Matisyahu and the Spiral of Authenticity

By now you've heard the (apparently earth-shattering) news that Matisyahu has shaved his beard.


The pundits of Jewry are abuzz with interpretive chatter -- and no surprise, since Matisyahu was already (in his hassidic incarnation) an icon and byword for all manner of Jewish discourse about culture, religion, and identity.

A very recent case in point: in the most recent issue of Sh'ma, Stuart Z. Charmé uses the hassidic Matisyahu as the denouement to his article, "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity". Responding with circumspect detachment to his teenage daughter's announcement that she doesn't consider herself Jewish (since slam poetry is her true identity), Charmé notes that, as his research has shown, teenagers and the adults they grow to become have ever-shifting relationships to Judaism:

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

(Emphasis, of course, is added.) How unlucky for Stuart Charmé, one might think, that merely two weeks after he publishes a piece which uses the hassid Matisyahu as an example, Matisyahu goes and shaves and de-hassidifies.

But in this case, one would be wrong to think so. In fact, Charmé's point regarding Matisyahu not only still stands, but stands even stronger. Much of the article, read in hindsight following "ShaverGate," read as if they were written with the apparently-now-misnagdic Mat(thew? isyahu?) in mind:

I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past... Much has also been written... about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.”...

It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways... There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

For those who responded to Matisyahu's naked face with disappointment, then, as well as for those who responded with anti-Orthodox glee, we might all do well to borrow some of Stuart Charmé's detachment and attention to the long view. Life keeps going on, the spiral of authenticity keeps spiralling, and we might all turn out to be someone a little (or a lot) different tomorrow.

Jonathan Pollard, the Irvine 11, and the Mikado


From The New York Times on Friday:

“President Obama was considering clemency [for Jonathan Pollard], but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time,’ ” Biden said during a meeting with rabbis in Boca Raton, Fla., according to the newspaper. “If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”

The headline of the piece: "Obama Turns to Biden to Reassure Jewish Voters, and Get Them to Contribute, Too." That being the case, I suppose one must give credit to the Vice President for passing up an opportunity to pander to his rabbinic audience.

Pollard's case is a source of righteous outrage for some Jews, and a source of ambiguity and unease for others. Speaking personally, I believe Pollard committed a serious crime and deserved jail time. Individual citizens cannot be free to choose which nations can see classified governmental information, no matter how harmless their choice. There is a principle at stake.

Still, for all that, the sentence is vastly -- and cruelly -- out of proportion to the crime. Pollard ought not be pardoned, but he should certainly have his sentence commuted and be freed at once.

Disproportionate punishment makes a mockery of justice as much as crime does... Therefore, I also believe the punishment doled out to the Irvine 11 was excessive. I agree with my colleague Stefanie (who posted on this subject earlier today) that the students' conduct was unacceptable, but three years of probation is a very serious and constraining business indeed; these students deserved a semester of academic probation, not a criminal charge.

Jonathan Pollard and the Irvine 11: not the most natural of pairings. Yet both together bring to mind what W.S. Gilbert reminded us: the punishment should fit the crime.

Jewish Arts: Consumers and Producers

Writing for the Forward's Arty Semite blog, Rokhl Kafrissen has an interesting review of the Yeshiva University Museum's exhibit "Jews on Vinyl:"

Unlike most museum exhibits, “Jews on Vinyl” is meant to be heard more than seen. Visitors choose from a handful of listening stations, impeccably set with period appropriate couches and chairs. Here they can sit and browse iPod playlists chosen by Kun and Bennett. Eartha Kitt singing “Sholem”? They have that. The Temptations doing a “Fiddler” medley? Yep. More versions of Hava Nagila than you dared imagine? Oh yes. Scattered on the listening station coffee tables are record covers representing some of the music featured on the playlists, as well as information cards with short blurbs about the artists and songs...

...In some ways I’m the ideal audience for “Jews on Vinyl.” To say I love Jewish music is something of an understatement. My obsession with Yiddish and Jewish music has shaped the last 20 years of my life...

...And yet, I walked out of “Jews on Vinyl” scratching my head as to what the point of the exhibit was, besides being a great way to relax after a stressful day. A good museum exhibit makes an argument. It guides museum-goers through a narrative. It raises questions that disturb the status quo and forces the viewer to examine her own preconceptions...

...The “Jews on Vinyl” exhibit is overwhelming. A huge mosaic of album covers greets visitors at the front. The format of a handful of listening stations, and a very long playlist, means that with more than a handful of visitors to the exhibit, (or for patrons without the patience to sit and listen for more than a few minutes) it’s difficult to get more than a superficial taste of what’s offered. Radically different genres — Israeli pop, Yiddish-Latin fusion, Yinglish comedy — blur together. What does one have to do with the other? Who knows? Why should we care?

