Monday, April 24, 2006

the ten commandments in a world without heroes

You know you are living in strange, dark times when even The Ten Commandments, that infallible classic of old Hollywood religion, is different.

It started innocently enough. This Pesach, like every Pesach, I casually crawled inside the refrigerator with my 409 and shmatah, craning my neck out at an impossible angle so I could keep up with the Ten Commandments on TV. I do this every year, as my parents and grandparents have before me; it is a tradition that I imagine outdates the Exodus. Every April, without fail, those clever network executives get together and go, “Hey, it’s almost Easter. Don’t the Jews have some kind of holiday about now? Somebody broadcast the Charleton Heston movie.” All great religious movies gain their immortality this way; witness the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Of course, this means that the Ten Commandments usually gets broadcast right before Easter, at which point I am more likely to be taking down my chumutzdik dishes than putting them up, but hey, it’s all good, right?
Regardless of what day it airs, for me, half the fun in getting ready for (or cleaning up from) Pesach has always been The Ten Commandments. As a child not old enough to be alarmed by Nefertiri’s horrific dialogue (“You will rule Egypt, and I will be your footstool”), the movie awed me with its sheer scale. When you’re a kid, words like “pharaoh” and “plague” mean little to you. And what in the world is a chariot? My elementary-aged friends were never allowed to watch The Ten Commandments, and I can hear the argument; after all, Cecille deMille was no stickler for tradition (or, you know, facts). But he portrayed an exodus that felt like an exodus, with all the grandeur and magnificence that you associate with the Torah’s explanation. It gave me, a second grader with no head for stuffy Maxwell Hagada-type description, a framework in which to understand the real events of Pesach. When we sat down for the Seder each year, it was easier for me to feel that I myself went out of Egypt, because I could see the thousands of angry soldiers waiting at the shore; I remembered the gallons of water (non-CG water, speaking of miracles) parting at the middle. No, the movie wasn’t accurate, but I don’t think anyone expected that much from it. It captured the awesome and celebratory feel of Pesach—norah, in Hebrew. As a kid, it made me proud to be Jewish. Hey, G-d clearly was not to be messed with, and He was looking out for me and my people. It completely made up for the fact that I didn’t get chocolate bunnies like everyone in the comic strips.

The years progressed, but The Ten Commandments retained its place in our Pesach preparations. I could no longer watch it with a straight face, but the many hours of wiping and scrubbing and sorting (nearly as long as the movie itself) were made more bearable by its presence. My brothers and I had a point system wherein we would try to count the most flagrant biblical errors, and whoever caught more won. As I remember, we ruled out Nefertiri altogether. And after awhile, the cringe-inducing melodrama and from-whole-cloth storyline seemed less like an affront to good taste and more like the crazy old relatives that gather at your house on the holidays: crazy, but endearingly so, and no less beloved.

That was the way of things.

And now, this.

From director Robert Hamli Sr., we are gifted with a hip retelling of The Ten Commandments that I would describe as “surprisingly like the Passion of the Christ, only not as pro-Jewish.”

As with the older Ten Commandments, Moses is the central figure in this movie; however, he is no clichéd hero, nor are the people he leads remotely sympathetic. No, this is Moses as the grim, moody and possibly schizophrenic leader, driven not by a love of his people but by the grisly conviction that he is right. It takes the movie only thirty-five minutes from the time Moses is born until he encounters the Burning Bush, and ‘encounters’ is a very fitting description of how his life unfolds; nothing is explained. We see Moses wandering across the desert in one scene, then we see a woman in the next, and in the following frame, after a minute of film and no actual dialogue, Moses is shown traveling with the woman and a baby. And you thought things happened fast on onlysimchas.
In fact, the movie dislikes using any dialogue that requires commas. To illustrate, I have provided here a brief sample of the Robert Hamli Sr. Method of Communication:

MOSES: We are free. We must go quickly.
AARON: We leave Egypt?
AARON: Then let us go.

