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The Maccabee warriors' trouncing of synagogue-defiling Greeks (a victory, incidentally, that blew Jewish chances to trade patriarchy for paganism) pales next to the Savior's birth. But Hanukkah offers its own charms and boost to the economyeight days of presents and that catchy "Dreidel" tune. This year's Hanukkah could beat out the Christmas competition in New York, thanks to a burgeoning wave of musicians recording and performing individual takes on Jewish identity.
What separates this new breed from older, super-Jewish music legends like name changer Bob Dylan and Buddhist Leonard Cohen is that even the irreligious among them insist on Jewishness in their art. And as some venture far beyond the overgrazed turf of their grandparents' kitschy Yiddishkeit, they are joined by Jews of color, for whom Yiddish and klezmer were once as alien as bagels and lox. Take all-Black, all-Jewish New Jersey gospel singer Joshua Nelson, who's re-energizing the synagogue experience through glorious, rock-the-rafters soul. Or rapper Y-Love, a local Black convert to the mystical Bostoner sect of Orthodox Judaism, who spits verse in Aramaic.
But the leading new Jewish contender for pop's next big bang is Matisyahu, a figure attracting almost as many rude bwoys as yeshiva boychiks. His sold-out September 8 Webster Hall concert was full of surreal and evocative equations. The stage backdrop was a huge Rasta-inspired red, green, and gold cloth sun with a Star of David dead center. Pre-show, the sound system rum-bled with spare dub and Eek-a-Mouse's wordless vocalizings, which, come to think of it, sound just like a Hasidic niggun. The screams hailing Matisyahu's entrance were as worthy of a reggae prophet as a Jewish messiah, and as he roamed the stage, dipping a shoulder and knee to the band's gritty one-drop riddims, the lean and lanky 26-year-old came off authentically cool and deadly: reminiscent, in fact, of the 1980s' Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler who set reggae's sartorial fad for cris' dark suits, white shirts, and "crowns," just like the Hasidim that Jamaicans pass every day on the streets of Crown Heights.
Kickass sounds and Hasidim may not go together like rice and peas, but the Hasidic movement started with an 18th-century Eastern European shtetl rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov, who used music and dance to restore his flock's joy in God. That somber, black-suited stranger who won't meet your eye may dress like the Baal did back in the day, but within the walls of his community, he'll cut loose like a man possessed. At Matisyahu's concert, we got a taste when a Hasid bounded onstage to execute a whirling Napoleon Dynamitestyle dance, a geeky yet strangely wonderful kaleidoscopic image of pointed elbows and knees, followed by an endorphin-pumping circle jump executed by Matisyahu, his percussionist, and a down-cheeked 19- year-old sporting a cris' black Borsalino.
The former Matthew Miller credits the ultra-religious Chabad Hasid sect with his transformation from dreadlocked, heavy-spliffin', soul-searching Phish follower who couldn't get an open-mic band together to kosher-keeping, yeshiva-attending, mitzvah practitioner with major-record-label push. Once he became Matisyahu, it was as if the waves parted so he could sing out the truth.
Those less persuaded grumble about the novelty of a reggae-singing Hasid and Jewish Sony execs eager to sign one of their own. But his '04 Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise debut, 2005's reggae-chart-climbing Matisyahu Live at Stubb's, and performances steeped in reggae's hortatory urge to spread the vibes prove it's no shtick. When he launches songs like Arise's "Tzama L'Chol Nafshi" or "Aish Tamid" full throttle with an ancient Hebraic lament, then smoothly slides into less feverish but equally rapt roots-rock stylings, Matisyahu re-enacts over and over hisand ourlonging for and discovery of God. For Youth, his Epic/Or Music/JDub mainstream bid (due January 31), Matisyahu forgoes his Hebrew psalms for a more genericand therefore less distinctivespiritual focus, mostly propelled by the winding and twisting chanting style Sizzla pioneered. Matisyahu's light tenor lacks Sizzla's dread weight, but his bluster-free candor and the band's spectacularly agile reggae adaptations project an infectious emotional commitment of their own.
His reggae-ized accounts of his religious life are radiantly convincing, in part because Jewish-Rasta echoes are nothing new, even if each pretends the other doesn't exist. Awake Zion, Monica Haim's humorous, sometimes mind-blowing new documentary, explores the reasons why Matisyahu's "wah-wah-yo"s are a shade away from reggae's "whoi-yoi-yoi"s. Equivalent rules of conductJewish payess versus Rasta dreadlocks for men and covered hair for both groups' women, kosher versus Ital diets, "right speech" (Jewish lashon hara versus Rasta "word + sound = power")illustrate a deeper commonality. Both mythologize prolonged exile in Babylon and longing for return to Zion, be it Israel or Africahistory as recorded in the Old Testament. Some of Zion's interviewees straddle both sides of the equationfor instance, African-Caribbean, Russian Jewish, Israel-raised Yossi Fine, founder of the concussive Ex-Centric Sound System, one of the first to frame a musical fusion within that Jamaican template. Not to mention Jamaica-born white Jew Nigel the Admore ("Don of Rabbis"), who once reggae-rapped in downtown NYC but now, as a silk-robed, fur-hatted Breslov Hasid, lavishes hilarious lyrical skills on fellow Israelis. As African American hip-hopreggae singer-producer Doctor Israel tells Haim, "My history, your historywho cares?"
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