Goldman Union Camp.

For Nichols, that’s where it all began.

“I’m a product of Jewish summer camping,” he said. “[Otherwise] I would not be making Jewish music and I’m not even sure I’d be a musician at all.”

As a youngster the Indianapolis native found building a Jewish identity difficult without many others of his faith with whom to connect. It was an experience that would come back to Nichols as an adult while he toured at another institution in Mississippi.

“It struck me that there were some similarities between the demographics of that camp and my own in Indiana,” he said. “Many of these kids are the only Jewish kids in their school. Some are the only Jewish kid in their town. I could relate to that.”

Thus, the idea for a musical tour of the South was born.

If Jewish day camp was the answer to a dilemma for Nichols, it was also the key to his future career. Though he’d grown up with parents for whom singing and playing the guitar were not unusual, his experience at camp brought out his feelings for music.

“The whole camp, 300 people, would sing together after every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said. “Then after dinner, you’d walk down the hill and pray together every day. I experienced that kind of culture and was brought up in that.”

Nichols went on to study voice in high school, become a vocal major in college and later became classically trained in opera.

His band, Eighteen, released its first album, “Life,” in 1996. By the late 1990s, Nichols was back at camp again, in a manner of speaking. The rocker was named artist-in-residence at 14 Reform day camps where he tours every summer. Since 2001, he’s also been the featured presenter at the Union of Reform Judaism’s biennial. In 2003, he started as music director for the National Federation of Temple Youth National Convention.

When school is in session, he roams the country leading musical services at congregations coast to coast.

His songs include both English and Hebrew and are frequently on Jewish topics.

“The subjects can come from excerpts of Torah and also aspects of worship and study that I struggle with, things that when I’m praying or studying text I find myself saying ‘I’m not really sure I understand what that means or why do we do that,'” he said. “I’ll engage with a rabbi or friend on whatever that topic is and very often that inspires a song.”

Nichols believes that the field of Judaic rock is growing. Other big names like St. Louisan Rick Recht are encouraging more Jews to pick up music as a way to express their faith.

“I started my group in 1996 when that genre really didn’t exist the way it exists now,” he said. “I’m thrilled that artists such as myself and Rick have been able to open doors for a number of other young-minded Jewish artists around North America who take a stab at finding their Jewish voice through modern Jewish music.”

Now, his “Road to Eden Tour” through the American South has even attracted the attention of a documentary maker who is chronicling the band for a film he is working on about Jews in the region. The cameras will be rolling in St. Louis as well.

Nichols said that the tour gives a chance for smaller Jewish communities to hear live performances of modern spiritual Jewish music.

“The tour happens over Sukkot for a reason,” he said. “This idea of wandering and searching, the Jews in the desert trying to find Torah and find their home are aspects of what we spend a lot of time thinking about and asking about when it comes to Sukkot.”

“Traveling every night to a different town in an RV playing shows seems like a natural fit,” he added.

Nichols called Bennett a mentor and longtime friend. Bennett returns the compliment saying he finds Nichols folk-influenced style of rock very inspirational.

“Everybody who experiences his music and his presence understands the work he does to bring Judaism and music to the community,” Bennett said. “Most of his music has Jewish themes and really gives us a sense of what it means to find joy in living as Jews.”

Bennett said he was happy to partner with other congregations to make the event happen and said anyone from the Jewish community was invited to attend.

“It was a perfect opportunity for us to all come together to conclude the holiday with a celebration,” he said. “We’re going to be outside in the park. It’s going to be a big family festival, people coming together to picnic and play and conclude the holiday with a concert.”

Dan Nichols and his band, Eighteen

What: Road to Eden Sukkot Tour

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20

Where: Stacy Park in Olivette

How much: Free

More info: Concert-goers are encouraged to bring picnics to enjoy before the show