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Posts Tagged ‘West Coast’

On the West Coast, Coping with Israel Detractors

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Visit http://israelcampusbeat.org for the latest Israel trends and events on campus.

As they look back at the recently completed academic year, many campus Israel activists can point to examples of apartheid walls and walkouts, but these instances do little to ruffle their optimism. As they look ahead to the upcoming academic year, they focus on improving the campus Israel environment and building a stronger community commitment to peace and coexistence.

While most pro-Israel students have encountered some degree of tense or uncomfortable opposition on their campuses, they do not let these obstacles deter them from their goal of improving the campus Israel environment.

Portland State University student Josh Aherns and others affiliated with Christians United for Israel (CUFI) waged an uphill battle in response to an anti-Israel message advanced by rap group DAM at a local Portland public high school early in the school year. DAM’s performance at the school was promoted by an Arabic studies professor and the school principal. In May, CUFI hosted an event that drew more protesters than people who actually were interested in the program.

“A good portion of our audience was people who did not agree with our message and showed up to demonstrate against us,” Aherns acknowledged.

The message they were protesting was hardly radical: The organizers sought to encourage open dialogue.

“While they didn’t stay for the whole lecture, we were able to explain to them that we weren’t what DAM was saying about us,” Aherns said, adding that the walkout did not signify a total failure “While the group walked out, some individuals stayed for the entire event and accepted our invitation to dialogue.”

The experience in Oregon is replicated elsewhere around the country on a regular basis. Faced with walkouts, protests at events and blatant anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric, campus Israel leaders work towards a more peaceful, brighter future as they plan for the next academic year.

UCLA sophomore Avinoam Baral envisions an exciting future for Bruins for Israel (BFI), which he said hopes to enhance its campus presence next year.

The group hopes to facilitate more positive and reciprocal conversation between pro-Israel students and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members. With little cooperation from UCLA’s SJP chapter, BFI members anticipate that they will enjoy success by maintaining the relationships that were built throughout the last academic year and cultivating new ones.

Focusing on the positive isn’t always easy, especially in light of some major tensions that BFI encountered on campus during the spring quarter. Baral pointed to one example, in which SJP members led a walkout that disrupted a BFI event.

“The walkout was a very unfortunate move, ” he said.” It could have been managed better [by both sides].”

Like many other Israel activists on campuses across the country who face similar challenges, Baral and Ahrens were not deterred by the obstacles they encountered last year. Rather, these occurrences inspired them to redouble their efforts in the year ahead. Baral said that BFI hopes to capitalize on the students they already have interested or seeking more information on pro-Israel activism by keeping up enthusiasm and education “to build a pro-Israel community that is not only a large community with a lot of members but is educated, well informed and can effectively advocate and support Israel.”

Aherns and other CUFI on Campus members at Portland State hope to build a more open and respectful environment in spite of the hostility they have encountered on campus.

“It was stressful, but very encouraging to students who had felt too intimidated to speak up for Israel on campus,” Aherns said in reference to last year’s events. “We strengthened our relationships and resolve, and were able to demonstrate to the community and students who weren’t sure what to think about Israel and CUFI that our group was able to be respectful and positive, even in a hostile environment.”

OU West Coast Convention

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil at the West Coast launching of the OU Press’s Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur at the recent OU convention in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University answering a question by Jewish Press West Coast Editor Jeanne Litvin at the recent OU convention in Los Angeles.

 

 

Manischewitz Promises A Passover With Tam Tams

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – They’re baaack. Duly chastened by the Great Tam Tam Crisis of spring ’08, the Manischewitz Company went into overdrive and will have plenty of the crunchy six-sided unleavened crackers available this Passover season.

    “Absolutely,” declared the company’s former CEO Bruce Bossidy last November.

Bossidy joined the country’s first and still largest matzah-making concern in January 2008 and spent much of the year bringing in new management and getting the new matzah production line up and running at the company’s year-old, $15 million facility in Newark, N.J.

But the clock ran down and early last year, Bossidy was forced to cancel Tam Tams for the first time in 68 years.

The outcry was immediate; Jewish consumers coast to coast mourned the absence of the beloved cracker. Stories ran not only in the Jewish media but The New York Times and New York Daily News, and on NPR. The blogosphere exploded with anger. A black market sprang up, with one Michigan rabbi offering three boxes of the previous year’s crackers on eBay; bidding started at $10.