Then there is Pharaoh’s stimulating exchange with Moses.

PHAROAH: I am Pharaoh.
MOSES: I am Moses.
PHAROAH: I say they stay.
MOSES: I say they go.
PHAROAH: But I am Pharaoh. I am a god.
MOSES: I am Moses. I come from G-d.

One could argue that Hamli kept the dialogue so brief and vague because he was trying to work with the actual descriptions of the Torah itself, but if that’s the case, he must have been using a translation from the planet Zepton. What the above encounter eventually builds up to is Moses versus Pharaoh in a contest of willpower. It is all about the two of them and their egos. Moses in particular grows increasingly disturbing as the movie wears on. Nowhere in Dougray Scott’s portrayal is there any echo of greatness. Instead, Moses is perpetually frustrated, tired, even angry, lashing out at his people as though they’re all simpletons. Perhaps he really loves them, but all we see is that same moment when your parents are threatening to pull over, again and again: Moses is constantly at the end of his rope.
And speaking of the planet Zepton, there is Moses’ inexplicable half-brother, Meneroth. Meneroth, a kind, gentle soul, is by far the most sympathetic character in the movie. He is an Egyptian—I believe he is head of the army or some other noble position—constantly at Pharoah’s side, yet warmly devoted to Moses, for reasons that are completely beyond comprehension. His purpose in the film seems to be to represent all those poor goodly Egyptians who were afflicted by the plagues, callously murdered while the Jews watched them die. Since the Egyptians are never portrayed as being especially cruel, the viewer is left with the impression that the plagues were the real injustice in the exodus, taking poor Meneroth’s firstborn son, striking grief into the heart of Moses’ loving brother. Meneroth begs Moses for mercy, but Moses stiffly tells him to blame his pharaoh. Meneroth asks if Moses agreed to the killing of children, and Moses says he is an agent of G-d.

“But why me?” Meneroth persists. “I have not hurt you. And my son is only a child—he has not hurt you. Why must he suffer for the sins of my fathers?”

To tell the truth, it is an excellent question, one frequently asked about the law stating that Moavim and Amonim cannot convert because their ancestors didn’t give the Jews bread for their journey when they were first settling Israel, or the law about wiping out Amalakim. These are especially delicate issues because they seem so unjust, and while there are many illuminating commentaries out there that clarify the law, the nature of the offense and why so harsh a sentence was decreed, ultimately, the law is what G-d says it is—regardless of how much sense it makes to us. Some of the bloodiest battles in Judaism are fought internally over laws just like this, that we don’t understand but must accept, and that struggle is part of what it means to be Jewish.

All of which is great, but completely beside the point. Because perhaps we could have had this existential crisis in a movie about, say, Shaul’s struggle with his mission to destroy Amalek, or the difficulties Ruth faced after she converted. For the life of me, however, I cannot figure out how we managed to get painted into this particular corner in a movie that is, after all, about the liberation of a people that had been oppressed for over four hundred years. “I have not hurt you”? The Egyptians of that generation slaughtered babies as a form of population-control. Their tactics of punishment and degradation were some of the cruelest the Jews have ever experienced. How many Egyptians of that time could truly make Meneroth’s claim? Ok, now how many non-fictional Egyptians?
But deMille’s movie was no better, you object. The original Ten Commandments was every bit as fictional as the new. So Meneroth has replaced Ramses in the Egyptian-half-brother category; whoop-de-doo. At least there’s no Nefertiri in Hamli’s version.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the two films.
The liberties taken in deMille’s version were mostly stylistic. It was a big Hollywood movie filled with big Hollywood glam. Nefertiri? Pure glam—whoever heard of a movie without a love interest? The swelling music, chiseled heroes—even the triangle between Moses, Ramses and Nefertiri. Few and pitiful are the people who watch The Ten Commandments and come away thinking of Moses as the one who stole Ramses’ chick. It’s all standard, the typical Hollywood treatment given to any subject matter, be it biblical or vaudeville in origin. DeMille’s movie never pretends to be anything more than that: the Exodus, Hollywood style. It’s all in fun, and consequently, pretty harmless.

