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School of Rock

Bringing traditional music into the club, and pop sounds into the chapel

February 11, 2009

Like all modern Jewish art forms, Jewish pop music is often an attempt to recast material, to translate certain stories for new audiences so they aren’t lost. This can be a burden, or it can be a catalyst to explore identity, to experience spirituality, to exorcise nostalgia from the songs that have run through our minds since childhood.

And like all pop music, contemporary Jewish pop must struggle to negotiate a delicate balance between originality and a perceptible thread of its influences. It has to maintain youthfulness while grappling with songs we associate with our parents—for many, traditional Jewish music feels so inherently tied to family that it can be a challenge for those in between childhood and parenthood to relate to it.

Two new bands are innovating in these directions—albeit from different ends of young adulthood: 32-year-old David Griffin’s indie-rock outfit Hebrew School, and Zeda’s Beat Box, a band consisting of an adult and four teenagers.

Hebrew School, which is funded by a Six Points Fellowship, was founded in New York City in 2007. Its first album is set to be released this March or April. According to its Web site, the band is going for “an innovative use of the genres of Indie rock and experimental music to mitigate, through recording and performance, the disaffection of Jewish life in a large urban center.” In case the language didn’t tip you off, Griffin identifies with the eye-rollers in the back of the Sunday school classroom, the kids who were bored by what they saw as a burdensome and irrelevant tacking-on of superficial Jewishness to otherwise secular lives, or considered themselves “too cool” for religious and cultural engagement, but, in adulthood, find themselves craving some sort of reconciliation. “I joke that this is a therapy process for me, working the songs through my head,” says Griffin.

While some of Griffin’s lo-fi, multi-instrumental songs are covers of traditional favorites, others are originals. In the former category, his “Adon Olam” is completely deconstructed, full of hoots and warbles, drum rolls and noise. It’s still somehow pretty, and performing live, the band seems to enjoy it with the particular abandon that accompanies the destruction of childhood sacred cows; in this case, the target is particularly apt, as “Adon Olam” is known to be musically mutable. “At my bar mitzvah I sang it to the tune of ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,’” says Griffin. Hebrew School’s rendition is an attempt to subvert the general wisdom that the song can be sung to a variety of tunes, he says, “a way to prove the point that it couldn’t work with any melody.” In fact, though, by going so far out in its rendition, the band almost comes back around to something that might be described as a “classic” experimental piece, and as such, just another way to perform “Adon Olam” in any genre.

Among Griffin’s original compositions, there are gestures, overt and hidden, toward a kind of inescapable Jewishness. One song, “The Gravlax,” puts lyrics like, “I’m not in it for the JCC…I’m not in it for being a Jew, just in it for the gravlax” to an indie pop beat. “People commented that it sounds just like a rock song you might hear in some jukebox in Brooklyn,” Griffin says, “but then if you step in, there’s this strange other element.” But it’s hard to tell where intriguing uncanniness ends and novelty for its own sake begins. Honestly, any mention of smoked fish by a band called Hebrew School seems pretty conspicuous.

“Ancillary Devices” drops a hint obscure enough that it feels like a secret treat to pick out—the first notes are from “Adir Hu,” a tune from the Passover seder. The song’s lyrics are a bit literal, but their subject—deliberate methods Griffin uses to spark his creativity (“like the current tack of only writing on two-thirds/ to 75% of a page”)—provides a double meaning. Jewishness itself functions as one of these devices for Griffin: “The Jewish content holds the music in a container and gives me room within certain boundaries to be creative,” he says. Griffin, who also performs with the band Golem, came of age musically during the early 1990s, and he absorbed that era’s proclivity toward art that is also a comment on itself. “I like to ride that fine line,” says Griffin.

“Ironically, one of the things that has informed the project is the kind of Jewish education I had: three days a week, very rote learning, ‘here’s how you sing this,’” says Griffin. “The curriculum was such that we may not know what the words mean, but we can sing them back to our parents and they’ll be happy. But there’s got to be more to it than that.”

Listen to “Adon Olam” by Hebrew School

Listen to “The Gravlax” by Hebrew School

For 16-year-old Elliot Liebman, guitarist and vocalist for Zeda’s Beat Box, there is, in some relatively uncomplicated sense, “more to” those peppy summer camp singalong songs. Liebman—who, when it comes to music, insists he means it when he says he listens to everything, but lists his favorites as genre-defining classics Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, and the Grateful Dead—finds a pure satisfaction in personalizing the songs of his (ongoing) youth.

Zeda’s Beat Box was formed in St. Louis by 41-year-old Dave Simon, founder of Dave Simon’s Rock School. Simon came up with the idea—a band that would play retooled, reggae-inflected versions of traditional Jewish songs, as well as a few related originals that he pens—and then handpicked four star pupils to join (besides Liebman, there’s Chris Lowery, Claire Holohan, and Ely Thayer). Liebman jumped at the chance. “I really got a kick out of it when Dave told me about the whole thing,” he says in a laid-back drawl.

The band performs primarily for synagogues and youth groups, although it has also played some successful shows in rock clubs. Its first album, Seven (listen to it here), with a sound reminiscent of Sublime and familiar to anyone who’s even heard a Bob Marley track, features lyrics that are sometimes also overly literal, but in this case they are in service of explicating grand ideas behind traditional Jewish songs, as opposed to personal explorations. In “Am Yisrael Chai,” a ska beat belies a straight take on a classic Jewish idea: “Wandering without a home, without a place to call our own/The desert sands are full of hope, plant a seed a garden grows.” And in “Adonai Malach,” a more hard-rock-tinged intro leads into the words of the prayer, and lyrics like “When they hear your judgments, all of Zion will rejoice.”

Zeda’s Beat Box also risks falling into the traps of the novelty act—in this case because the youth and unabashed enthusiasm of the performers can make their songs seem quirky-cute. Liebman proudly enjoys membership in the youth group BBYO, where hanging out with friends sometimes means observing the Sabbath, and, he says, “the deepest, most emotional connection I get to Judaism is through the music.” He says he’s never even considered the possibility that someone might make fun of him for making Jewish music, or that he might find it remotely embarrassing. In place of Hebrew School’s complicated blend of disaffection and semi-ironic reclamation, Liebman and his bandmates seemingly just want to rock out, Jew-style.

Hebrew School, then, has a greater task; while both bands have a theoretical built-in niche audience, Griffin’s is a group often characterized by a sarcastic sensibility that relegates anything easily accessible to the realm of a guilty, kitschy pleasure—and then hordes those, leaving little room for much in the way of supposedly serious pursuits. So, despite their aesthetic affinity with the musical tropes he employs, some of Griffin’s peers may find themselves in the ironic situation of preferring the music of a group of teenagers to the more intellectual, tongue-in-cheek output of a fellow traveler.

Perhaps the bands would benefit from access to each other’s venues. Zeda’s Beat Box may be able to sell out a rec room at the local shul, but Hebrew School can fill a rock club. “Personally I think our audience is in that 20 to 30 age crowd, kind of like hippie people, says Liebman. “But it’s hard to get to that crowd because they don’t have synagogues that you can just give a call, and do a show at.

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.