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How far is too far when you wanna be a rock-star?

January 24, 2009 5 min read

an article by Mendel “the Sheichet”

As Jewish music has progressed, more and more artists have drawn influence from secular sounds. From the day Reb Shlomo picked up a guitar for a novel approach in singing nigunim, the fates of Hassidic and secular music have been tightly intertwined. Not that drawing secular influence into Jewish music was something new until then. Moishe Oysher was only too well known for his witty blends of contemporary jazz into his cantorial style. Even Rosenblatt, now considered by many the pinnacle of classic Jewish sound, was highly influenced by the contemporary secular music of his time. This can be evidenced by the comment reportedly made to him by his friend and colleague Cantor Zawel Kwartin: “You look like a Jew and sing like a Goy, I look like a Goy but I sing like a Yid”. Whether or not this story is true, its retelling does show that in his time he was not necessarily considered to have a style devoid of outside influences.


In truth drawing influence from secular styles of music seems to be as old as the Jewish nation itself. The tambourine that Miriam played when the Jews went out of Egypt was in all likelihood the type of instrument that was fairly common to the Egyptians of the period. It is furthermore probably more than coincidence that the known music of every place and time in Jewish history has strongly resembled its counterpart in the contemporary secular regional music of the period. From the Spanish sounds of the Ladino to the Arabic scales of Sephardi and from the chants of the early cantors to the more operatic style of those in the Golden Age. Jewish music, like the Jewish garb, has a long standing tradition of secular influence. Lets face it, in the 1600s the “charedi” Jews were not parading in Shtreimelach and fedoras, nor listening to “classic” Jewish music that resembled the disco beats of the 1970s. These traditions all entered much later picking up from the ways of the time and place.


Why then are do some worry about the secular direction Jewish music seems to be taking today? Why are there those who condemn modern renderings of Jewish music when the “traditional” style they would rather have the artist use is itself merely an offshoot of the Ukrainian, Polish or Hungarian secular and sometimes even non-Jewish religious music of the era of it’s advent? 


Of course this question wrongly assumes that past generations didn’t have the very same issues with modern influences in Jewish life. Most people now consider MBD to be the old-school classic sound of Hassidic music. Those old enough to remember his debut can tell you he wasn’t looked at by everyone with the same acceptance back then. Many in the frum communities at the time considered his novel rock-disco influenced style to be a serious threat to Jewish values. Many worried that his secular sound, which at the time was very in line with the mainstream, would be the cause of young impressionable teenagers gaining interest in secular music. 


In retrospect we can clearly see that MBD did not have the effect so feared. Quite the opposite, he and many that took cue and followed in his footsteps have had a very positive impact over the years. They gave Jewish music a fighting chance in homes that may well have otherwise been invaded by secular music because the Jewish music-loving youngster  sounds. We see this today as well. There are groups out there – like Yaakov Chesed, 8th Day and Yood – who have sounds that are far more secular than most who have preceded them. Far from being a threat to Jewish values, these are the kind of artists that many a frum youngster has turned to to satisfy his or her needs for a unique and original listening experience. 


So why all the apprehension? Is this merely paranoidal resistance to something fresh and different? Are their fears completely baseless? The truth is I see where they are coming from. It is only too easy to lose sight of the line between trying to SOUND like a rock-star and trying to BE one. I think one of the toughest challenges faced by today’s Jewish artist is keeping a strict line drawn between drawing influence from secular music and not from secular musicians. Furthermore, it is only too clear the effect, positive or negative, that music has on the listener – especially the young.


So is it true then? Are we are at risk in front of the ruthless onslaught of modern Jewish music? No, not really. I think there is a very basic miscalculation made that underestimates both the astuteness as well as devotion of the Jewish listener. All of the groups mentioned above share one thing in common. Like their music or not, it is fairly obvious that they are all ehrliche Yidden. Just like MDB before them, their sound may be secular, but their message, outlook and indeed their image and demeanor is clearly 100% in line with Yiddishkeit. Were it not so, I guarantee you they would not have been accepted into the homes of thousands of Jewish music listeners worldwide. We, the Jewish public, are as a whole not that naive. With the millions of bad influences around that we have to protect our children from, we can easily sense threats from miles away. To be sure, over time there have come along those who tried to embody rock-star like ideals within Jewish music. What? You’ve never heard of them? My point exactly! They never stood a chance with a message and mentality that was instantly rejected far before they had the chance to do any harm. Whether they were rejected by the listeners or by the music production companies long before the listeners even had a chance to judge is irrelevant. The bottom line is that the Jewish music market as a whole knew better than to let these artists into their homes.


So for my part, I definitely don’t see the new breed of Jewish music artist as a threat to my kids’ Yiddishkeit. Rather I see them as important friends who can help me keep my children listening to Jewish music when they have an appetite to hear something fresh. So until next time I leave you with the words of Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya “Words are the pen of the heart…music is the pen of the soul”. 


Happy listening,


Mendel “the Sheichet”

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