Tuesday, March 22, 2005

From Fiddler on the Roof to Beatbox in the Hood

From Fiddler on the Roof to blah blah blah blah. Any panel discussion that starts with "From Fiddler on the Roof to..." inevitably ends up like a Shabas dinner when you were ten -- boring, irrelevant babble from old people punctuated by moments of keen, unbearable embarassment.

That certainly covers much of the panel I attended last night at the JCCSF (same title as post), but luckily it had a few wonderful moments too. The guests were Theodore Bikel, Hankus Netsky, Jewlia Eisenberg, and DJ SoCalled (who one old lady, in a moment of surreal hilarity, referred to as "DJ" like it was his first name).

Like many panels I've attended, the people on stage were smarter than anyone else who spoke, and should have been left, unmoderated and unquestioned, to their own devices. Instead they had to struggle through incoherent questions and badly-parsed cliches just to say something interesting. I wish I'd brought a notebook because Netsky and SoCalled actually built a decent dialogue on their divergent aims regarding musical reconstruction. A few things that did stick with me:

- Theodore Bikel saying that Fiddler on the Roof is great theatre, but it's still a "substitute schtetl," which many (Jewish and not) use to assuage their guilt or fulfill their quota of Jewish awareness. He called it "paying someone to Jew for you," which sounds more bitter out of context than it was intended. He believes that Fiddler can be an excellent starting point, inspiration, or confirmation in the journey of Jewish experience, but it "better not be the endpoint."

- Hankus Netsky decrying the dismissal of Jewish arts in contemporary Academia, and the relegation of music to the back burner in Yiddish theatre specifically.

- SoCalled reminding the audience that Copeland and Bernstein are "wonderful Jewish American composers...who wrote like white people."

- SoCalled objecting to the label of "Jewish hiphop," not because it pigeonholed him, but because it misunderstood the nature of hiphop music. This was a perfect comment (roughly quoted): "Hiphop is about representing who you are. I'm Jewish, and that has come to heavily inform the hiphop that I make, but it's still hiphop. It's time for the ghetto to end."

What was missing from the talk, but what presumably gets said quite a bit, is the remarkable tool hiphop has contributed to the American Jewish struggle for identity. As last night's introductory monologue from Aaron Davidman (of Traveling Jewish Theater) observed, our religion is about wrestling with ourselves and God. The ability of hiphop (through sampling, wordplay, and cultural association) to continuously re-engage history fits perfectly into the ongoing metaphysical Wrestlemania that defines our religion. SoCalled tried to explain why it made such a natural match, and why it should not be dismissed, but there was too much Bikel-related asskissing nostalgia for that point to get through. Not to say he doesn't deserve it. But SoCalled and others are right to warn the older generation that the next wave of Jews need something besides Tevye to hold onto.

Oh, also. Buy all of SoCalled's albums, because, instead of falling prey to all the gimmicks you might expect, they kick total ass.


Muñoz said...

I have never ever blogged before, so I'd just like you to know Alek that this is a big deal. The first paragraph of this post is the funniest thing I've ever read. I was literally in tears at the office (which happens frequently, but you know, not usually joyously) Amazing. The rest is incisive and enlightening as always! Keep being you! (oh no- are comments supposed to be for dialogue not "my friend is so cool" posts? oh well.)

alek said...

woooo! thanks for reading, mumu. praise, unexpected vicious personal insults, impersonations, and substantive commentary all welcome in the comments section.

miss you lots.