While most of America is used to the hackneyed half-truth of Jews manipulating the media, this year has seen more and more of the chosen people go from behind the scenes to making the scene. Red-string Kabbalah bracelets show up on wrists belonging to Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears, hyperwitty Heeb magazine wins critical accolades from mainstream media, and Reprise Records releases Hanukkah Rocks by the LeeVees, an exceedingly arch album of Hanukkah-themed indie rock, making it clear that the new millennium is a great time to let your inner Hebrew hang out.
"It's a matter of where American culture is at," says Aaron Bisman, founder of JDub Records, the New York label that originally launched the LeeVees, Klezmer hip-hoppers Balkan Beat Box, and Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae phenom. "We've come to a point now where Jews are interested in finding those connections to their religion and culture they may have lost over generations and a point where it's very normal now to have a multifaceted personal identity. However you feel politically, religiously, culturally, sexually it's not like there's one mainstream thing that everyone has to abide by. It's more normal to just be yourself. Young Jews are Jews, but they may be Democrats or Republicans, gay or straight, blue state or red state, whatever it's gonna be. But they can now also make real connections to their Judaism. So these cultural outlets, whether it's Matisyahu, the LeeVees, or Heeb magazine, there's a real space for and interest in those kind of things right now."
The oddity known as Matisyahu has been a major magnet for interest in the New Jewish Identity. His first Fort Lauderdale appearance drew 500-some yarmulke-rocking college kids to the Culture Room back in March. His return last month saw more than 2,000 fans of all stripes thronging Revolution in a sold-out performance. With press in major international magazines, a video in heavy rotation on MTV, and two albums released in '05, Matisyahu is the biggest Jewish cultural icon since, um, ever.
"He's mainstream now," says Josh Norek, part-time L.A.-based record label honcho, part-time music publicist, part-time MC in the Jewish-Latino band Hip Hop Hoodios. "I drive in L.A. I hear him on KROQ; I hear him on Indie 103. Did I ever in my lifetime think I'd hear someone singing 'We want moshiach [messiah] now' on commercial radio? I used to think we had a weird existence, playing in a Latin Jewish hip-hop group on a Latin TV network, but Matisyahu takes it to a whole new level."
Like the LeeVees who jangle their way through tongue-in-cheek tunes like "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" and "Applesauce vs. Sour Cream," Norek's Hoodios teeter away from Matisyahu's heady spirituality toward the other end of the Jewish personality spectrum.
"It would be foolish not to use our sense of humor," Norek says. "Being Jewish, we're like 2 percent of the population, 50 percent of the comedians. There's no doubt about it, we're funny." The Hoodios' humor, however, is edgy and aggressive in a way that's not normally associated with the neurotic self-loathing or Borscht Belt dyspeptics of older Jewish funnymen like Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, or Mel Brooks.
"We have a new song called 'Kike on the Mic,'" Norek says. "We played that song at a show in L.A., and afterwards the booker came up to me and said, 'You're never coming back here! I grew up in New York public school, and if you said kike or nigger, you'd get your ass kicked.' I explained the origin of the word it comes from the Yiddish word keikel, which means circle. And then over time, the word took on a derogatory connotation because immigrant Jews would get off the boat at Ellis Island and, not knowing what to put on their immigration paperwork because they didn't read or write English, they'd just draw a circle. So when I sing 'I'm a kike on the mic,' the point is, I'm not offended. You're calling me a circle. It takes the sting out of the word. And if you listen to the music itself, it's a really powerful, punchy song. It's hard rock meets hip-hop meets Klezmer, probably the loudest song you'll ever hear with a Klezmer horn. And that's deliberate. It's in-your-face. It's militant, but it's proud. No more of that nebbishy Two Live Jews crap."
Norek's awareness of history is exactly what Rabbi Daniel Treiser of Plantation's Temple Kol Ami hopes will emerge en masse from the Jewish hipster renaissance.
"If this Jewish rock music or rap music or wearing your religion as a T-shirt slogan is all you're doing, you're missing the greater message," he says. "To have real pride in your religion, you have to have some connection to what you're proud of. It's great that we live in a country where we feel comfortable wearing Judaism out there. For centuries, you couldn't publicly acknowledge it. But it can't be done in a vacuum. There has to be something else behind it; otherwise, it's empty."
It's a lesson that can be applied to any cultural trend. As Americans, we often absorb traditions without fully knowing the heritage behind them. From Buddhism to hip-hop, Kabbalah to Rasta, the practice comes easily, but understanding is far more difficult.
Anybody remember the reason for the season? Yeah, me neither.