Tag Archives: Music

Singing a New Song

By Steven Philp

It goes without saying that these are trying times. Yet it is in the face of crisis that humankind produces its best music, art, and literature; while grappling with adversity, men and women exercise their creative abilities to express anger, sadness, and—above all—hope that is both genuine and deeply felt. Perhaps it is the celebration of this latter sentiment that prompted MTV to add a new category to its annual Video Music Awards: “Best Video With A Message.” According to Reuters this award was created to “honor artists and music videos that featured a positive message or raised awareness of key social issues facing today’s youth.” Despite chart-topping performances by Pink, Katy Perry, Eminem, Rise Against, and Taylor Swift—whose songs addressed issues ranging from social isolation to domestic violence—it was Lady Gaga’s pro-diversity opus “Born This Way” that clinched the honor. And regardless of what one thinks about the quality of her music, that at the height of her career she would craft a song celebrating the spectrum of human expression—including an explicit nod to the embattled gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community—deserves recognition.

Unfortunately the spirit of tolerance embodied by the new award category was belied by MTV’s nomination of up-and-comer Tyler the Creator, who was recognized as this year’s “Best New Artist.” As a press release from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation makes note, his lauded sophomore album Goblin is a celebration of homophobia and misogyny—including 213 occurrences of the word “faggot” and its variations. Instead of sending a message of hope, his lyrics promote violence and normalize discrimination against some of the most marginalized people in our society. In the end, the VMAs is testimony to the state of American music: while there are enough songs to cobble together a new award category that features “positive messages,” our “Best New Artist”—which is selected by popular vote—is actively contributing to the adversity felt by minority communities.

So where can we look for songs of hope, when the pop charts so often lend themselves to the dissemination of bigotry? Just this month, Jewish hip-hop sensation Matisyahu uploaded a new single that serves as a reminder that the most profound inspiration can manifest in the most unexpected places. Rabbi Yonah posted a story on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, detailing the history behind the song. It started with an unlikely friendship, between Matisyahu and a young boy named Elijah. Although the boy was battling cancer, his indefatigable spirit inspired the hip-hop artist prompting several years of after-concert visits and phone exchanges. When Matisyahu was on tour this year, Elijah came to his concert in Florida and asked if they could record a song together. The next morning the boy was admitted to intensive care. With his acoustic accompanist and recording equipment in tow, Matisyahu showed up at the hospital that evening. The result was “Elijah’s Song.” According to Matisyahu, most of the words and many of the lyrical decisions were made by the young boy.

Unfortunately Elijah passed away that night. Inspired by the boy’s courage, Matisyahu has made the song available online. The song can also be downloaded for a minimum donation of $1, with proceeds going to the Elijah Memorial Fund. Rabbi Yonah makes note that one would expect a song composed by a dying child would be “sad and full of regret,” but the lyrics point to the opposite: that in the face of adversity, hope can be found. Just as artists like Tyler the Creator showcase the damaging power of words, Elijah reminds us that in every creative act is the potential for redemption. In his own words:

Never know what tomorrow brings,
Don’t have the answers to tell you.
Take it one step at a time,
See where G-d will lead you.

Who Says Jews Don’t Have Soul?

By Beth Kissileff

No one could have predicted thirty years ago that the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College would one day be named for Debbie Friedman.  At the dawn of her career, Friedman was considered a maverick, someone who didn’t know about the traditions of Jewish music, a self-taught song leader rather than the prevailing model of cantor, a carefully trained musician. The first time I attended a performance of hers, in the early nineties in a non-descript suburban New Jersey synagogue, my husband and I brought along a recent convert to Judaism who had been a member of the Princeton University Tiger Lilies, a female a cappella group.  Since music was so important to this young woman, we wanted to be sure that she knew the range of possibilities inherent in Jewish music. The surroundings at the synagogue were fairly drab, industrial brick walls, uncomfortable folding chairs, but the physical backdrop became irrelevant as all the audience members rose to their feet, singing and clapping, raucously enthused by Friedman’s performance.   My friend turned to me and screamed over the roaring crowd, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?”  That was Debbie Friedman’s gift, the ability to use her music as a vehicle to reach peoples’ souls.  She created moments of prayer in the midst of a performance and reached her listeners in their kishkes.

But where is soul in Jewish music today?  To try and get a flavor of it, I recently attended two very different amateur group performances in Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir performing in honor of Martin Luther King Day and the Maccabeats singing at a local Orthodox shul.  In both performances, the power of amateur performers—those who do not make a primary income from performing—was evident. In some ways, amateurs can have more verve than professionals.  No one is making them perform; they are doing it from their souls, as an emanation of emotion expressing something significant.  At the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, the most moving performance was by an elderly woman who had been using her voice to praise God for most of her seventy-some years. She exemplified the soul for which gospel choirs are famous, bringing the performance and the prayer together as one; for Jews the question is where music fits in as a way to access our Jewish souls.