This April, however, there will be more than enough to go around. All flavors of Passover Tam Tam crackers will be available except for Tiny Tams, which were not made because of complications with the die cut used to create them. Bossidy also promised a sufficient amount of Passover matzah; last year saw shortages of the unleavened holiday bread in the Northeast and along the West Coast during the eight-day holiday.

While Manischewitz makes an array of kosher products, it was founded in 1888 as the country’s first commercial matzah bakery and matzah remains central to its mission.

Like most kosher food manufacturers, Manischewitz’s busiest season is Passover. Fifty percent of its business involves kosher-for-Passover food, particularly matzah, which is an extremely labor-intensive product.

As one of two sacramental foods required at the seder table, along with wine, production is carefully controlled to ensure that water only comes into contact with the flour for less than 18 minutes. Longer than that and, according to rabbinic authorities, leavening begins.

In industrial production, a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, must watch the flour from the time the wheat is milled until water is introduced to the flour during the mixing process. At that point the dough is given even closer supervision to make sure it is completely baked in less than 18 minutes.

Manischewitz begins making Passover matzah immediately after Labor Day and its manufacture continued until late February. During the five-month season, up to 20 mashgichim work on the product. This year for the first time the factory is using only kosher-for-Passover flour year-round, even for its daily matzah. Although the flour is more expensive to produce, it costs the company much less than shutting down the entire plant for four or five weeks every summer for re-kashering. Now the annual kashering takes about a week.

During the height of the Passover production season, one or two truckloads of flour arrive at the Manischewitz plant every day, about 500,000 pounds a week.

Nearly 76 million sheets of matzah are produced each year, enough to circle the globe if one wanted to waste perfectly good matzah in such a foolhardy way.  (JTA)

The Hardest Three Words to Say

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

You and your spouse are driving along the highway. You begin to strongly suspect that you have missed your exit. The thought keeps nagging at you, and as more time elapses and the terrain is looking less and less familiar, the more certain you become. Yet as you begin to vociferously demand that your husband turn off the next exit, he stubbornly insists that you are headed in the right direction.

Fifteen minutes have passed. By now you both realize that you are driving on the wrong route. Yet instead of changing paths, your spouse is still hoping beyond hope that this will somehow bring you to your intended destination.

Why is he being so obstinate? Because turning around is admitting that he has made a mistake – and that’s probably the hardest thing for any human being to do.

We all have that highway scenario played out in our lives. We understand that we’re heading down the wrong path and we realize that the longer we continue, the more lost we will become. And yet we obstinately cling to our mistaken ways.

Why? Because it is so incredibly hard to admit that we’ve make a mistake.

You’ve had a disagreement with your spouse, child or coworker. It escalated to the point of ugly comments and incriminating remarks.

You know you were wrong. You know you crossed some red lines. You realize that you should never have brought his mother into the conversation, or that hapless remark he once said (and apologized for dozens of times) more than 10 years ago.

And yet you couldn’t stop yourself. As soon as you began your slippery slide into that nasty terrain of discord, there was no way to prevent plunging full force.

Now the heated moment is behind you. You know you ought to make amends, but every time it occurs to you to apologize, every fiber of your being rebels as your mind begins a full-scale line of defense. You may have been wrong, but he did say/do/act so inconsiderately. Thus, he should be apologizing!

Why remain in a bitter tug of war that is straining your relationship and distancing you further, when an apology could easily make things right? Because the hardest words to utter are, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

 

Let me share a small incident. When I was traveling recently to the West Coast, a friend asked me to take a very important package to her son who was studying there. I readily agreed, packed it into my suitcase, took it along with me – and proceeded to forget all about it, schlepping it right back home with me. Only when I finally unpacked my suitcase upon my return did my heart drop, as I realized my error.

What to do now?

1.  My first reaction: ignore the whole mess-up and avoid the unpleasant ramifications. But her son really did need this package. It was bound to come to the fore, and wouldn’t she be even more upset that I didn’t inform her immediately?

2. Call her and defend myself, effectively freeing me of any guilt. Explain it this way: “Hey, it was nice enough of me to agree to schlep it in the first place.” Find some way of blaming her for not anticipating this by having her son call to remind me about the package.

3. Own up to my mistake and sincerely apologize for it.

The incident was minor enough with small enough at stake that I was able to take the latter path − and truly admit to how idiotic and silly I felt for being so absent-minded. The conversation could have taken a very different turn, but instead the more I carried on about how utterly sorry I felt, the more she reassured me, “You’re only human! Please stop blaming yourself.”

