Friday, March 24, 2006

the wyur marathon: three physicists and also fudge was there

to everyone who listened, i would like to issue an enthusiastic thank-you. especially those of you who called in (: you really livened up the show. likewise i'd like to apologize for the talking-over. that's one of the things i love about my show and hate at the same time: you literally never know who is going to randomly pull up to a mike. when there's more people there i find the conversation usually gets more interesting, so i try and let them talk, but especially when you've got more than four guys in the same room, it's hard to get them to grant each other that courtesy. did you like the physics majors discussing literature? i don't know if anyone heard, but at the end we got a sy syms major to call in and defend the business school. that was a very cool part of the night for me.
likewise, the radio marathon saw my initiation into several station rituals, including the Going On The Roof, Yelling 'Fore!' And Throwing An Ancient Motherboard Overboard tradition, the Going Into The Art Room And Putting A Post-It Note Mustache On The Caeser Mannequin, and last but surely not least, falling for the old Staircase Switcheroo That Lets You Out in the Middle of the Theater During YCDS Practice, Causing Unseen People to Scream, 'Who Is That Silhoutte Messing Up My Damned Lighting?'

To those about to rock, we salute you.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

the shidduch shuttle

you know, i really never wanted to write about this. i disdain resorting to cheap shots, and the intercampus shuttle between yu and stern is a kind of undead joke that probably past its expiration date somewhere in the 80s. for those of you non-yuers, i'll go through the motion just once for background purposes: there's a shuttle that runs every 45 minutes between campuses, and as the ride lasts about 45 minutes with no possible escape, the shuttle is touted as a great way to Meet Your Match. you know, i've always felt that the shuttle was unfairly singled out. let's face it: nearly EVERYTHING at yu is designed to help you Meet Your Match. yeah, the shuttle encourages you to interact with the opposite sex, but you really don't have to. i take the shuttle embarrassingly often, but i take music with me and sit in the back and i'm fine; besides, most people on the shuttle are talking on their cell phones anyway. the old, much-mocked awkward socializing? a thing of past decades--before the invention of portable electronics.

apparently, the yu administration is catching on.

a series of shuttle renovations have been enacted in what i can only title "operation humiliation." you know all those nice, normal, front-facing individual seats that are traditional in buses and shuttles? so yu took out all those seats. then they installed exactly two long benches on either side of the shuttle, facing each other, like a shuttle at the airport. what this boils down to in practice is two highly undesirable side effects:
1) you can only fit about twelve people on the new shuttle, whereas 30 or so want transportation. ergo, you now need two intercampus shuttles to do one old shuttle's job. ah, progress.
2) you have to stare at the person across from you pretty much the whole time.
oh, and as an added extra-special bonus: shomer negiah? on a bench with six guys? hah! good luck, sucker! hope you like sitting crammed into the furthest corner of the bench with your knees tucked under you and your school bag as a thin barrier between you and five guys, constanty smashing your head against the back window when the shuttle exceeds warp speed!

the message from the administration is brutally clear: this shuttle ride is a blessed chance to interact with your esteemed peers, one of whom may be your future partner in a bais neeman biyisrael, and DAMNED if you aren't going to take advantage of it!

i should've seen it coming. my roommate had been kvetching about it on my show, but i tuned her out. (har). oh yeah, new shuttle, whatever. right. well, tonight i learned my lesson. three bags of groceries barely gripped in my hands, i clambored aboard the midtown shuttle, where i was promptly confronted with the following scene:

roughly ten guys, crammed tightly along two benches positioned so closely their knees are touching. staring at each other. miserably. the makeup is mixed. one of them is a friend of mine; a few others look extremely black-hat; a few others look like they're probably headed down to stern for a concert and are dressed like members of coldplay; and finally, at the end, in a corner, sits one pitifully depressed-looking guy who is clearly on one of those don't-even-look-at-girls kicks they do in yeshivas where i come from. he is staring at his shoes. he will continue to stare at his shoes throughout the entire ride, for which i kind of commend him.

my reaction to this scene is not really printable. but a shuttle's a shuttle. gotta get back to stern somehow.

so i decide to interrogate the driver.

"hey, this isn't really a midtown, is it?"


"are you sure?"


"Cause um, you know, midtowns usually look different."

"i know."

"it could be a local."

one of the guys pipes up: "it's midtown," and then generously offers me the corner seat, across from Tahor Man, with space he makes by squishing himself and everyone else in the row into the opposite wall. there is no extra seat for my groceries like i usually have, so i am forced to keep them on the floor in the two-foot space between my knees and Tahor Man's knees. over the course of the trip, my cereal boxes will inflict many minor injuries upon his shins, which he will bear with a grim stoicism that would many a martyr should covet.

the two shuttles take off. and i put on my music, trying to politely stare past Tahor Man's head.

of course, i have eight pairs of eyes from the opposite bench looking at me. just as i am in turn looking at them, looking at me. cause yknow, there isn't a whole lot else i can LOOK at, with this particular set-up.

"geez," one comments. "sucks to be you, doesn't it?"