Advertising his rendition as “the most accurate retelling of the Exodus to date”, Hamli, on the other hand, is trying to rewrite history.
Hamli constructs an image that is supposed to be shocking, refreshing and realistic in its departure from tradition. Tradition, among other things, calls for good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. But tradition is passé like never before. Today we prefer our Meneroths: politically correct, socially conscious attempts to create equivalence where there is none. Only a society that explains suicide bombers as misunderstood militants could produce a movie about the Exodus where the Egyptians are the victims and Moses is just another delusional egotist. Yet Hamli can swallow nothing less. The people in his movie are never named, not as Jews or even Hebrews; G-d barely has a cameo. They are not essential in this Ten Commandments. Hamli makes his point instead through the ugly, almost crass dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh: religion of any type is just a subtext to seize power.

There is nothing innocent about that claim. Not when you are pushing the Ten Commandments as “the most accurate retelling to date” to make it.
Unfortunately, the Robert Hamli Sr. School of Thought is quite popular these days. Films like his reflect the despair and cynicism of a world where there are no heroes, no miracles.
These are dark times, indeed.

ari ben moses on matisyahu

The Matisyahu Phenomenon: Another Jewish Reggae Artist’s Perspective
By Ari ben Moses

Editor’s note: Ari ben Moses is a Chicago-based Jewish reggae performer. Last month, while I was compiling my article about Matisyahu for the Observer, I sent him the draft and asked him for his own opinion, as a Jew performing the same kind of music as Matisyahu but without the same level of success, regarding Matisyahu’s big break. His response surprised me in its thought-provoking warmth and support for Matisyahu’s accomplishments. Ari ben Moses’ unique answer to my article is printed below. You can learn more about his band at (Ps to parcequilfait, sorry for bungling your name...I found your comment about this very interesting as well, and I think Ari's point of view might make more sense to you)

"Holy Mount Zion, Holy Mount Zion, JAH sitteth in Mount Zion, and rules
all creation, yeah..." ~ Bob Marley, from the song "Jammin'".
Reggae music has been greatly influenced by Jewish culture and
Scripture since its inception in the 1960's. The earliest hits of the genre,
"The Israelites" by Desmond Dekker and The Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon",
clearly demonstrate this influence, the latter using text straight from
the Psalms of David. This element became even more pronounced in the
1970's with the development of the "Rockers" Reggae style. In "Moses...The
Prophets", Peter Tosh sings: "Remember Moses, Remember Moses, him not
dead, him not dead...that man a trod earth still...". Bunny Wailer, a founding
member of the original Bob Marley and The Wailers, has similar lyrics
in his song "Rastaman" which states, "Rastaman a lion, Rastaman from Zion.
Remember Jeremiah, he was a Rastaman, and even Isaiah, he was a

The very anthem of Reggae music, "Satta Massagana", has an Amharic title which means "give thanks to G-d,” and its lyrics are reminiscent of Tehillim: "The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords sits upon His throne, and He rules us all; look
into the Book of Life, and you will see that He rules us all." In "People Funny Boy", the biography of great Reggae producer, engineer, and singer Lee "Scratch" Perry, the author reveals how it was Lee’s custom to flip through an old copy of the Bible as a source for lyrics when various singers needed inspiration.

As Reggae reached out into the World, this message stirred the hearts and minds of thousands of Jewish listeners and musicians, many of whom went on to become prominent Reggae singers and performers. Jah Levi, a Jewish man from Philadelphia who I worked for during the 1990's, actually traveled to Jamaica and became a Rastafarian under the strict tutelage of the Rastafari Elders themselves. In his music, he uses authentic Jewish and Ethiopian source material. He has been very well known on the Pacific Northwest and the European Reggae circuit for almost 20 years.
Rebbe Soul is another West Coast artist who has performed Jewish Reggae for many years, and King Django, a dancehall singer from NYC who many people are familiar with, has long been combining Jewish ideas with modern Reggae sounds. He, too, is very respected on the European Reggae circuit. My own experience comes from working as a keyboardist and singer for Tuff Gong Records, along with my efforts on the Reggae Sunsplash tour. I even performed in West Africa as a part of one of the first Jamaican Reggae festivals to reach there, alongside Steel Pulse and Kymani Marley, son of Bob Marley.