But it did teach me that the more we go against our initial and natural resistance, admit to our wrong and sincerely apologize for it, the softer and more appeasing our friends, spouses, children and coworkers become. On the other hand, the more defensive or blaming we become, the more the situation spirals out of control into a full-blown war.

With minor mistakes, it is easy enough for us to own up to our wrongs. The challenge, however, takes place when it happens in more sensitive areas or in more meaningful relationships – especially when there may be traces of emotional baggage and prior feelings of hurt, resentment, or anger.

I am sorry. Three short words. Three powerful words. Three words that can prevent us from plunging deeper down the wrong path. Will we allow our egos to get in the way of steering us toward this harder, but far more rewarding, path?

Chana Weisberg is the author of several books, including Divine Whispers – Stories that Speak to the Heart and Soul and Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman. Watch Chana Weisberg’s two-minute videocast on www.chabad.org/intouchfor your dose of weekly inspiration. She is an international inspirational lecturer on a wide array of topics and an editor at chabad.org. She can be reached at chanaw@gmail.com.

The Hardest Three Words to Say

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

You and your spouse are driving along the highway. You begin to strongly suspect that you have missed your exit. The thought keeps nagging at you, and as more time elapses and the terrain is looking less and less familiar, the more certain you become. Yet as you begin to vociferously demand that your husband turn off the next exit, he stubbornly insists that you are headed in the right direction.


Fifteen minutes have passed. By now you both realize that you are driving on the wrong route. Yet instead of changing paths, your spouse is still hoping beyond hope that this will somehow bring you to your intended destination.


Why is he being so obstinate? Because turning around is admitting that he has made a mistake – and that’s probably the hardest thing for any human being to do.


We all have that highway scenario played out in our lives. We understand that we’re heading down the wrong path and we realize that the longer we continue, the more lost we will become. And yet we obstinately cling to our mistaken ways.


Why? Because it is so incredibly hard to admit that we’ve make a mistake.


You’ve had a disagreement with your spouse, child or coworker. It escalated to the point of ugly comments and incriminating remarks.


You know you were wrong. You know you crossed some red lines. You realize that you should never have brought his mother into the conversation, or that hapless remark he once said (and apologized for dozens of times) more than 10 years ago.


And yet you couldn’t stop yourself. As soon as you began your slippery slide into that nasty terrain of discord, there was no way to prevent plunging full force.


Now the heated moment is behind you. You know you ought to make amends, but every time it occurs to you to apologize, every fiber of your being rebels as your mind begins a full-scale line of defense. You may have been wrong, but he did say/do/act so inconsiderately. Thus, he should be apologizing!


Why remain in a bitter tug of war that is straining your relationship and distancing you further, when an apology could easily make things right? Because the hardest words to utter are, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

 

Let me share a small incident. When I was traveling recently to the West Coast, a friend asked me to take a very important package to her son who was studying there. I readily agreed, packed it into my suitcase, took it along with me – and proceeded to forget all about it, schlepping it right back home with me. Only when I finally unpacked my suitcase upon my return did my heart drop, as I realized my error.


What to do now?


1.  My first reaction: ignore the whole mess-up and avoid the unpleasant ramifications. But her son really did need this package. It was bound to come to the fore, and wouldn’t she be even more upset that I didn’t inform her immediately?


2. Call her and defend myself, effectively freeing me of any guilt. Explain it this way: “Hey, it was nice enough of me to agree to schlep it in the first place.” Find some way of blaming her for not anticipating this by having her son call to remind me about the package.


3. Own up to my mistake and sincerely apologize for it.


The incident was minor enough with small enough at stake that I was able to take the latter path − and truly admit to how idiotic and silly I felt for being so absent-minded. The conversation could have taken a very different turn, but instead the more I carried on about how utterly sorry I felt, the more she reassured me, “You’re only human! Please stop blaming yourself.”


But it did teach me that the more we go against our initial and natural resistance, admit to our wrong and sincerely apologize for it, the softer and more appeasing our friends, spouses, children and coworkers become. On the other hand, the more defensive or blaming we become, the more the situation spirals out of control into a full-blown war.


With minor mistakes, it is easy enough for us to own up to our wrongs. The challenge, however, takes place when it happens in more sensitive areas or in more meaningful relationships – especially when there may be traces of emotional baggage and prior feelings of hurt, resentment, or anger.


I am sorry. Three short words. Three powerful words. Three words that can prevent us from plunging deeper down the wrong path. Will we allow our egos to get in the way of steering us toward this harder, but far more rewarding, path?


