Hannukah, Modern Judaism and Musical Mensches


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It’s the halfway point of Hannukah, and it’s unexpected presence on the calendar has marked a sudden disconnect I’ve had with the Jewish community. For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture, be it growing up attending temple, my various stays in Israel or attending a university with a strong Jewish population. I never thought I’d taken my previous connections to the Jewish community for granted, but now that I’m in an entirely new city and region of the country I had never before set foot in, it’s caused me to reflect a lot on the status of my Judaism.

Or, perhaps, Hannukah has caused me to reflect on my faith. Or, more accurately, the holiday season. I’ve never been in a city that takes Christmas as seriously as Chicago, but it wasn’t yet Thanksgiving before the city rolled out its winter holiday decor. Suddenly, the bubbles within which I had previously existed made everything around me seem strange… or everything I had previously experienced during the month of December seem completely abnormal.

And somewhere between the blazing Christmas lights and my finals crunch, Hannukah appeared. Yes, it is a minor holiday, but one that, for one reason or another, has become a cause for celebration that no other Jewish holiday can claim in American culture. No one celebrates Yom Kippur – the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar – with a baleful of gifts. Then again, it would be tacky to atone for one’s sins with a new flat screen TV.

Though I fasted and atoned for my sins on Yom Kippur, I have hardly done anything for Hannukah. I spent the third night with the family of a friend, and the experience has caused me to think about my connections to my religious background. I moved to Chicago without a synagog composed of friends and relatives, and without hardly a friend or relative to speak of. And though I’ve accumulated a few Jewish friends, I don’t feel as grounded into the Jewish community in my new surroundings as I had in my previous locales.

So where does one turn to find a community of individuals bound by faith? For me, the answer has always been culture. It’s hard to fly family out halfway across the country, but with a Netflix account, you can watch Mel Brooks spout off a little yiddish in no time.

I grew up watching Mel Brooks films with my dad, and though I cherish those memories, Brooks’s view of Judaism is very much a reflection of 20th Century American Jewish values. It’s not a bad thing at all, but for a 20-something Jewish person, there’s a certain disconnect between Young Frankenstein and Generation Y (or whatever “title” you want to pin down on this generation.) Sure, there are plenty of Jewish entertainers out there, but many seem to be struggling with old-world iconography of Jewish-American culture, and their age is showing. Adam Sandler seems comfortable in the new father figure role he’s found himself in lately. And for young folks? Is Seth Rogen my ideal of modern Judaism? The tasteless Jewish jokes his character spat in Knocked Up built a character that was borderline self-loathing. Not exactly what I look for as a reflection of my faith in modern culture.

As I tend to do with so much else, I turn to music as a reflection of my faith. As deeply ingrained in “alternative” as my tastes are, it appears as though some of the brightest Jewish musicians that have cropped up this decade have burrowed themselves within that little hole of a genre. Over the past few years, there have been varying degrees of modern Judaism as seen through the eyes of pop.

I’m not talking Matisyahu here. Though the man has done quite a bit to bridge the gaps of Orthodox Judaism and modern culture, his role in the greater American pop culture realm is, unfortunately, one of a curious relic. Though Matisyahu himself has created his music on nothing but a sincere devotion to his faith and reggae-influenced pop, he remains something of a gimmick to a large majority of society. It’s still a little bemusing to think of a Hasidic Jew spitting out lyrics at a frenzied pace, and I can’t imagine the number of individuals who were originally drawn to the man because of this (pardon the pun) unorthodox image. Though he has managed to gain a great number of fans because of this juxtaposition, Matisyahu has never reflected my experience with Judaism or music.

Rather, over the last part of the decade, I’ve been able to find reflections of my background in the music of Regina Spektor and Say Anything, among other acts. (Note: Yes, these two acts are currently on major labels, but they began as underground musical acts and still bear the name and burden of “alternative” music.) The way these two distinct entities were able to balance their Jewish backgrounds and blend it with modern alternative pop created examples of normalcy for Judaism in modern culture. These artists didn’t sacrifice aspects of their heritage in order to take part in an important aspect of modern American (and world) culture – pop music.

Musically, Spektor’s sound tends to reflect her Jewish heritage a bit more than Say Anything’s take on emo. Spektor’s anti-folk is heavily influenced by Russian and Eastern European folk tunes that have traveled through Jewish communities throughout the centuries. These archetypically Jewish melodies manage to blend fairly well into Spektor’s “alternative” sound, which has bolstered Spektor’s voice and made it stand out against a sea of singer-songwriters.

Image taken from the Say Anything's myspace

Image taken from the Say Anything's myspace

Say Anything, on the other hand, has worked with a sound that blends in quite well with the Saves The Days of the pop-punk community. However, in frontman Max Bemis I was able to find a thoroughly modern, fairly neurotic Jewish punk to reflect the experiences of the modern American Jew. On 2004′s …is a Real Boy, Bemis crafted the catchiest song about the Holocaust ever to crack the Billboard charts. Though it could be easy to mistake Bemis yelling “Our Treblinka” for any other word in the middle of “Alive with the Glory of Love,” the underlying current of preserving one’s life and faith even in the harshest of times spoke to the narrative of Jewish experience. And let’s not forget the brilliant little lyric, “I forgot all the rules my rabbit taught me in the old shul” that pops up on “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too!”

