New Jewish music has a mission

The guitar is slick, the bass and drums mesmerising, and if it weren’t for the lyrics, you would think the LeeVees were just another up-and-coming American rock band.

But with lyrics that ponder what goes best with latkes—potato pancakes traditionally eaten at Hanukkah—or how to spell Hanukkah, the LeeVees position themselves squarely in the middle of a rising musical genre whose proponents call it new Jewish music.

“We sing about being Jewish. We’re sort of a Jewish-themed band,” said Dave Schneider, who co-founded the LeeVees with Adam Gardner two years ago, originally to write songs exclusively about Hanukkah.
“We’re fun, but we take our music very seriously.”

The LeeVees are one of seven bands signed to five-year-old JDub records, one of a handful of Jewish new-wave labels that have sprung up in the United States in the past 10 years.

“JDub started with a few friends who knew a few bands that were doing things that weren’t klezmer,” said Jacob Harris, who is in charge of artists and repertoire for JDub.

Klezmer is traditional Jewish music that was played, starting in the Middle Ages, by roving musicians called klezmorim in Eastern Europe.

Often featuring a fiddle or clarinet—but according to purists, no drums or vocals—Jewish migrants brought klezmer to the US last century and fused the music with American styles, such as jazz. The result was a unique transatlantic klezmer, but it remained audibly Jewish and rooted in Eastern Europe.

The new Jewish music played by the likes of the LeeVees and Sony artist Matisyahu—who looks every bit the good orthodox Jewish boy but can rap and do the reggae thing with the best of them from the Bronx and Jamaica—breaks with klezmer and other Jewish traditions without rejecting them.

“Judaism has a rich cultural history. It’s 3 000 years of music, dance and art, but in the post-Holocaust era and even in the early 20th century, there has been a movement away from our parents and our European upbringing,” Harris said.

“What we do is Jewish music that is new and authentic. It borrows from other genres but is unique,” he said. “And there isn’t a single clarinettist in our bands.”

The Jewish musical renaissance has broken with the idea of anchoring the community around the synagogue and traditional celebrations.

“It used to be that you had to go to a specific building or to a group of Jews to be Jewish. But that model of Judaism isn’t working for young people today,” Harris said.

JDub and Taglit Birthright Israel have organised Hanukkah concerts on Saturday in 13 cities around the world, from Washington to Tel Aviv. Neutral venues were chosen for the gigs in order to appeal to Jews and non-Jews and to show that new Jewish music has its place in the mainstream.

“We tried to create a ‘safe’ space so that people feel this is their culture and it exists in the mainstream, proudly and authentically,” Harris said.

JDub has also set itself the mission of bringing cultures together.

“In 2004, we did a concert in Brooklyn with Muslim, Arab, Jewish and Israeli musicians doing hip-hop and traditional Middle Eastern genres all on the same stage,” Harris said. “About 5 000 people attended. We had African-American hip-hop fans next to Arab women in burkas next to Orthodox Jews next to American kids.”

JDub signing Balkan Beat Box—which is made up of New Yorkers, Israelis, Africans and Bulgarians—have recorded with Palestinian rapper Saz, and another band, Soulico, are recording their debut album with Palestinians and Arab-Israelis, according to Harris.

Matisyahu, whose first two discs were put out by JDub but who has since gone over to mainstream music company Sony-BMG, uses his music as a vector for sharing “the messages of peace and unity that flow through him, and to improve the world”, his website says.

He has raised the profile of new Jewish music by performing alongside global giants such as Sting and the late Bob Marley’s old band, the Wailers.

The LeeVees, meanwhile, prefer to carve a niche in the mainstream for new Jewish music without politics.

“Other bands do politics better than us. We’re inspired by Mel Brooks, not Bob Marley. But what we do is appeal to a broad audience, and that helps to bring new Jewish music into the mainstream,” Schneider said.

“We are ‘Jewish light’, the diet drink of Jewish bands. We sing about kugel and applesauce with sour cream. We take our music very seriously, but we have fun doing it.”—AFP

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