Daniel Cainer's Weird and Wonderful Kosher Midlife Crisis

Daniel came out of the not-all-that-Kosher closet with grandparents who'd relocated in Israel and a surprisingly strong, formerly repressed, burgeoning recognition of himself as a Jewish man - albeit an unconventional one.
11/06/2014 07:42 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

At the age of 40-something, Daniel Cainer was a citizen of the world who had just finalized an amicable divorce from his non-Jewish wife after two children and 20 years of marriage. Daniel's occupation? After a checkered career in TV and radio, he was composing weekly short topical songs with sprightly original tunes and clever lyrics for the BBC. "Never did parodies. Always thought that was a bit lazy, but it really killed me to produce a song a week under deadline pressures." His sexual orientation? He was a heterosexual serial monogamist waiting to meet his next partner. His spiritual affiliation? Non-existent, even though he'd grown up in a religiously observant household.

Daniel resolved his multifaceted midlife self-discovery through a perversely Jewish act. He consigned the care of his psyche to the only Non-Jewish therapist in North London, who surprisingly convinced him to examine his Jewish roots, assuring him, "You can't know who you are without knowing who you were." Daniel delved into family verbal histories, learning about forebears who, four generations earlier, had braved land and sea to journey to the UK from Russia and Poland, and, despite not speaking a word of English, had established new and productive lives for themselves and their offspring in Leeds, Manchester and Yorkshire.

Daniel came out of the not-all-that-Kosher closet with grandparents who'd relocated in Israel and a surprisingly strong, formerly repressed, burgeoning recognition of himself as a Jewish man - albeit an unconventional one. He discovered relatives who were flawed in a fashion that he found worth writing and singing about. His Jew-reka moment gradually evolved into The Jewish Chronicles, a song cycle which I can only describe as a Jewish version of Old English Ballads. Like Barbara Allen and Matty Groves, Cainer's Jewish Chronicles include tales of lust, dissolution and double-dealing but with a hilarious twist. A handsome rabbi with a predilection for drugs and hookers. The finagling business half of a tailoring partnership who establishes a flourishing retail empire through his theft of his artistic partner's brilliant idea. A sexual liaison in a suburban laundromat. A Jewess who joins a 1950s Christian cult.

Cainer's rich tapestry of family legend and musical folklore makes you both laugh and cry in a heartbeat. "I didn't choose to write the stuff. It somehow wrote itself through a strange sort of guidance from the Almighty, but it certainly wasn't my career plan." He debuted the songs "for a fairly right-of-center Jewish organization and was very nervous about it too, but the show went down reasonably well. One woman told me to take the double-crossing out of the song about the tailors because it made Jews look bad. As though a Jew behaving imperfectly was responsible for discrimination."

Hardly an amateur songwriter or newcomer wit, Daniel has composed music for documentaries and dramas for all major UK networks, has produced and played with top artists at major studios including Abbey Road. His melodies have launched a thousand cars (only one actually) and quite a number of white goods. And he won plaudits as "a master songwriter," was even declared a "genius" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for songs which "are at times heartbreakingly poignant, at other times laugh out loud funny. Always utterly charming, thoroughly recommended."

He was even invited to perform at an arts festival in Recklinghausen, Germany where he didn't mention the war during his performances. "It's the elephant in the room and we all know it's there. The curious thing is that I'm banging on about my grandparents while they are dissociating themselves from their grandparents altogether. You can't have it both ways. You have to find a way to live with it."

Several people thanked me for not making them feel guilty and also for introducing them to Jewish culture because no Jews lived there. They didn't know what Jews were like, only what the Nazis had done to them. I taught them that Jews are like everybody else. My visit was educational in that respect. They were singing Oy Vey and Oy Gevalt along with me and there was something remarkably healing about that.

And best of all, he survived the gig, despite being stopped by the Polizei as he was leaving town - fortunately only to autograph the cop's copy of Daniel's CD. Need further proof that this show appeals to Gentiles. Singer/Songwriter Christine Lavin has seen his show three times and plans to catch it again before he leaves town, as do I.

So what's next? He's at the Huron Club in the Soho Playhouse until November 16th, then has a private event in Florida before moving on to the Santa Monica Playhouse where he'll be performing from December 11th to December 21st. And Volume Two of The Jewish Chronicles is almost ready to be shipped. Volume One is currently available at www.danielcainer.com