Leah Koenig
The So Called Jewish Cultural Revolution, p. 3

The Real Deal

JDub Records executive director Aaron Bisman has honed his elevator pitch. He says that JDub’s mission is to "create community and foster positive Jewish identity among young Jews, their friends, and significant others by promoting proud, authentic Jewish voices in popular culture and through cross cultural musical dialogue." In bringing such diverse but distinctly Jewish music to the public, JDub is seeking to "revision the boundaries and categories of Judaism that we have gotten to know." In other words, Jewish music does not have to be "corny, Debbie Friedman crap" and – perhaps the larger point – Jewishness does not have to be irrelevant or ostracizing to Jews who do not fit into the molds of tradition. By expanding and reshaping Jewish boundaries, JDub has begun to validate and even popularize "out" Jewish music to a population of Jews who would otherwise have nothing to do with it. Likewise, other innovative Jewish organizations like Heeb, Hazon, and Storahtelling – not to mention Zeek– serve as gateways through which Jews can discover that Judaism’s ancient wisdom need not be hidden in ancient packaging. At least in theory.

Bisman describes So Called’s music is "spot on" with what JDub is trying to do. Although So Called works closely with traditional Jewish music and is the musical director at an Orthodox synagogue (yes, really), his own relationship to Judaism does not fit into traditionally defined categories. "I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in religion," he said. So Called’s connection with Judaism – something he admits he is still figuring out – was sparked by his deep love and respect of both hip hop and of his Jewish predecessors like Hoffman Watts and Mickey Katz. He realized that, "hip hop is about representing who you are and your crew. When I started making this type of music I didn’t really have an identity. I was just this little weird Jewish kid. Then I realized hey, that’s who I am."

That the mainstream Jewish funders have begun to tune into the work of self-identified "weird Jewish kids" and innovative organizations is commendable – if a little surprising. One wonders to what extent they "get it" and to what extent desperation is driving them to try this new idea even despite deep skepticism of it. Certainly, when that skepticism is reinforced -- when Heeb runs another provocative cover image, for example -- there have been sharp reactions in some quarters.

What could be more beneficial for a small innovative upstart organization than the financial backing of the established funding community? It ensures both financial support and an implied sense of organizational legitimacy. (Note: Zeek has received financial support from one large Jewish foundation, enjoys the fiscal sponsorship of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and is seeking further support.) However, one cannot help but wonder if there is a catch to mainstream institutional support. Do the joys of being a little fringe and under the radar get somehow cheapened with a federation’s stamp of approval? Does a federation’s logo at a Slivovitz and Soul show elicit the same cringe as a Kraft or Target logo gracing the program of a jazz festival? Or, given that so many of these institutions are linked to private families, is this less like Sony spinning off an independent label and more like the return of artistic patronage?

One significant difference between this round of patronage and earlier ones (from the Medicis forward) is the role of the focus groups and questionnaires in this early twenty-first century model. The Medicis, arguably, funded culture they considered beautiful. Today's foundations fund art they consider effective - effective at attracting and retaining new Jews. Really, they don't care if So Called doesn't believe in God, or if Heeb is sacreligous. If the focus groups say that kids like it, then more power to them.

The degree to which an "impact" is expected varies. Some foundation-funded surveys simply measure whether more Jews are doing Jewish-y activities like going to Silovitz and Soul shows. If they show up, and (hopefully) meet other Jews, then great. Other studies are more ambitious, and try to gauge if Jews are being engaged enough by their "new Jewish encounters" to continue their exploration beyond the front gate.

But what happens if the sociologist’s surveys from scene two turn up with unsatisfactory results? How often does institutional funding translate into a musician or organization being asked to compromise their own goals to produce projects that please the federation or philanthropist? And are focus groups, which measure immediate popularity, the best recipe for encouraging the long-term growth of Jewish culture?

In a sense, if So Called, Matisyahu, Heeb, Zeek, or Storahtelling are asked to compromise -- as Heeb was, in the wake of its "Zionist/Anti-Zionist" mini-controversy - it's no different from when large publishers or record labels order their artists to produce a hit, or not rock the boat. There are mixed motives, but this, too, is like the mainstream of American media: independent artists and musicians are often in the business to make the best art they can, while the people writing the checks are looking at the bottom line. The only difference is the metric; in the record industry, it's sales - in Jewish philanthropy, it's souls.

Fortunately for his fans, So Called would probably minimize these navel-gazing questions, preferring instead to focus on dope a new beat, or the sweetness of an old forgotten melody. As a producer of Jewish music, however (and someone who, like Zeek's staff, is constantly pitching his project to would-be funders), Bisman stresses the point that the benefits of mainline funding far outweigh any potential costs: "Honestly, if we as grassroots organizations spurn the opportunities we're given to put our dreams in to reality, we're crazy. This [trend] is about amazing funders willing to empower young people to create their own Jewish experiences." What the new crop of innovative Jewish organizations like JDub bank on is that the foundation funding allows their dreams, their projects, their artists and teachers to reach a large and formerly untapped Jewish audience. Maybe, over time – as these innovative startups grow into established Jewish organizations - the "Jewish experiences" they create might just change the face of mainstream Judaism itself, into something more inclusive, more compelling and – if So Called has anything to do with it – more funky as well.

[1]       [2]       3
Image: So Called

Leah Koenig is Associate Editor of Zeek Magazine, and also works for at least two other Jewish organizations.

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