Chana Weisberg is the author of several books, including Divine Whispers – Stories that Speak to the Heart and Soul and Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman. Watch Chana Weisberg’s two-minute videocast on www.chabad.org/intouchfor your dose of weekly inspiration. She is an international inspirational lecturer on a wide array of topics and an editor at chabad.org. She can be reached at chanaw@gmail.com.

Jewish Enough In LA?

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

The L.A. Story


Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum


One West 4th Street, New York, NY 10012;


212 824 2205


Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.


Free Admission (Photo ID required)


 


 


         The L.A Story, a selection of works from 10 contemporary Los Angeles Jewish artists currently at the Hebrew Union College – Institute of Religion Museum, poses the question of what exactly constitutes Jewish Art and what is its condition today on the West Coast. As part of its answer, provided in essays by the curator Laura Kruger and art historian Matthew Baigell, it proposes that the Jewish art presented here has some unique qualities as result of where it was produced, i.e. Los Angeles.

 

         Kruger and Baigell maintain that a commitment to Jewish values and issues, including a Jewish historical sensitivity, along with a consciousness shaped by California’s physical environment, are especially evident in these diverse works of art. These issues are rightly at the vortex of an emerging consciousness in the Jewish community about the legitimacy, necessity and reality of Jewish Art.

 

 



 


Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit, 2007, Digital photograph by Bill Aron


 

 

         The impetus behind this exhibition is the Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California, an artist-run advocacy group of 24 artists fostering visual art by Jewish artists, founded by Ruth Weisberg in 2003. Of those artists, approximately ten have overt Jewish content based on the works found on the group’s website. To be fair, the JAI never said it promoted Jewish Art, only Jewish artists. Nonetheless, one can discern some themes of Jewish Art from those artists that use identifiably Jewish subjects.

 

         Some motifs include Jewish history such as Ruth Weisberg’s work on Israel-bound refugees on board the ill-fated Altalena and Joyce Dallal’s crumpled UN resolutions; Jewish communal life as seen in much of Bill Aron’s work, specifically here in a photographic foray into the successful lives of Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust as explored by Ruth Snyder and Terry Braunstein’s riveting book, “Shot on the Spot”; synagogue and ritual art produced by Laurie Gross; kabbalah/ women considered by Gilah Hirsch; Pat Berger’s Women and their Biblical Environment series; and Jewish identity parsed by Tony Berlant and especially Eugene Yelchin’s Section 5 meditation on Jewish identity in Soviet Russia.

 

         The majority of the other artists in JAI are concerned with such diverse subjects as nature, spirituality, technology, space, Greek myths, personal discovery and enlightenment – all noble pursuits but hardly unique to Jews.

 

         What is notably missing, with one or two exceptions, in this particular selection of artworks is the vast universe of Jewish texts, culture and history from antiquity to 1948. It is astonishing that among the hundreds of narratives found in the Hebrew Bible, Midrashim and Talmud, and the sweep of 2000 years of Jewish history across the globe, only the last 50 years and its cultural preoccupations of identity and gender are fair game to create art with. It is as if the Jewish people have no worthwhile history, culture or memorable texts. Of course, there is merit in focusing on the contemporary world and therefore there are works here of considerable interest, two of which I found particularly compelling.

 

         Many of the underlying themes of the exhibition are found in Tony Berlant’s The Jew in the Desert (1981-85). This monumental work (7′ X 11.75′) is laboriously fashioned of printed tin in a collage attached by hundreds of small brads that secure it to its wood panel support. The haunting image that is formed is of one lone figure standing, facing left, in a vast and barren landscape that is littered with abstract constructions; some floating, some anchored to the ground and others merging with the sky. As the artist’s catalogue essay by Kimberly Davis says of his work; “more mindscape than landscape.”

 

 



Jew in the Desert [detail] (1981-85), Printed metal collage; 84′ X 141″ by Tony Berlant


Collection of Peter Gould


 

         This Jew in the desert casts a long shadow behind him three quarters of the way across the panel. His oversize head is crowned with an archaic naval commander’s hat and he is dressed in a black formal jacket, slacks and boots. While he seems rooted to the place in which he has come to rest, he is likewise profoundly lost, a commander without a ship who finds himself paradoxically in the desert. The sky above him is dense with theoretical activity and structure as a few ovoids suggest luminaries. Along the horizon, just behind our lost man, is a painted wooden panel set into the collage surface depicting a picturesque desert landscape, punctuated by blue mountains in the distance under a sunset-tinged sky. It is very much the romantic image of the desert in stark contrast with the cacophonous reality the Jew finds himself in before us.