On the Jewish end of my exploration, the Maccabeats proved musically talented, engaging and fun to listen to, but they have yet to meld performance and prayer to an extent that gives that same kind of soul to their audiences.  Instead, they drowned in an air of celebrity; an eyewitness averred that when they came to the local Orthodox day school on Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was charged, as though the Beatles had come to town.  Apparently there was much screaming, particularly by the distaff sex, when they arrived; to the kids, and those of us who saw their faces so often on the “Candlelight” video, they were Jewish rock stars.  On the topic of soul, one of the Maccabeats, Yonatan Shefa, wrote via email that the two aspects are hard to compare “When we lead davening as a group, our aim is to uplift davening, and help people connect; we don’t want that the focus should be on us, but rather on the prayer. We want people to respond, not merely sit and listen.”  Perhaps this was the difficulty for some of us  listening to them daven: The congregation may be too focused on them and their star power.  Though the crowd was roused, and most were singing along, something about the atmosphere felt too performance-like for a prayer service.

While the role of a gospel choir in providing soul and ballast to a church service is clear; the question for Jews is about the future of music in American synagogues. Though talented, the Maccabeats never got the audience pumped enough to stand up and scream as Friedman had so often done. Not everyone needs to have the same performance style, but these “rock stars” never got the audience to dance in a mosh pit or frenzy. What Debbie Friedman brought to Jewish music was soul.  The challenge for the Maccabeats will be giving modern Orthodoxy a more musical focus, creating moments engaged in both prayer and performance, as Debbie Friedman did for Reform worship.  No matter where it comes from, we need Jewish music that will make people ask, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?”

Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis and has completed a novel.  She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

The Death of Yiddish?

By Merav Levkowitz

For 25 years, the American klezmer band The Klezmatics has been unable to sustain itself solely from their Yiddish klezmer music. The reason is not for lack of talent: In 2006, they won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for their album Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In an age when music gains fame through social media and viral marketing, a Grammy award may not mean instant fame and success for anyone.  Yet the Klezmatics, the subject of a  documentary called On Holy Ground, have faced difficulties with deeper roots: the decline of Yiddish.

For centuries, Yiddish was more than just an “Oy gevalt” and a “What chutzpah!” thrown into other languages for comic effect. Rather, Yiddish was the beacon of a rich East European Jewish culture of language, literature, poetry, and music, like klezmer. For most of its history, Yiddish was the primary language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. A variety of factors led to the decline of Yiddish language and culture, most significant of which was the Holocaust; the majority of its Jewish victims were Yiddish speakers. For many of the remaining speakers in Europe, Israel, and the United States, Yiddish stood as a nostalgic emblem of the past and sometimes even an impediment to assimilation and modernization. Only the Hasidic communities of the diaspora have sustained Yiddish as their spoken language. Nevertheless, as the number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled with the passing of the older generations, Yiddish’s rich secular culture has died with them.

A 2006 Modern Language Association survey found that there are just under 1,000 college students studying Yiddish at the 28 institutions offering language courses in the United States. At the beginning of 2010, for example, the University of Maryland, home to one of the nation’s oldest and strongest Yiddish programs, announced that, due to tighter budgets and low enrollment, it would cut funding to the program after this academic year. At the same time, other nails have been driven into “the coffin of Yiddish.” At the end of the summer, The New York Times reported that the only secular Yiddish bookstore in New York was closing. Archives remain full of Yiddish texts, but as Maryland professor Miriam Isaacs laments, today, few people can read or translate them. The body of Yiddish writers, once boasting numbers in the hundreds, now hovers around fifty.

Yiddish appears to be cornered in a Catch-22. Historical circumstances depleted the group of speakers, writers, and thinkers, as did American assimilation. More recently, low demand has resulted in the cutting of Yiddish programs, but such cuts also remove these programs from the “menu” of options available to students. Still, not all is lost for Yiddish language and culture. Organizations, like the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Yiddish Book Center in Western Massachusetts, maintain meticulous archives and proof of Yiddish life and support scholars in the field, in spite of dwindling resources. Though not MTV stars, bands like The Klezmatics continue to create modernized Yiddish klezmer tunes, sacrificing higher-paying jobs for this passion. There remain small pockets of Yiddish revivalism throughout the country, like a Washington DC group of about ten people who meet weekly to speak Yiddish and a Yiddish conversation and music group in Brooklyn. Earlier this month the Jewish Studies Department at San Francisco State University made Jewish headlines by announcing a new “Yiddish History, Literature and Society,” which, though taught in English, will explore Yiddish culture. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer summed it up best: “Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for another thousand.”

Jewish Rapper Asher Roth Debuts at #1 on iTunes

Asher RothBy Marista Lane

Asher Roth is now number one on iTunes. The white Jewish rapper from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, struck it big with “I Love College,” an anthem/satirical ode to college life. It was the first hit off his debut album, Asleep in the Bread Aisle, which climbed atop iTunes rankings after it’s release on Monday.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[“I Love College”], which Roth calls ‘satire at its finest,’ has sold nearly a million copies since its release in January, and been streamed more than 36 million times on his MySpace page….

[The Guardian proclaimed] “rap is about to get its first white Jewish superstar since the Beastie Boys.”

The Inquirer also said, “A spokesman for Roth said he does not consider himself Jewish and does not practice Judaism.”