And just within the past couple of years, a strong presence of Judaism has popped up in “indie” music. Why?‘s Yoni Wolf infused 2008′s Alopecia with his nasally drawl and drawing tales of dirty deeds done at his cousin’s bat-mitzvah. Peter Silberman took the Jewish concept of mourning (“shiva”) and used it for the title of one of the closing tracks on The Antlers‘ devastating 2009 concept album, Hospice. MC Paul Barman‘s return to the rap game, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud, included a track where Barman dropped rhymes about Jewish identity and assimilation over a cut-up clarinet sample.

Elsewhere, aspects of Judaism weren’t quite so evident on the musical and lyrical structures of underground acts. Molly Siegel and Jeremy Hyman made waves of art-punk noise on Ponytail’s 2008 album, Ice Cream Spiritual; Adam Drucker (aka DoseOne) has dropped a few releases the past couple of years with Subtle and Themselves; and Mica Levi made a whirlwind blend of skittering punk with Micachu & The Shapes on 2009′s Jewellery. Though these musicians didn’t directly address themes of their Jewish upbringing, in many ways their choices to create “alternative” music can be thought of as informed by their religious backgrounds. Judaism is very much a minority religion and culture, and many aspects of being brought up in a culture that is thoroughly different from a majority of society tends to inform how one views the world and what they do with their lives. (I’m not the only one who considers this aspect of Jewish culture in alternative music: Just check out Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s.)

Yet, even when “indie” and “alternative” are widely accepted in American society (or commercially accepted at the least) I feel a bit detached from my religious community. Perhaps it’s because of the amount of faith I put into music. It was just a couple of months ago when I discovered that Max Bemis, the frontman of Say Anything to whom I admired as a teenager, had converted to Christianity. Needless to say, this came as a bit of a shock, especially considering how outspoken Bemis had been about his religion in prior albums. (As a side note, he continues to be outspoken about religion, although now the focus of his religious lyrics are focused on Jesus.)

Did a pop musician’s newfound faith in a different faith cause me to question mine? Hardly. Though I never once questioned my Judaism, it certainly threw reflections of my late teens into a bit of a warped mirror. And it’s caused me to think about the many ways I define my religion and ethnicity through modern culture during a time when crass commercialism flaunts a sterilized imagine of modern Judiasm and I find myself physically separated from my family and many of my Jewish friends. Thankfully, my faith is still intact – it was merely hard to find in the flood of images and sounds that don’t reflect my ideal of Judaism today.


1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. gamesmith94134 #

    Season of love

    I am a Chinese and I have no preference to religion and tradition, but I live and learn in many traditional communities that share different religions. First of all, I think tradition and religion root from the fruition of love that everyone would prefer to. In its way we develop faith like tradition and religion which are the outstanding to distinguish one’s individuality; Perhaps, when we talked of the Hanukah, Christmas or Chinese New Year, we celebrate individually at its moment of time which we share the love to our kinds. Are we acting like the gambler who carries his rabbit’s foot for luck? Are we addicted to the first love to our lucky days for which those days turned into the tradition or religion?
    Many suffered paranoia that created their resistance to distant themselves to reason. It was the time that their fear of invasion by the others, therefore separation is prohibited; so, neither tradition nor religion can be defied. I cannot insist what is the best for individual; but each may look into the doctrines of each religions and the progression of it. It may sound naive in believing the creation of tradition or religion was aimed at the lifesaver to a race; but I believe many think of them were the tool for strength to sustain a race of its kind. Were they our creation in the form of elixir to cure our fear from separation? Did we need the rabbit’s foot to accomplish our bets in living well?
    Perhaps, we can take an example in Galileo who discovered America. He, was born in Pisa to Florence went to Spain. He was commissioned by Spain in search of another route to India. Instead, he found America. He did not bring his tradition or religion to America by making it in Spanish; and America carries its tradition and religion to its own rights by its people because America is alive with tradition and religion. It is because America has its cornucopia of all faiths that no one can dominate; and separation of its own kind is no longer needed to survive as others claimed. Perhaps, tradition and religion are just the signs of the moments of time that people love. If tradition or religion is no longer a lifesaver in the sea of harm; then, such paranoia will end and they will be less prevailed or condoned to exist in societies like American or Chinese or other stable ones. It was the love that made its people preferred.
    Moment of time or Season of love, if we all learn to live well with less paranoia, we all can share our love to live well to our desires. Sweet Potato Latkes, turkey meat with gravy with a bowl of rice are best of recipes for the season of love. I will thank gods and those invited me to diner.
    Why should you miss such good food?
    Merry Christmas and Hannukkah.

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