Born in Houston, singer-songwriter and professional musician and music producer Joe Buchanan searched for a spiritual home for years in the only faith he knew: Christianity.
“It was a serious struggle with religion all through my youth,” said Buchanan, 42. “I really grew up with this idea that I was this completely broken and ruined thing unless I accepted Jesus, and then everything would be better. But I wasn’t cool with that, and that didn’t seem like a loving G-d to me.”
As he continued his spiritual journey as an adult, his wife, April Buchanan, joined him at churches.
“She started going with me to churches, but she wouldn’t sing any of the prayers. She wouldn’t do anything. She would just sit there with me. And she never told me why.”
Thirteen years after they married, the two visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
She told him, “’I think I want to get in touch with my people’s faith,’” Buchanan recalled. “Like, who is that? Like nobody says that. That’s a weird thing. I was like, what are you talking about? How’d you get Jewish? When did that happen?”
She said she was born Jewish.
“I said, I don’t think that’s a thing,” he recalled. “And she’s like, trust me, it’s a thing.”
Buchanan said he knew that April’s Brooklyn-born mother, Sharon Goldman, was Jewish, but he did not realize that meant that she was as well.
“She never talked about it,” he said. “There was no observance. The only thing that she did was she didn’t take any other religious practice.”
Buchanan said he never met a Jewish person in his childhood.
“I never heard anyone say anything bad about the Jewish people,” he said. “It was just never part of the conversation. So, I knew nothing.”
After April’s revelation, the family walked into a small Conservative synagogue on Houston’s south side, Congregation Shaar Hashalom.
They were greeted by Rabbi Stuart Federow. Buchanan said he introduced himself.
“’This is my wife, April, my son Nathan,’” he said he told the rabbi. “’They’re Jewish. I’m not, but none of us know what that means.’”
“He said, ‘Do you want me to distill Judaism for you?’” Buchanan recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, that’d be great,’ not realizing what I was asking, right? And he said, ‘OK, here it is: There is one G-d. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re loved by G-d exactly as you are. You don’t have to do anything to be loved by G-d. We do good because it brings more good in the world. That’s the reward, and that’s the only reward we should shoot for. We do good because it’s good.’ And he said, ‘You know whatever happens after this life happens after this life. This is the life that matters. This is the gift, and you’re living it right now.’”
Buchanan said the rabbi’s words were reminiscent of the way his grandfather spoke of G-d.
“I was blown away,” he said. “It was like 30 years of therapy all at once.”
The following Wednesday, the whole family began meeting with Federow. Nathan, 12 at the time, simultaneously began preparing for bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaar Hashalom and led services and read Torah to mark the rite of passage at the age of 13. Still active at Sam Houston State University in Hunstville, Texas, he is a go-to person on campus when groups are interested in Jewish perspectives, Joe Buchanan said.
While he played and wrote music in his youth, about five years into his marriage, Buchanan gave up.
“I hadn’t written music in the longest time because I had a lot of self-confidence issues,” Buchanan said. “After discovering Judaism and those really simple truths in Judaism, I just wanted to go beat the drum for it as hard as I could. I felt like there was so much to say and so many people that I knew who were hurting and struggling and dealing with guilt and issues with their spirituality.”
Buchanan’s first album, “Unbroken,” was released in 2015. He describes the sound on that album as Americana style country. His second, “Back From Babylon,” is set for release in October.
“We’re going all the way to the bar,” he said, adding that he brought in pedal steel players for a full country sound.
He is in the process of recording a third album, which is untitled but will be “acoustic country duets for Shabbat, very unplugged.”
Buchanan echoes the words of the Talmud’s Pirkei Avot, as he speaks.
“The more you study, the more you find,” he said. “The more beauty there is, and the more it connects … your life and the world around you. The more you see a road map with how much more you can do.”
So how does a Jew in Houston observe kashrut? Buchanan said he immediately abstained from eating forbidden foods under Jewish dietary laws when he decided to convert.
“To this day we still don’t eat pork and shellfish,” he said. “I don’t necessarily buy kosher beef or chicken. It’s too expensive for me and it’s too far away.”
Now, a full-time professional musician, Buchanan’s weekends are spent on the road at synagogues around the country. In coming weeks, he’s heading to San Mateo, Calif., then to Akron, where he has a full weekend of concerts and services, and the following weekend to Las Vegas.
During the week, he spends time working on the business and music side of his profession as a full-time musician. His songs are melodic when acoustic, featuring themes prominent in Jewish prayer and incorporating key Hebrew phrases sprinkled in. Buchanan describes his music as Jewish Country. His compositions rock when arranged for larger groupings.
“I’ve usually either got a guitar in my hand, a microphone or a camera,” he said.
He has a weekly radio show on Jewish Rock Radio, a streaming radio station based in St. Louis. He hosts “The Emerging Artist Showcase.”
How often does he get to his own synagogue?
“I’m on the road so much,” he said. “Every once in a while, I’ll pop in. … I always bring my guitar.”