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  • Max Bamberger

The Musical Migrations of “Adama veShamayim”

Molly Weiner, a Yale junior, wears a ring inscribed with a line of Hebrew text:


"אֲדָמָה וְשָׁמַיִם, חֹם הָאֵשׁ, צְלִיל הַמַּיִם. אֲנִי מַרְגִּישׁ זֹאת בְּגוּפִי, בְּרוּחִי, בְּנִשְׁמָתִי."

Earth and sky, heat of fire, sound of water. I feel it in my body, in my spirit, in my soul.


Molly and I both grew up in Jewish communities in the San Francisco Bay Area that placed great emphasis on both nature and spirituality. The words on Molly’s ring come from a song, “Adama veShamayim,” that is ubiquitous across Jewish Northern California; you might hear it sung at summer camp, on an urban farm, at a retreat center, or around a Shabbat table. The melody is soulful, energetic, and easy to learn. I remember singing the song with other Jewish youth, following each repetition of the Hebrew words with a melodic chant of “heya”s and “ho”s. As we sang, we felt connected to the earth, the trees, the fire, and one another through the web of Jewish spirituality that we spun through song.



In college, at one Shabbat evening singing session, I asked if the group was familiar with “Adama veShamayim.” The words were simple enough to teach in a minute or two, I thought, even though I couldn’t find them in any Slifka songbooks.


A friend gave me a funny look in response to the suggestion. “Isn’t it a little… avodah zara?” Strange service. Paganism.


I was confused. What paganism? That’s my Judaism!


I went to the internet for clarity. The first result for “Adama veShamayim” was an Israeli folk dance, choreographed to the song. The second result was an electronic dance music version of the song, performed in Uman, Ukraine by an Orthodox DJ named Matt Dub. The third result was a discussion topic posted by user @Yeshivishrockstar on TheYeshivaWorld.com:


“The hit song Adama Veshamayim is in fact a Wiccan [Pagan] Avoda Zara chant.”


Scrolling down, I saw that the post had prompted 90 replies from 19 different users, all arguing over the halachic status and theological essence of this song. I scanned the replies:


@balanceisthekey: “These words are not inherently a’z whatsoever, just very open and vague and dependent on the kavanah [spiritual intention] of the singer.”

@Shopping613: “The song was written by and for a wiccan cult to serve nature.”

@jackk: “The lyrics to adama vshomayim are not the original lyrics. Ergo, it is not assur [prohibited].”

@Yeshivishrockstar: “[T]hey are, merely translated into Hebrew and dropping the worst line.”

@balanceiskey: “[M]any neshamos [souls] genuinely connect to the Kevod Hashem [holiness of God] that fills kol ha’aretz [the whole land].”

@Yeshivishrockstar: “[A]ll the names for the life force, be it Chi, qigong, reiki, or prana, are all Avoda Zara, as they’re designed to worship the world itself over the creator.”

@TheMir: “The Yetser Hora [Evil Inclination] is dancing.”


Though I didn’t get my religious rulings from TheYeshivaWorld.com, I was fascinated by this exchange and by the questions that spring from it. Does translation change the essence of a piece of music? What influences from other spiritual traditions might be acceptable to integrate into Orthodox Jewish practice? To what extent does it make sense to label such a wide swath of spiritual philosophies and practices under the same category of “avodah zara”? And, what are the cultural and spiritual origins of the song “Adama veShamayim”?


The original post by @Yeshivishrockstar from April 8, 2019, said that the song “was originally recorded by someone named Tony Wrench for a group named PRANA (the name of a hindu idol).” I Googled the name Tony Wrench and found a website called ThatRoundhouse.info, linking not only to pages like “Materials you will need to build a Simple Roundhouse,” but also “Prana CD’s for Sale” and “Some Links and Contacts.” I found Tony Wrench’s email address and sent him a message.


I still had much to learn about this song. Going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, I copied down dozens of links to professional recordings, amateur YouTube videos, singalongs, bandcamp files, and songbooks from different groups—the internet seems to house infinite renditions of “Adama veShamayim.” Lyrics, translations, and instrumentations varied widely, but most versions came from either of two different strains of contemporary Jewish society: firstly, the spiritual movement known as Earth-based Judaism, or secondly, the musical scene best described as Orthodox EDM.


