Performing music is in my genes. My father, Max, was in vaudeville. My mother, Millie, taught piano. But I could never have guessed the path on which my music would lead me.
I was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1940. My father’s father came from Kiev. He was a rabbi. But you can’t come to this country and just find a job as a rabbi. So he went into the real estate business with my uncle.
After vaudeville, my father went into the women’s hat business. Then my dad became part of a group that refurbished old hotels and reopened them. I remember my mother making gribbines [rendered chicken skin and chicken fat] and chopped liver. We ate schmaltz [rendered chicken fat] on rye bread. We had an Orthodox household when my grandfather was still alive. We had to separate our one refrigerator with a piece of cardboard, because we didn’t have room for a second refrigerator. It wasn’t kashrut, but it worked.
My grandfather passed away when I was nine years old, and we switched from an Orthodox to a Conservative synagogue. I remember standing in the huge sanctuary for my bar mitzvah. But after that, I walked away from God.
That wasn’t so hard, because God wasn’t real to me. The concept of God wasn’t as important as my Jewish identity. I went to a great artsy high school, James Madison. Carole King was my high school buddy. I had my own band there. But I was proud to be a Jew, because that separated me from other people.
My music education started early. When I was six, my mom took me to an interactive concert at the Academy of Music in downtown Brooklyn. She turned to me and said, “Would you like to learn how to play piano?” So I said, “Yeah, sure!” My mom was a piano teacher, but she couldn’t handle me, because I was not focused. But I wanted to learn the instrument.
Dorothy and Sydney Morrow had a wonderful piano studio in Brooklyn, with lots of students. We played concerts in Town Hall and Fisher Hall. I did a concert at Carnegie Hall with the All City Orchestra when I was thirteen or fourteen. I kept at it through high school. I attended Julliard also, so I had private lessons plus Julliard.
After high school I went to the City College of New York and earned a degree in business. I had a job after school at Lerner Stores. I was also a member of the musicians’ union, and at night and on weekends I’d be playing jobs. I was a very busy guy!
After college, I worked as a buyer in home furnishings at Gimbel’s in Manhattan. Then I got an offer to go on the road with a singing group called the Goofers. I went with them for about a year and a half. Then some people in Terre Haute, Indiana, needed a piano player. I had been writing music since I was sixteen, so I started performing my music at a Holiday Inn in Terre Haute. While there, a guy came up to me and said he wanted to take me to Nashville and put together a record. So in 1973 we drove to Nashville and met with a record company about the album. But in the meantime, I had to eat. So I started playing piano in some places in Nashville, and it was paying me good money.
I hooked up with country singer Ronnie Dove’s band as his band leader. We toured, and at one point we wound up at the airport lounge in Atlanta. I met a young girl named Claudia who worked for United Airlines. She would get these ridiculously cheap airplane tickets to the places we were playing, and she and her girlfriends followed us around. I guess they were like groupies. Well, Claudia became my permanent groupie. We got married in 1975 and we had a child, Stephanie, in 1977.
But in 1980, something terrible happened. Claudia was killed in a car accident when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. And I just went to pieces. I started seeking a house of worship, because I was so broken up. I found a Conservative congregation in Georgia, and I met some people there who became good friends and consoled me.
At that time I was selling furniture at Macy’s in Marietta. A couple came through, who I didn’t know, but they started telling me about a woman they knew named Sheila. Sheila had gone through a divorce, and this couple told her that they would be responsible for her meeting her next husband.
So I sold them a sofa bed, but they sold me on a girl. I took Sheila’s phone number, and we were on the phone for two hours. We went on a blind date and had a great time. And I really pursued it. I was a salesman. If you don’t make the sale within fifteen minutes, they’re out the door. So we had a walk in the park one day, and I said, “Would you ever think about the two of us spending the rest of our lives together?” She looked at me and said, “No.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I love somebody more than I would ever love you.” I said, “Who is he? What’s his name?” So she told me it was Jesus. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m Jewish. You’re a Christian. I understand that you believe in Jesus, but we don’t believe in Jesus. You have your God, Jesus, we have our own God.”
We parted company for a while. But Sheila had told me about Beth Hallel, a Messianic congregation in Roswell, Georgia, where Jewish and gentile believers in Jesus meet together in a Jewish style of worship on Friday nights. On a Wednesday, about four in the morning, I was awakened and I thought somebody was in my bedroom. He called me by name and said, “Come to me.” I leaned over and got my gun out of my bedside table. I turned the lights on, looked around, but didn’t see anybody and went back to sleep. The next night, the same thing happened. “Philip, come to me,” the voice said, this time more adamantly. I called Sheila and told her, “Listen, tomorrow is the service at Beth Hallel. Let’s go.” So on May 1, 1987, I picked her up at her house, but I was so nervous that we didn’t speak. Sheila did say one thing: “In case you decide to bolt, sit in the back.”
So we came to the temple, and I saw the mezuzah, and I touched it to my lips, because that’s what I used to do when I was a kid. We saw people with tzitzit and yarmulkes and prayer shawls, and they’re saying hello and welcoming me. And I heard a band in the background—I had never heard that before in a temple. We sat down in the back. I opened up the Siddur and started reading from the right-hand side, the Hebrew. It started coming back to me. It was like I fell off a bike when I was thirteen, and now I’m on the bike again.
The sermon was about Naaman, a foreigner with leprosy who the prophet Elisha told to wash in the Jordan River. At first Naaman was too proud to do that, but then he went into the river and was healed of his leprosy. Right at that time, I heard that same voice that I had heard in the bedroom. He said, “You have spiritual leprosy, and you must be washed in the blood of my Son to be healed.”
Then the rabbi asked if anyone wanted to come forward and accept Jesus (who they called Y’shua) into their heart. Four other Jewish guys and myself stood up and all went towards the rabbi and almost toppled him over.
So Sheila asked the rabbi, “What do I do now? I think he just said he would come to the Lord so I would date him.” The rabbi replied, “Now you’ve got to look for the fruit. If his actions change, then it’s real.”
I was working at Macy’s, and there was a co-worker, every other word was a four-letter word. Before I didn’t mind, but now I couldn’t stomach it. I said to Sheila, “This guy keeps cursing.” She said, “How long have you been working there?” I said, “A couple of years.” She said, “When did you first notice his cursing?” I said, “Yesterday. When I first came back.” And when I told Sheila that, she realized something had changed inside of me. She knew there was fruit.
Sheila and I were married on November 28, 1987. Sheila brought her children, David and Coleen, into the marriage, and I brought Stephanie. We blended together beautifully and Sheila and I have enjoyed a wonderful life together. Stephanie and her husband have three young girls, and I love being a grandfather.
After coming to believe in Jesus, my music took a new direction. I began to play Messianic music, worship music with a Jewish flavor directed to Y’shua. In 1991 I joined a band called Nagila and wrote six songs for an album called Valley of Vision. I was with Nagila until 1997. Then I started writing new, more personal music and put out an album called Hineni. I followed that with In Awe of You, more of a concert album. God has kept giving me more songs, and my latest effort is called Newheart.
At seventy, I’m an old man with a young heart. I do concerts regularly and I’m constantly experimenting with new forms of music, even hip-hop! I guess once a Jew comes to believe in Jesus, anything is possible!
You can listen to Phillip’s music at www.yeshuasongs.com.