This is the problem with “Jews on Vinyl”: it’s partially hydrogenated Jewish history. Jewish culture, and Jewish music in particular, has the radical potential to animate Jewish life today and to turn passive audiences into actively engaged Jewish creators in a way that extends far beyond just music. I’ve seen it over and over at places like Klezkamp and Klezkanada where participants are empowered through their connection to Jewish music. But at the “Jews on Vinyl” exhibit, Jewish music is reduced to just another commodity. And the museum visitor is just another passive consumer, swallowing his or her obligatory dose of vitamin J.

I haven't seen the exhibit itself, so obviously I have no opinion of it, but this last paragraph above is concerned with a general issue which is particularly compelling to me: consuming versus producing. To the questions I asked last month as J Dub announced its closing could be added the following additional question: does our idea of what it means to foster Jewish culture privilege professional cultural products which are to be consumed, at the expense of fostering participation and creation amongs the masses?

Obviously there's no zero-sum game between the two, and consumption of good professional cultural products might be said to be a necessary (though not sufficient) condition to inspire amateur creation / participation. Indeed, if a one or two of the YU Museum exhibit's patrons are inspired by it to make Jewish music themselves, on any level, then a few of Kafrissen's concerns may be a tad misplaced. I imagine that even the broad diversity of styles itself, which Kafrissen felt made the exhibit "blur together" might awaken Jewish music lovers to the fact that Jewishness doesn't have to mean one narrow musical vocabulary.

This issue is as relevant to the arts in general as to the Jewish arts in particular. Before radio became ubiquitous, vastly more people played musical instruments than do so now. When Scott Joplin sold a million copies of the Maple Leaf Rag, it was sheet music he was selling; people would buy the latest hits in order to play them in their parlors. I enjoy and appreciate (many) movies and (occasional gems of) television, but there's no denying fewer people are involved in local theatre as a result of the availability of these media. We should look for a balance, but at present that will mean tipping the balance back toward personal involvement and amateur creativity.

Related: see Stephen Hazan-Arnoff's fascinating idea from Sh'ma in 2005:A Jewish Artists Service Corps: Creating and Sustaining Community.

JDub to Close


Responding for e-Jewish Philanthropy to the news that JDub Records will wind down, Ruthie Warshenbrot asks:

Was arts & culture programming actually a good entry-point to Jewish life, especially for young adults? Many studies emerged just as JDub was gaining popularity that supported its mission, almost verbatim and JDub’s own numbers in its departure press release are fairly significant – 150,000 participants over 9 years. Is there now a niche to be filled in the Jewish community of young, culturally-engaged adults with no way to get their fix of Jewish music, media, and cultural events?

Prompted by Ruthie's questions (and her entire response is insightful), here are a few questions of my own:

  • When we talk about Jewish arts as an "entry-point to Jewish life", what do we mean? Do we hope that young Jews will be so smitten with innovative Jewish arts that they reconnect to Judaism and then join traditional institutions? (JDub as a bridge to shul and Hadassah?) Or do we mean that these new ways of connecting to Judaism will completely constitute the way a certain (large) segment of Jewry "does Jewish"? (JDub as a replacement for shul and Hadassah?)
  • Is it more desirable for Jewish artists to create specifically Jewish spaces to integrate Jewish culture and new artistic expression? Or does that send a message that Jewishness doesn't deserve to be part of the "mainstream" artistic world? (In other words, was it good or bad for the Jews when Matisyahu left JDub?)
  • JDub founder Aaron Bisman laid out his vision for the company in Sh'ma last November. Tackling the sticky question of what makes music Jewish, Bisman wrote: "For us, 'Jewish' was in the intention of the creator." (A digression: a handful of generations ago, most Jews might have completely agreed with Bisman's 2010 definition, if he had only capitalized the C in "creator".) Expanding the issue beyond music, and beyond art, and addressing the whole concept of young Jews redefining Judaism for themselves, I have to wonder: can such an open definition avoid becoming a boundary so wide that it is meaningless?

I don't know if any of these issues have anything to do with JDub's decision to close, but they are at the heart of the discourse JDub created during its lifetime. Whatever JDub's legacy turns out to be, the organization is to be thanked for sparking discussion of these issues.

From the J-Vault: Censorship & Sensitivity

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Last month, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. Defenders of the law used various (unsuccessful) lines of reasoning, such as arguing that harm to children takes priority over other concerns, and arguing that minors do not have the same free speech rights as adults. None of the law's defenders, however, could be seen explicitly endorsing censorship, or even using the word "censorship".