Earth-based Judaism cultivates Jewish spiritual relationships with the outdoors and the natural world. Summer camps, farms, and retreat programs are leading this movement; these organizations include Camp Eden Village in Putnam Valley, New York; Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah, both of Berkeley, California; Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite National Park in Northern California; and Adamah, which has campuses in both Maryland and Connecticut. Molly, who has the “Adama veShamayim” ring, first recalls singing and dancing to the song during her summers at Camp Tawonga.


Tawonga released a recording of “Adama veShamayim” on the camp’s 2015 album Home. This rendition begins with a violin and then a duet of singers before bringing in the guitar, drums, and group singing that are typical of summer camps and Earth-based Jewish spaces. In addition to the Hebrew and chanted “heya ho” verses, Tawonga’s version features a translated English verse: “Mother Earth under heaven, heat of fire, sound of water. I can feel it in my body, in my spirit, in my soul.”


Growing up, I attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue but also occasionally participated in programs by Urban Adamah or Wilderness Torah. In another version of “Adamah veShamayim,” a 2015 sing-along video from Wilderness Torah’s B’hootz program, an adult leads a group of children in call and response. The children repeat the Hebrew words and sing this variation of the English verse: “Love the earth, love the sky, heat of fire, drop of water. I can feel it in my body, in my spirit, in my soul” Instead of chanting “heya ho,” the children’s voices sing the more familiar syllables to traditional Ashkenazi Jewish singing, “yai dai dai.” The Jewish Standard, northern New Jersey’s Jewish newspaper, republished this video under the title “This Should be Sung at Every Jewish Summer Camp.”


“Adama veShamayim” thrives in summer camps and the Earth-based Jewish world off of its simplicity. Camp counselors and spiritual leaders can teach the words in a few minutes, regardless of a group’s proficiency in Hebrew. They can lead the song with just a guitar, or even totally a capella out in the wilderness. The Hebrew words describe experiencing the natural elements through spirituality and the sense, as is central to Earth-based Judaism.

But as I continued my research, I was surprised to discover that “Adama veShamayim” has become a must-play song at Orthodox weddings and other celebrations, and each rendition by an artist above has racked up hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of YouTube views.


These versions of “Adama veShamayim” weave original electronic artistry and personal style into the same Hebrew words and basic melody that I grew up singing in Berkeley. They don’t include any non-Hebrew lyrics—so, no “Mother Earth under heaven.” However, all of them do prominently feature the “heya heya ho”s; Elikam Buta, for example, ornaments his chanting section with abundant Mizrahi trills. Sharply departing from Bay Area egalitarianism, these pieces of Orthodox EDM are sung by men only, following the halakhic prohibition on women’s vocals. Moreover, a musician named Yehonatan Malka has released a version of “Adama veShamayim” in the same EDM style but with only vocal tracks (helped along by heavy autotune), so that the most observant Jews can get their dose of the song even during the periods of the Jewish calendar when they are forbidden from hearing instrumental music.


There was a time when “Adama veShamayim” was seen as, at worst, a joke to those who considered it foreign to the corpus of Jewish music. When I told one friend of mine that I was researching this song, she told me about her third-grade play at the Los Angeles Modern Orthodox elementary school she attended in the early 2010s. The production was Peter Pan: The Musical in Hebrew, and a group of students were taught “Adama veShamayim” for their scene as a tribe of stereotypical Native Americans. My friend had wondered if the song came from some native tribe of Israel. Later, she was surprised to learn the same song at Camp Ramah.


After following the shocking number of renditions of Adamah V’Shamayim and trying to understand why it is meaningful for so many different types of Jews, I finally received a response from Tony Wrench and delved into the true origins of the song.


Tony Wrench lives in a roundhouse that he built with his partner, Faith, 25 years ago near the west coast of Wales. Though retired, Wrench still does wood turning, sings in a choir, and plays music for circle dances. He confirms that in 1980, he wrote and composed “Tall Trees,” the song that would be adapted into “Adama Veshamayim,” and he recorded the piece with a musical group called Prana.


