Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tolerating Rock Music and the Jews

I just realized that I had the following recently published at http://www.koach.org/koc_5769_nisan_culture.htm of the Koach E-Zine:
My three favorite songs from The Doobie Brothers are "Listen to the Music," "Black Water," and "Jesus Is Just Alright"—not for their lyrical content though. "Listen to the Music" is a simple message, "Black Water" has a lot of grammatical errors (like "I ain't got no worries/I ain't in no hurry"), and I don't strongly agree with the theological undertones of "Jesus Is Just Alright." But I love classic rock, and The Doobie Brothers always put on great concerts.

When I was in middle school and just getting into classic rock, pop, and other music genres, I loved the tunes of "Jesus Is Just Alright," ELP's "I Believe in Father Christmas," and Elton John's "Step Into Christmas." The music didn't pull me away from Judaism and I'm sure that 70s-rock fans who proudly observe Christmas get kicks hearing Christian songs by their favorite artists. These songs are a win-win situation: good music for everyone and great lyrics for those with Christian pride. However, these Christian songs from secular-rock musicians made me wonder why there were so few Jewish songs from secular-rock musicians.

The question of why there were so few Jewish songs from secular-rock musicians made me really wonder: why were there so few secular rock-musicians—or, for that matter, professional performers of secular music—who are outwardly Jewish? We live in a free country where Christians can sing songs with Christian overtones. So, why would Billy Joel, a self-proclaimed "Jewish boy from Long Island", sing of Christmas in "She's Right On Time" or "Christmas in Fallujah"? Why has Neil Diamond—having sung "Kol Nidrei" in The Jazz Singer and "Havah Nagilah" in Keeping Up With the Steins—despite his proud Jewish heritage, released two Christmas albums? Why would Randy Newman—who speaks passionately of anti-Semitism he's faced and the uniqueness of his being a Jew—even write "Christmas In Capetown," or declare in his autobiographical "Dixie Flyer," "Christ, [we] wanted to be gentiles too/Who wouldn't out there? Wouldn't you?" Are so few musicians outwardly Jewish because it's more comfortable to be a gentile?

It's never been challenging to be Christian in the United States, but the ethnocentrism that comes so automatically to people—the assumption that everyone around us would, or should, have our own cultural values—has made Judaism, and other minority religions, hard to practice in a country where most citizens attend a Christian church. In the music industry, Christian music has always been possible to promote, but many Jews in the industry have found themselves in the position of a late 70s Bob Dylan—flirting with Christianity—or the position of Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—severely hanging onto religious apathy, agnosticism or atheism and hardly recognizing their Jewish roots.

Today, Bob Dylan rarely sings definitely of Christianity. He's even been spotted in synagogue lately on High Holidays, so we know that "The Times They Are A-Changin'." In fact, when The Barenaked Ladies, They Might Be Giants, The LeeVees and other artists release the occasional Hanukah pop song, when singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman and, now, Leonard Cohen claim to observe Shabbat and when one of the biggest hip-hop acts in New York is Chassidic reggae star Matisyahu, it sounds like today's American Jews hardly live in the country where Randy Newman was born.

While I'm a full-time student in New York City, I'm also a part-time musician. It's been especially inspiring for me to be in touch with pianist/singer-songwriter Brian Gelfand and to play on a demo disc with bandleader and solo artist Avi Fox-Rosen, both of whom work professionally for Jewish communities in the tri-state area. In December, I was invited to the second installment of the Uptown Salon, hosted by singer-songwriters AndrĂ©s Wilson and Asia Mei, both of whom are also involved in the New York Jewish community. The Salon, a forum for presenting and discussing arts—poetry, visual arts, music, and more—has attracted the likes of other musicians involved in their Jewish communities, such as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire C.J. Glass, pianist/singer-songwriter Scott Stein and others. Between musicians I've met at the Salon and knowing of so many other openly Jewish musicians—like Lara Torgovnik, Naomi Less, Michelle Citrin, and others—I'm excited to be part of a growing world of proud Jewish artists right in my very own town.

American Jews have come a long way just so they can be themselves. I find nothing ironic about making secular music and being Jewish, and the United States is becoming increasingly tolerant and welcoming of minorities. Being Jewish is just alright by me; just listen to the music.

Jonah Rank, recording his 3rd and 4th solo albums now, is a junior at the Joint Program of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary and works as a Gabbai at JTS.

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