Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

Tuesday links

Nothing like a little racism…

…to get the High Holidays off to a great start, right?  (The answer is “Wrong,” fyi.)

Apparently Tel Aviv’s religious council is warning that shofars made in China may be smeared with pig fat (which is a little pas comme il faut, but not technically un-kosher, I believe, unless you’re snacking on your shofar–correct me if I’m wrong) and that one shouldn’t purchase shofars made in Morocco, because, according to a rabbi on the council,

It’s disrespectful bringing a shofar prepared by an Arab on Shabbat into a synagogue.

Right, I guess I forgot that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t apply during the month of Elul…

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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