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How Jewish is it?

Rockin’ out with Matisyahu, the LeeVees, and other mensches
By ADAM GOLD  |  January 17, 2007

THE LEEVEES: “If the lyrics reflect Jewish stereotypes, it’s because we’re living those stereotypes ourselves.”

In addition to the usual fare of Messiah and Nutcracker performances and bands dressed up in Santa suits this past holiday season, Boston got an unusually large dose of Jewish culture — far more than the electric menorah in Kenmore Square or the klezmer rendition of “Chanukah Oh Chanukah” on the Holiday Pops program. Jews were in the house (or the clubs) performing music that ranged from the strictly Orthodox to the completely unorthodox, from the reggae-soaked rhymes of Matisyahu to the playful pop of the LeeVees.

This unprecedented attention to Jewish music owed much to the maverick Brooklyn label that helped launch Matisyahu’s career — JDub Records. “If someone had said I’d be working in Jewish music five or 10 years ago, I would have said that was crazy,” acknowledges Jacob Harris, JDub’s vice-president and head of A&R. “I thought of it as kitschy bar mitzvah music.” But he says Jewish music — and its place in mainstream culture — has evolved in recent years. “People are coming back to Jewish music and taking it more seriously. The real difference is that there isn’t this nebbish, Woody Allen–esque attitude that exists in a lot of old Jewish comedy and music.”

Aside from its religious affiliation, what distinguishes JDub is its non-profit status. Most labels are in the business to make money. JDub has a different mission: “To promote proud, authentic Jewish voices and cross-cultural dialogue within popular culture.” Harris: “We don’t have to look over our backs to make sure that everything makes money, every record sells 10,000 copies, every event sells out. We can take a little bit of risk for the sake of culture.”

One of the label’s biggest risks to date is Matthew Miller, a/k/a Matisyahu, the 27-year-old Hasidic reggae icon who signed with JDub in 2001 and left for Epic last March after two gold albums — Live at Stubbs and Youth. “We’re really proud of the work we did with him,” Harris says. “We got him to a place where he had developed a strong career and hopefully something that can continue for a long time.”

Yet despite JDub’s role in developing Matisyahu as a Jewish artist, the singer’s Jewish identity seemed to be the last thing on the minds of his fans last month at Avalon. Although his early material pushed an explicitly Jewish agenda, the striking thing about his sold-out show on the sixth night of Hanukkah was how secular it felt. Aside from an occasional allusion to “moshiach” (the Messiah), the lyrics about empowerment and spirituality spoke to the overwhelmingly non-Jewish crowd as much as the Torah references did to the handful of Orthodox Jews. A Hasidic woman behind me said, “I think the reason people come to see him is because he talks about the Torah.” But the attitude of a nearby twentysomething seemed more representative. “I can’t even understand what he’s saying right now,” he yelled as Matisyahu tore through “Jerusalem,” the single from his latest CD/DVD, No Place To Be (Epic). “I just came for the music.”

Even the bearded rapper’s explanation of Hanukkah was more spiritual than religious. “The flame represents the soul, rising up toward our Creator,” he lectured as fans crowd-surfed their way toward the stage. And when he launched into the chorus of “Youth,” it sounded more like a verse from a Bob Marley song than an excerpt from the Scripture: “Young man, control is in your hand/Slam your fist on the table and make your demand/Take a stand/Fan a fire for the flame of the youth.” What with the beatboxing, the ghetto patois, and the overall jam-band æsthetic (a remnant of his former days as a Phish follower), his Jewishness was almost irrelevant.

ALMIGHTY JAH?: Between the beat-boxing, ghetto patois, and overall jam-band æsthetic, Matisyahu’s Jewishness is almost irrelevant.
The following night at “Jewltide” — a JDub-and-Heeb-magazine-sponsored show at T.T. the Bear’s Place — the focus was on Jewish tradition. The Montreal-based klezmer outfit Shtreiml met with mixed reactions, as did SoCalled, Josh Dolgin’s one-man accordion/hip-hop sampling project. But the predominantly Jewish crowd had come with plenty of love for the LeeVees, the pairing of Guster guitarist Adam Gardner with Dave Schneider of the Connecticut-based hockey-joke band the Zambonis. They released Hanukkah Rocks on Reprise in 2005. “Dave and I were talking about how there are all these kick-ass Jewish rockers,” Gardner explains. “There are all these amazing Christmas songs but not any Hanukkah songs. It was just the sheer lack of music surrounding the holiday that inspired us to write our own.”

After starting the show by passing out jelly doughnuts — traditional Hanukkah fare — the duo touched on what Gardner called the “food, family, and fun” side of Judaism. Working with acoustic and electric guitars in lieu of the full band, they stomped through “How Do You Spell Channukkah?” and “Apple Sauce vs. Sour Cream,” the latter about potato-latke-topping preferences. The lyrics about Christmas envy and Florida timeshares might have appeared to play into traditional stereotypes, but to the Jews in the audience, the songs were about celebrating a common bond.

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 See all articles by: ADAM GOLD

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