But that's only because times have changed.

This week, from the J-Vault: Objectionable Films (1915)

This little report from the November 1915 Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities was obviously not particularly noteworthy at the time, but viewed from 2011, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when there was a "National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures".

The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures has just issued a special bulletin to all producers and directors of motion pictures in the United States. This is the first definite step taken by the Board to check the vilification of the Jewish race in the "movies." Acting in co-operation with the Jewish Community (Kehillah) of New York City, Maurice Simmons, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples, has been in constant touch with the National Board of Censorship. The libeling of the Jew in the "films" had assumed alarming proportions and was the subject of complaint all over the country.

Don't you wish we still had a "Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples"? Americans used to be much better at naming things. Also, isn't it quaint to reflect that there used to be a time when Jews were portrayed in "movies" and "films" as falling into a set of stereotypical roles? Oh, wait a minute...

On a more serious note, it may come as a surprise to modern American Jews, who are accustomed to seeing Jewish communal institutions stand generally on the side of civil liberties, that in 1915 Jewish community institutions apparently felt no tension about, or even any need to explain, appealing to the National Board of Censorship.

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Orthodoxy and the Arts

Writing in the Jerusalem Post last week, J.J. Gross criticizes American Orthodox Judaism for neglecting the arts, in stark contrast to Israeli Orthodoxy. "How," he asks, "can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter?" Considering, but rejecting an economic cause for this difference, Gross concludes that American Orthodox Jews avoid the arts out of fear.

Gross offers no evidence whatsoever to support his rash and rather cruel characterization of American Orthodoxy -- he cites not a single survey or study, nor any other shred of evidence save his own intuition to support his conclusion that American Orthodox Jews are cowards. Nor, for that matter, does he even cite any actual evidence to support his premise that Orthodoxy in America neglects the arts. Absent any actual evidence, we must approach even this observation with great skepticism.

I must admit that Gross's intuition is not completely out of step with my own. It does feel rare to see prominent American artists who are Orthodox Jews, and some of the most prominent exceptions to this rule (Matisyahu, Andy Statman, and, more recently, Shyne) were secular artists before they were Orthodox Jews. But to compare America to Israel based on the prominence of Orthodox Judaism among artists is unfair. Consider the fact that, in Israel, Jewish holidays are national holidays, and so involvement in performing arts need not entail ignoring holiday observances as necessarily as it does in the US. More importantly, however, when the population of the entire country is majority Jewish, then the majority of artists will also be Jewish, and some proportion of those will also be Orthodox. In America, however, where Jews make up only 3% of the population, and Orthodox Jews a minority of those, to expect to see enormous numbers of prominent Orthodox Jews in any field is a bit unfair by the sheer population numbers.

Arguments aside, however, if Gross wishes to promote greater engagement with the arts among Orthodox Jews (without resorting, as he does in his article, to insult), I heartily concur. I was happy to read this New York Times piece on an Orthodox Jewish dance performance in Israel. I also hope to see the new film "Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish" (see coverage in the Jewish Week, Tablet and WNYC.) This film takes place in the Hasidic world, but it was made by actors who left that community, and one might wonder whether a Yiddish presentation of Shakespeare might open up an interest in theatre among some number (however small) of Hasidim still within their own communities.

Indeed, it can be argued that Orthodoxy, with its manifold rituals and its insistence upon physicalizing and enacting the spiritual, should be a natural ally with the arts. Rabbi Chaim Brovender is notable for pursuing this alliance, and just days ago Rabbi Simon Jacobson, writing on, cited the discipline of music as the perfect analogy for the discipline of Torah. Orthodox artist Chasiah T. Haberman has argued that her painting is spiritual work.

Finally, it should be noted that there is more Orthodox Jewish arts activity than may be known. Not all art is pursued professionally, or as part of a campaign to achieve fame; many Orthodox Jews pursue artistic activities as hobbies. Asya Vaisman notes that there is a secret world of Hasidic women's songs, hidden from the world of men. ATARA, the Arts and Torah Association for Religious Artists, hosts a list of opportunities for Orthodox performing artists -- both women and men -- to perform without running afoul of Shabbat or kol isha.

Since I offer no more evidence than does J.J. Gross, I am not making a claim about the degree to which American Orthodox Jews are engaged in the arts. It is a fascinating topic which, I think, deserves some real attention from serious social scientists. But I do believe that, however much (or however little) American Orthodoxy currently engages with the arts, more artistic opportunities and cross-fertilizations can only be for good. Whether we are professional artists or hobbyists, feeding our creative selves can bring us endless joy, and make us better Jews, better Americans, and better people.