This brings us at long last to Matisyahu, a wonderful dancehall-Reggae style
toaster, who has developed a following larger than any other Reggae artist today with the exception of Sean Paul (who happens to be from a Jamaican-Jewish family). Matisyahu's style is authentic, his technique is well-developed, and he has gained the respect of even the Caribbean Reggae music scene itself. While I do know many non-Jamaican Reggae singers who could perhaps claim to be more talented and experienced (both American Rocker T. and Gentleman from Germany are more technically advanced and better produced), Matisyahu has managed to reach an audience far outside the boundaries that confined these other artists. The reason for this "phenomenon", as you called it, is simple: Matisyahu has a dedicated, organized, and wealthy religious group solidly backing him from his very first concert in NYC. The Lubavitcher Hassidim have made Matisyahu a priority in their efforts to spread their own message about Judaism to the world at large. As you know, the Lubavitch have long had a policy of reaching out to people
in both the Jewish and secular world, unlike most of the other Hassidim who largely keep to themselves. Obviously, they have no objections to making Matisyahu their spokesperson to the world, both Jewish and Gentile.

I have no problems with this, personally. Many organizations, be they
religious, political, or industrial, have used singers and musicians to
advertise their particular agendas to listeners worldwide. Perhaps there
is a "kitsch" factor, as you suggested, but Matisyahu is much, much more than a gimmick. He is very skilled at the Jamaican patois dancehall style, and his lyrics are heartfelt and ethical without being overly moralizing. As someone who has accompanied many of the biggest names in Reggae music (I have performed with Maxi Preist, Junior Reid, Burning Spear, Sister Carol Shinehead and Ijahman Levi, to name a few), I can assure you that his abilities are genuine and his talents are developing quickly. He will soon be able to take his place beside some of the greatest names in the genre without compromise. I enjoy his music, and his widespread appeal has actually increased the number of demands that I get to bring Ari ben Moses Band around the country to perform. He also has a reputation for being a sweet and friendly person, and that says a great deal in this business.

I believe that Jewish music is not just for Jews, just as Judaism and
The Torah itself are not just for Jews. Judaism has profoundly affected many religions, cultures, and peoples outside of its own sphere. Our laws, stories, ancestors, history and culture are an essential element of the Human experience. I believe that we are all at our best when we seek to share our best efforts with others. How could it not be a great mitzvah to bring the beautiful, exciting, engaging and heart-warming sounds of
Matisyahu and his band to the all the peoples of the world? His message is
consistently positive and optimistic, instilling absolute faith in the
Most High to all who hear it. Could this possibly be wrong? I think

Honestly, I have no understanding of how it could be better not to share something so wonderful with the rest of the world. Matisyahu has opened
the hearts of thousands of people to Judaism, who probably never gave
it much thought before hearing his music. Whatever or whoever has created
this "Matisyahu Phenomenon" can only serve to bring people to learn more
about Judaism, and I am sure that he has brought millions of young Jews a
renewed interest in their religion and culture, as we have all seen

In the most positive light, Matisyahu, with the help of the Lubavitch
community, has succeeded in showing that being Jewish can be "hip", and
that we are not out of touch with the most cutting-edge aspects of world culture. Being an active part of any system, whether it’s a family, congregation, or community, brings success to both that system and ourselves. Being an active part of the world is most certainly a great mitzvah, and I praise Matisyahu for putting aside trepidations about
traditional restrictions in order to make this profoundly Jewish contribution to Reggae music and the all peoples of the Earth.