"hm?" i say, gesturing at my music machine.

"well, you're the only girl on the shuttle," reasons another. "this must be really awkward and uncomfortable for you. what could we possibly do to make it more awkward and uncomfortable? i can't think of anything."

"no, the administration's pretty much taken care of that," i agree.

uncomfortable silence. someone decides to put up his feet. it is not pretty.

"oh come on guys," says another. "the shuttle's not that bad. they just want us to socialize more. what's so bad about that?"

some one snorts. "it's hell on wheels."

"c'mon, seriously though. what's so bad about the shuttle?"

"you want that in alphabetical order?" i say.

the guys look at each other.

"could you do that?" one says finally.

"um...if we start with the letter r i can. room. lack thereof."

"oh, i can do it," another says easily. "a is for awkward, b is for boys, c is for creepy, d is for--"

"damn the administration--"

"e is for evil, f is for flagrant--"

"A is for abnoxious people on the bus--"

"you sure you want a for that?"

"g is for girls--"

"no no no, we should only be listing negative things about the shuttle, guys."

the guy stares at him. "right, g is for girls."

"that's not fair. she lives in midtown."

"hey, i second the motion," i shrug.

we pass through several rounds of the alphabet, none of which proceed alphabetically. the night wears on. i attempt to distance myself from the conversation and/or become invisible by turning up my music and twisting my body into a precarious position facing the back window, away from everyone else on the shuttle. Tahor Man seems much cheered by this.

and it is then that one of the other guys leans forward, frowns out the back window and says, "dude, that other shuttle driver is totally trying to take us."

someone throws him a look. "don't be absurd."

"it's true! look, he's cutting through the right lane like--like--"

"like the macs on a court, like a knife through butter--"

"he's going to take us, dudes! we can NOT let this occur!"

"dude, no sweat! we left first. we're totally getting there first. hands down. no contest. no race."

"no, it seriously doesn't look good. what the--that black car is cutting us off! obstruction! time out! time out!"

the other shuttle zooms past us.

"holy mackerel! look at them! they're gloating! the back end of that shuttle is clearly fish-tailing in a victory dance, as if to say, i have OWNED you!"

"we'll take em in the next light. if we could just short cut through Lex--"

"driver! full thrust speed! peddle to the medal! these wannabees are gonna know PAIN tonight!"

and so it went.

of all the shuttles i have taken (more than any reasonable person can comprehend without physical illness), i have never experienced a ride quite like that one. all of us--even me, after awhile--were at the edge of our seats, cheering on the shuttle driver, focused on the win. i kid you not. at one point, some guy sat up and started talking about how the shuttle we were looking at was only a decoy so the real shuttle could pass us on the right without us noticing, and you could see by the look of doom on his face that he really meant it.

the race was close. for awhile we thought we were a shoe-in, as the other shuttle contained actual girls who accordingly had to be dropped off at the proper dorms. my shuttle being mostly guys as it was, they high-fived and whistled as we passed the stationary shuttle. yet somehow, at the last minute, the other shuttle pulled in front of us. the race was over. our shuttle had lost.

a moment of solemnity passed over the shuttle.

'it's ok,' someone said. 'we can disembark first. then we'll look like winners.'

'and we can cheer,' another added. 'losers never cheer.'

'you know, despite this being the shuttle set-up from hell, i think the administration really has a point. i mean, we really bonded on this shuttle ride, don't you think? the twelve of us? like now, when i see you in morg, i'll say hi.'

'ah yes. we will be from the shuttle olympics 06.'

'right, cause this is totally a memory that is going to outlive the weekend. or even the night. "remember that shuttle ride, dudes? had to be there, had to be there!" '

'ah well. it was worth a shot.'

A uniform nod of farewell, comraderie, and appreciation passed through the shuttle. after which Tahor Man bolted for the door like all get out.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Matisyahu Phenomenon: Good for the Jews or Bad?