 

         Berlant’s floating abstract structures summon much contemporary LA architecture, effectively echoing the work of Frank Gehry. While the landscape emerges as a kind of hodgepodge and is ultimately unintelligible to the Jew of tradition, found here, it has still trapped and immobilized him. Is this the fate of the Jews of Los Angeles?

 

         Reading right to left, like Hebrew, the Jew’s past behind him is a singularly dense set of ten or more rectangles; white, yellow, orange, red and turquoise that are animated by vertical squiggles, virtual notations that march in a strange musical order. One could read the entire piece as a metaphor of the modern Jew’s exodus from the East into California, across the desert from the European shtetl and like the Exodus from Egypt, the idolatrous past that still beckons, structures that hint at the tabernacle that traveled with him, the confusion of his new found freedom and finally the realization that he can go no further, he is at the edge of the continent and there is no promised land to redeem him. Bleak though it is, Berlant’s work here utilizes biblical references, California landscape and the specter of a cultural desert to comment on a precarious contemporary Jewish identity.

 

         Pat Berger’s Deborah (1991) similarly works to explore our assumptions about Jewish identity. Her figure of the prophetess is depicted as a particularly contemporary woman, perhaps a portrait of one of the artist’s friends. Dressed in a fringed shawl and loose fitting overskirt, one can almost imagine jeans peeking out from under her costume. Even her sandals are suspiciously familiar. A small grove of trees frames her as she gestures towards the viewer, inviting a response to her pronouncements. In the foreground are five stereotypical biblical men, bearded and clad in turbans, robes and holding staffs. They gesture, argue and converse with each other, seemingly in wonder at this calm, assured woman who presumes to judge. Pictorially they are in a different world than she is-they are the Jewish past and she is the feminist present. There does not seem to be much hope for a dialogue, reflecting a view of contemporary Jewish identity that is cut off from its origins and forced to reinvent itself in the here and now.

 


Deborah Giving Judgment(1991), Acrylic on canvas, 60″ X 48″ by Pat Berger

 

 

         As insightful as this scenario may be, it fails to acknowledge that as a people, we have come a long way since the alienation of the modern Jew in contemporary America so typical of the mid-20th century. Currently all of the major movements are deeply involved in reengaging traditional texts and ritual. Openly Jewish communities are growing nationally, day school attendance is at an all-time high, and in the Orthodox world there are more people studying Jewish texts now than any time in history. Vast amounts of the traditional texts have been translated and are available to the uneducated Jewish public, and while studying them the public can happily munch on an unheard of array of kosher products from almost any American supermarket. That, at least, is the view from the East Coast.

 

         This trepidation with traditional Jewish subjects is surely both geographical and generational. Culturally New York and its environs have lived through the Jewish rejection of the Old World and rampant assimilation by modernity for the last 70 years. Slowly but surely, the younger Jewish world is setting about to reclaim its awesome heritage, demanding that it can coexist creatively with modernity (and post modernity). In the last decade, there is a sense of a new entitlement of traditional Jewish culture; Jewish music and literature in resurgence, painting exhibitions such as the recent “Scenes from the Bible” in New York (reviewed here two weeks ago) are only a few examples of a cultural swing not afraid to be too Jewish. Most importantly there is the growing promise that in this process both traditional subjects and modernity will be fundamentally transformed into a dynamic and new Jewish culture, benefiting all Jews in the East, West and beyond.

Dusty Jewish Songs: Reggae, Beatboxing and Hasidism

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Shake Off the Dust…Arise (2004) CD, with 17 tracks
By Matisyahu
JDub Records,
http://www.hasidicreggae.com/

 

The new face of Jewish pop music wears a black hat and jacket and a long beard. He embeds divrei Torah in his songs, which rely heavily on Jewish content. But his songs don’t come from the shtetl. Enter, instead, a bizarre matrimony between reggae, hip-hop, beatbox and Hasidic music. He is 25 years old and his name is Matthew Miller, aka Matisyahu. His new CD “Shake Off the Dust…Arise” derives from Isaiah 52:2, “Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion,” which readers will recognize from the Lecha Dodi of the Friday evening service.

Matisyahu’s unique blend begs the question of what sort of animal a Hasidic reggae performer might be. Can Jewish music maintain its Jewish component while diluting itself with other ethnic, traditionally secular and political music? And more importantly, how does that shed light on Jewish music and the larger world of postmodern music?