Wrench writes:

There were about twelve of us drumming and singing. Prana was a group formed from a One Year Seminar to learn and practice Rebirthing, founded by Leonard Orr from California. After the first year we enjoyed being and singing together so continued to sing chants and songs of a spiritual content, usually Native American, Indian or written by us. We recorded five cassettes in all, over ten years, and travelled to various venues and festivals encouraging public involvement in chanting.



Prana recorded “Tall Trees” in 1980 at Neuadd Trefawr, Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire in West Wales, a few weeks after Wrench wrote it. Wrench doesn’t see it as fitting into a particular genre—he says, “most of our songs were more simple chants with drums. It is my homage to the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, really.” The instruments included “about six hand drums, a tambourine, two acoustic guitars and twelve singers all in the same fairly small room.” Wrench co-produced the recording with Steve Moore, returning to the mobile studio the day after recording to mix it down and add synth.

After half a minute of instrumentals, the group sings, “Tall trees, warm fire, strong wind, deep water. I feel it in my body and feed it to the Source.” The singers repeat these lines again and again, with a few instrumental break. “ooh, ah”. Though the song includes no “heya heya ho”s, a rhythmic “ooh, ah” chant grows beneath the lyrics after a few repetions. Wrench recounts writing and then discarding more verses that described “other forces of nature and animal feelings of wings, claws etc.” Other songs on this Prana cassette, First Chants, have the titles “Long Wing Feathers,” “The River is Flowing,” and “I am a Circle.”


The idea of “Tall Trees” struck Wrench as he walked home on a small road one night, surrounded by tall trees “all sighing in the wind.” In a twist that might surprise Tawonga counselors, Orthodox DJs, and internet iconoclasts alike, the words were inspired by a moment in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. In his email, Wrench summarized the scene. “The hero, down and out SF writer Kilgore Trout, sees scrawled on the wall of a public lavatory ‘What is the Purpose of Life?’. He replies with a burnt matchstick, the only writing implement he can find, ‘To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you idiot.’”


For Wrench, the song represents this existential purpose—“reporting back on or transferring all we experience to Jehovah or Wakantanka.” Wrench notes that “[o]ther people have changed the last words to ‘and feel it in my soul’, but that’s not what I felt. I don’t think I have a soul separate from others. I still prefer ‘feed it to the Source.’”


As it happens, the very line that was mistranslated away in the Hebrew and which, for some, quells concerns that even the song’s Jewish iterations are necessarily idol worship, is the line that for Wrench makes the song’s worship of the creator unambiguous. It remains to be seen if this piece of knowledge would change any attitudes towards the song, whether towards acceptance or rejection.


As for his own awareness of the song’s reach, Wrench says, “I don’t know much about how far it has travelled. I was surprised to hear it sung to us by a shaman-type man visiting from South America.”


An Israeli named Shimon Lev Tahor first wrote the now ubiquitous Hebrew translation of the words for spiritual-but-not-religious Rainbow Gatherings and singing circles. The band Sagol, which sprung from an Israeli spiritual music festival, picked up these words and released their version of the song in 2005. The song is the first published version of the Hebrew song “Adama veShamayim”, and includes the familiar “heya heya heya ho” chant in addition to the Hebrew lyrics. Then, in 2008, an Israeli choreographer named Gadi Bitton won a folk dance competition with his choreography of a circle dance to Sagol’s “Adama veShamayim.” Dance groups around the world learned the choreography and, with it, the song. American Jewish summer camps and Orthodox EDM both picked the song up from Israel’s folk dancing and spiritual-but-not-religious contingents, from which point the rest is history.


When I asked Molly why she carries this song wrapped around her finger, she told me that the song represents interconnectedness “between elements of nature, body and spirit— but also between Jewish communities. I have danced to this song at hippie non-denominational Jewish summer camp, overheard it sung to secular Israeli preschoolers, and sung it at Orthodox and pluralistic Shabbat meals. In a lot of ways, it signifies a blurring of the sacred and the profane, and of the many overlaps and dualisms of my Jewish life.”

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