It’s a moment I never thought would come. On my way to the library, I pass by a Best Buy that advertises its musical selection with three draping banners of today’s hottest stars: a half-naked Latin woman, a make-up caked goth…
And a black-hatter with a rabbinical beard.
The last face is hard to escape these days. Open up a newspaper, a magazine, a web browser, or just take a walk down the commercial streets of Manhattan: Matisyahu is everywhere. He’s on TRL, singing about Hashem and Mashiach and rachamim min shamayim. His name is on the cover of this month’s Spin. Wisconsin hicks who thought Jews were some kind of horned fairies last month are explaining the term ‘Yeshivish’ to their parents, as defined by Rolling Stone.
And for those of you too frum for Rolling Stone, never fear: you can still hear his music at Eichler’s.
I have a confession to make.
I am confused.
Part of me wants to feel proud. Growing up in a relatively small Jewish community, it never occurred to me that Jewish music could compete in the same arena as radio fodder. Let’s face it, what are we, two percent of the population? It’s weird, it’s alien to be a Jew outside of New York; we couldn’t keep a pizza shop open, let alone put a music star on MTV! Television, radio, papers—they weren’t aimed at an audience like me. I wasn’t who they were talking to, I was eavesdropping on American culture, and so I never expected to see a reflection of anything familiar on a Best Buy poster. That’s why you sort of want to root for him, don’t you? It’s like having a Jewish athlete at the Olympics: you’re cheering because he’s one of yours, in a competition where no one else is like you.
Yet as sweet and cockle-warming as that idea might be, I’m not sure that we are the team Matisyahu is batting for.
There are a few questions I think need consideration when you talk about pop culture fame for an Orthodox Jew, or rather, pop culture fame for being an Orthodox Jew. Plenty of religious Jews have done noteworthy things: written books, produced movies, almost anything you can imagine. However, the focus of their fame is not their religion, but their art. Matisyahu, on the other hand, seems to draw as much attention to his affiliation as his music. His instantly recognizable Chabad style—suit, beard, tzizis, hat—functions as a gimmick, and if he doesn’t consciously intend for it to do so, his advertisers certainly do. This is because unlike any other album of Jewish music to date, the main purchasers of Matisyahu’s cd—and I think, to a certain extent, the people who attend his concerts—are not Jewish.
That changes quite a bit. Suddenly, it’s not ourselves we’re singing to; it’s the rest of the world. These people can’t tell the subtle difference between one type of Orthodox and another, they don’t even understand Matisyahu’s lyrics, and as his fame grows, chances are that when someone mentions ‘Orthodox’ to them, or even just ‘Jew’, Matisyahu is going to be the first image more and more people conjure up. Like it or not, Matisyahu’s our representative to the world. How should we feel about that? Is he an accurate reflection of who we are?
It’s not a simple question. I’m not sure Matisyahu even accurately reflects Chabad, let alone most of the Orthodox world. You may argue that it isn’t fair to burden Matisyahu with the impossible task of representing the Orthodox, but by making religion his gimmick, he has signed himself up for the job.
Furthermore, both Matisyahu and his music are so ubiquitous these days that they draw a considerable amount of attention to the Orthodox community. That prompts another question: do we want this attention? Is it good or bad?
I am torn. I’ve heard people say that the attention is good, because it will reach and inspire more secular Jews in a way that no Chevra album ever stands a chance of accomplishing. Some think that Matisyahu can pique the interest of Jews who have no other connection to their religion and bring them closer to Judaism. I think that probably could happen; if it’s ‘cool’ to like Matisyahu, and by correlation, ‘cool’ to be Jewish, some good may definitely be accomplished. But despite the hype, I seriously doubt Jewish reggae is going to be the next rock n’ roll. What happens when Matisyahu becomes suddenly and terribly out of vogue? Do the new kipah and tzizis go with it?
Let’s consider that for a moment. What does happen when Matisyahu gets old? What happens when tabloids start digging for dirt? That, too, reflects on us. The superstar treatment—or even just the fad of the moment—includes microscopic scrutiny of every action and word. If Matisyahu slips up, if he cracks under pressure or is caught in any compromising situation, suddenly it’s a commentary on the Orthodox community. These are issues that were debated way back in 2000 when Joe Lieberman made it to the ballot. I remember being angry then that many Jews spoke about deliberately not voting for Gore to prevent such a situation from taking place, but while I still support Lieberman, I’m not so sure that I need an Orthodox reggae singer on TRL to worry about.
It is my last question, however, which disturbs me the most.
I put all the questions I mentioned here to an Orthodox musician, wondering if he had any insight into the Matisyahu phenomenon. For the most part, his answers echoed my questions, as well as opinions I’d heard from other people who discussed this. The last question, though, prompted a different response. It talked about my perception of the two worlds—the sphere of Jewish music and the people MTV was talking to—as being separate, a perception apparently held by many Orthodox artists up to this point. My question was: were we wrong all along? Is it in fact possible for these two worlds to mix—for a religious Jew to have a music video on TRL?
At this point the musician corrected me, framing the question in a different light: “Is it possible for a religious Jew to put himself in the many questionable situations it takes to get TRL to play his video?”
There is, he said, no inherent problem with having a video on MTV, just as there is no inherent problem with having a non-Jew buy your album or come to your concert. But getting the video there takes work, and you’ve got to interact with some problematic things. Perhaps the reason why no Orthodox Jew has ever ‘broken out’ before is not because none have ever been as musically adventurous as Matisyahu—which is not all that much—but because they chose not to deal with these things. They preferred to stick to the cleaner waters and play for the people they were singing to in the first place.
It is very nice to cheer on Jewish athletes at the Olympics, but all pride and team spirit aside, I think perhaps the last way is the better way to go. To mangle a popular saying, non-Jews need Jewish music like a fish needs a bicycle. It’s the same as Madonna’s Kabbalah. Don’t get me wrong: if the music is good enough, maybe non-Jews will like it, and good for them. But to specifically target non-Jewish audiences does not sit well with me. Forget about all the complicating risks—I think it just misses the point.
Still, I am unsure. And the question lingers: how should we feel about Matisyahu?