The Sounds of Ethnic Particularism: Matisyahu can Stand Up and Sing
Depressed by current events, I’ve turned to Matisyahu for comfort. The former Matthew Paul Miller, a secular Jew turned baal tsehuvah (i.e. he has become an extremely religious Jew) is a hip hopping hasid strongly influenced by reggae music. He frequently rhymes about Jewish themes, which I enjoy, even if his religiosity can make me, an atheist/agnostic Reconstructionist Jew, somewhat uncomfortable. My favourite song of his, however , speaks to the secular and religious. It’s called “Jerusalem,” and I’d like to nominate it for our “Stand Up and Sing” political song contest.
The chorus, “Jerusalem if I forget you, fire not gonna come from my tongue, Jerusalem if I forget you, let ye right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,” is a Biblical reference, from Psalms 137:5-6. The actual passage reads: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” This is classic (if not classical) Judaism: even when you’re happy, even when you’re celebrating, like at a wedding, for example, you should still remind yourself of tragedy, so break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The first verse of Psalm 137 is the famous, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” made famous by the reggae band The Melodians as “Rivers of Babylon” in the soundtrack for 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come. The Rastafarian/Jewish-Zionist connection rears its head again. Supposedly, the prophet Jeremiah penned Psalm 137 by those very rivers of Babylon sometime after 586 BCE, where he lamented his people’s exile aka The Babylonian Captivity, praying for a return to his homeland, Ancient Israel, and its capitol, Jerusalem.
Of course, one needn’t read this passage so literally. In fact, Matisyahu himself doesn’t. In the song’s first verse, he sings:
3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty
I guess Matisyahu is including the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, but he’s referring to 3000 years of life in the Diaspora (Jewish life outside of Israel/Zion). Or is he? For it seems that the “milk and honey” he’s being forced to give up is not something physical, “not the country,” but in fact “the dwelling of his majesty.” This is not referring to the King of Israel, but probably to God himself/herself/itself. But that’s only if you read the song religiously. If you read it as a proud secular Jew and ethnic particularist, like I do, you can still read it in a depoliticized fashion: this is not Zionism (the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jew have a complicated relationship with modern Zionism anyhow). Instead the “dwelling of his majesty” could mean the spirit of Judaism, or Jewish identity, if your heart and mind. I think that’s how Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism (the denomination to which I belong, as did the pre-hassidic Matthew Miller), would probably read it.
The next verse is more expressly political, or at least historical.
Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep
They come overseas, yes they’re trying to be free
Erase the demons out of our memory
Change your name and your identity
Afraid of the truth and our dark history
Why is everybody always chasing we
Cut off the roots of your family tree
Don’t you know that’s not the way to be
The first line here may refer to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Yet the next verses are clearly about the Holocaust, and about Jewish assimilation after the tragedy. The last lines, “cut off the roots of your family tree, don’t you know that’s not the way to be,” is quite clearly a paean to Jewish cultural retention, yet it too need not be read religiously. It can just as easily refer to Jewish culture as Jewish religion. In fact, it need not be read Jewishly, but might simply be interpreted as a paean to ethnic particularism. The key idea: it’s schmucky to abandon wholesale the culture from which you sprang. Obviously reality is more complicated than that, but the words get me going each time.
Matisyahu’s message is clearly more religious than political. And yet, he is also trying to bring people together through music. And that’s not just instilling pride in Jews left and right, secular and religious. He’s also performed with Muslim beatboxer Kenny Muhammad. And in a version of one of his most recent hits, the catchy if somewhat naive and generic antiwar song, “One Day,” he performs with Akon. Yes, that Akon: the Senegalese-American Muslim and another of my favourite recording artists. It’s not peace in the Middle East, but it’s something.