As a prerequisite to properly understanding what is at stake, we must arrive at a grasp of reggae, hip-hop and “beatboxing”. Reggae refers to popular Jamaican music, which contains a heavy offbeat and closely relates to the Rastafarian culture. Rhythm & blues, “ska” and “rocksteady” are the terms to remember as precursors, and Bob Marley is the man to bear in mind as Reggae’s most popular proponent.

If one begins to wonder how a music form that pertains to the Rastafarian culture can find its way into a Lubavitch singer, consider the other elements. Hip-hop – rapid and candid beats and rhythms – derives from a movement that arose simultaneously in the inner-city streets of Harlem and across the West Coast. The roots of Jewish culture are also found in the inner city. Now, perhaps we can further appreciate this cholent pot of diverse music forms in which Matisyahu adds the Hasidic element.

These music forms carry sociological and class implications as well. A classical symphony demands an orchestra, a hall and instruments. The economics of the symphony accompany heavy attention to technique, harmony and mechanics. The symphonic language – and the opera by extension – is a vocabulary of process, complexity and a Baroque (overblown) sensibility.

Dadaists like John Cage would later undermine this model with their use of silence, but clearly classical music demands a whole procedure. By de-emphasizing the lavishness of the enterprise, hip-hop and reggae allow for inexpensive music. “Beatboxing” – mimicking instruments with the mouth – effectively turns the singer into a band, and this instrument impersonation also impacts the lyrics and the tunes. Where classical music constructs deep, underlying structures, these modern forms swap the traditional opus for fast, loud and more emotive music thus perhaps deserving the tag Romantic.

So what does it sound like to combine Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach? Take track two: “Got No Water.” It begins with a wailing sound, and Matisyahu’s voice has an edge to it that fits perfectly with the squeaky trumpet sound. “Chabad philosophy that’s the deepest well-spring/ Gaining knowledge of G-d while you’re gaining money,” Matisyahu sings, “Fill up yourself with the light of his majesty/ In a world of separation that’s the only way to be/ It’s time we leave we won’t flee just walk out easily.” The first line of the Shema figures prominently in the song, and the end of the song chants “May he build the Temple speedily in our days.”

Track four, “King Without a Crown,” offers, “Strip away the layers and reveal your soul Got to give yourself up and then you become whole/You’re a slave to yourself and you don’t even know/You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow… You want G-d but you can’t deflate your ego.”

And perhaps track 13, “Exaltation” is Matisyahu at his best. The sound consists of a smooth, high pitched hum, that rises and falls over a drum beat in the backdrop. The chorus declares, “Exaltation, my G-d of salvation/The field and therein will be filled with jubilation/The Lord’s name will be proclaimed amongst the nations/We don’t have no time for patience.” The pace is just quick enough to meld the words together, but slow enough to process all the lyrics.

Matisyahu’s music thus epitomizes the exact opposite of Isaac’s declaration: the voice is the voice of Esau, but the hands are the hands of Jacob. The music sounds secular, the lyrics sound Jewish, and the singer hardly tries to hide the notion that he lives in Crown Heights. Matisyahu clearly aims to educate his audience – and this is where the Lubavitch identity kicks in – and his booking schedule sends him to clubs and different music venues across the country. He is giving his young Jewish audiences a modern, hip music that they can be proud of to the extent that they can say: look we got reggae of our own too! But ultimately there must be more than just music-as-education and a conglomeration of different musical forms.

But Matisyahu’s primary Jewish music identity comes from his secular audience and far less from his Jewish fans who merely find themselves attracted to the kitsch involved in a Hasidic looking man singing hip-hop. By taking Hasidic music – which often downplays lyrics in its own way, via niggunim – and removing it from its usual context and instead launching it in a club scene with modern beats, Matisyahu enters a discussion about sociology and politics that transcends literal Jewish questions. Instead, he uses his music to try to fit Jewish identity with some form of music into a modern picture that has never quite related to the Hasidic world before. The result is striking.

The mixture is rough around the edges. It leaves the viewers scratching their heads wondering what they got themselves into. The use of music to teach religion seems to pollute the pure auditory experience and to remove it from a high art to a pop one. But by using a musical language of enfranchisement, class and sociology, Matisyahu does achieve a self-conscious model of modern Jewish music that, though it hardly makes it all the way, does begin to scratch the surface of the question of the modern, Jewish musical landscape.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/dusty-jewish-songs-reggae-beatboxing-and-hasidism/2005/03/09/

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