Beat the Drum while Rome Burns

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“They’ve Got Rhythm,” says the article, accompanied by a large photo of participants in a Jewish drum circle. It dominates the front page of the Washington Jewish Week, and runs for several additional pages. The story appeared several months ago (though it first came into my hands this weekend), but is a paradigm for many similar articles about “building community” and “up and coming new Jewish traditions.” These pieces deliver a message with poignant eloquence: the “organized Jewish community” now recognizes that there is a crisis — and has no clue what to do to stop it.

With assimilation barreling along at unparalleled rates, and accelerating by the day, our communal bodies look for new ways to keep and attract Jews. They will take any activity and try to stick a yarmulke on it, no matter how tenuous the connection — comparing a group banging on drums to the sublime and glorious prayers of King David’s Book of Psalms, for example.

They believe that new and innovative Jewish outreach means trying the latest fad. In June, JESNA — the Jewish Education Service of North America — announced that it is providing incubator support for a new project. What is this new program that the Education Service is incubating? A Jewish record and events production company, “promoting artists who use secular forms like reggae, hip-hop, and electronica.” They claim to be “evoking a strong response from young Jewish audiences” — and I do not doubt for a moment that they get young Jews to come out and listen.

Their mistake is quite simple. Looking back from today, they imagine that what Jewish groups were doing in the 1940’s and 50’s was old and outdated, and that’s why they couldn’t keep up. They are wrong. What Jewish groups were doing then was, at that time, the newest, hippest activity — but it was a pale imitation of what the non-Jews were doing, and everyone knew it. Perhaps the parents never figured it out, but their kids did: if the non-Jews are doing the same stuff, but better, why do we need to identify with the facsimile?

Today’s Jewish drum bangers, rap singers and modern dancers are all doing the newest, hippest activities — as a pale imitation of what the non-Jews are doing, and everyone knows it. The activities may have changed, but the underlying behavior hasn’t moved an inch. They are trying nothing new — they are following the trends of American culture, which is part of how they got into the problem. Drum groups are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This should not be misinterpreted as a rejection of drumming or singing or dancing as a social activity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these. The problem comes in identifying these activities as “building community” or “promoting continuity.” They are fun diversions for affiliated Jews, and nothing more.

A Jewish activity is one that has a distinctly Jewish component — something that we do better than the surrounding world, not just “more Jewishly.” That translates to something involving Judaism, not just a body of Jews. Studying Psalms, for example — lessons that would leave the listener entirely incapable of comparing King David to a guy with a bongo. Admittedly, a class will attract a much smaller audience, but the impact on the Jewish future will be far more profound.

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5 Responses

  1. Josh Milner says:

    I run that drum circle. I founded it not at all for the purposes of outreach, just to have fun, and maybe teach a little Torah while we are at it so it isn’t just what everyone else does. It’s really that simple. I hear your point, but it really wasn’t relevant to our drum circle.
    Just as the use of this very medium– a blog– co-opts a popular cultural trend for the purposes of bettering Jewish experience, so too can a drum circle.

  2. Edvallace says:

    Yaakov,

    When that singer also performs on MTV and stage dives it does far more harm than any good his lyrics can deliver. I’ve yet to find someone who’s been turned on to Judaism by his performances, and I’ve personally met more than one Jw, who questioned why an observant jew would do such things.

    Bottom line: Sell Judaism if you want people to buy Judaism. Don’t sell reggae/bongo drums/tikun olam etc. and expect people to buy Judaism.

  3. Yaakov Rosenblatt, Dallas says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. You have given hope to many who have grasped for it these last few weeks.

  4. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    The recent emergence of a popular Jewish Reggae singer is a case in point. Seeing a (Hasidic) Jew do something otherwise associated with Jamaicans is interesting and entertaining. But it hardly forms the building blocks of a Jewish identity – Jewish lyrics notwithstanding.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I think you did an excellent job of identifying the problem, treating fun diversions as if they were relevant activities. However, there is a related solution hidden here.

    To get back to the Psalms, they weren’t just written in Hebrew. They were also written in a particular poetic style, one that we know from Ugarit predates the Israelite Kingdom. Probably the people who first heard those Psalms were more receptive because the style was familiar, even if the message was not. Similarly, the poetic style of the medieval Piyutim was taken from Arabic poetry.

    A drum circle, by itself, is meaningless for Judaism – even if it happens to take place in a Synagogue. But think of a drum circle where one of the musicians reads from the Psalms to the beating of the drums. People might come for the drumming, hear the Psalms, and get interested enough to learn more about them. A similar process happened to me with SCA bardic.