The Conspiracy

Jewishness, Coolness and the Loss of Both in the Death of JDub

jdub deleonEarlier this week, in my video eulogy for JDub Records, I wrote about the impending loss of JDub as a loss of some measure of honestly come by culturally Jewish coolness:

Perhaps the saddest thing about it is that the official Jews try so hard–and fail so spectacularly–to market Jewishness to us as the epitome of cool. But JDub doesn’t try to be cool. JDub is just cool and we’ll all be just little less cool without it.

One comment–on a post by Marc Tracy at Tablet that mentioned my post–provided more food for thought on this:

Expanding on what David wrote: when a Jewish-cultural sensibility has essentially been adopted by America’s educated urban elite (call it the Seinfeld/Daily Show -ization of America), what is left to distinguish young Jews from their contemporaries other than religion and, maybe, attachment to Israel?

The commenter, despite his charmingly suspicious “maybe,” reminded me something that has always nagged at me about some of JDub’s music. Some of their artists have an obviously Jewish flavor. Matisyahu, who has long since jumped ship for a bigger label, sings unabashedly about Jewish religious themes. Socalled‘s themes are similarly obvious in their Jewishness, even if the themes aren’t all drawn from Jewish religion. And Sway Machinery constantly references traditional Jewish canotrial music.

On the other hand, much of JDub’s music is not so obviously Jewish. Golem, for instance, despite the name and the obvious klezmer influence, is not described on JDub’s website as klezmer, but as “gypsy punk,” a term that explicitly references non-Jewish influences. Balkan Beat Box can only be described as a fusion of many different flavors of world music, some directly relevant to Jewish culture and some not so relevant.

JDub has never been anything but a Jewish record label. Yet they’ve never bent over backwards to explain the Jewishness of any of their artists. In many, Balkan Beat Box being a great example, the listener can simply infer a Jewish sensibility. In Balkan Beat Box’s case, that comes across as a concern with the idea of life in a diaspora and an interest in breaking down barriers. All of that sounds easily Jewish, even though it’s all said without getting into an exploration of Jewish identity politics.

In my grandparents’ generation, being culturally Jewish was easy. There was plenty of art and culture in the world that was Jewish without having to explain how they were Jewish–and without quoting from the Torah. That kind of material, implicitly but effortlessly Jewish, is hard to come by now.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of synagogue Sunday school teachers out there who think it would be great to use rap or whatever the kids are listening to these days to get across Jewish messages. But attempts like that usually fall flat–the kids can tell it’s not cool.

All of the music I’ve heard from JDub artists registers immediately as truly possessing the effortless and ineffable quality of true cool. Maybe that has something to do with the blurred line between the all-out explicit Jewishness and the “Jewish-cultural sensibility” that DRW said has “been adopted by America’s educated urban elite.” Maybe part of the cool comes from the gray area of that blurred line. Depending on who you are, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Personally, it’s just a thing. But losing JDub, losing a clearinghouse for this material–that’s definitely a bad thing.

3 Older Responses to “Jewishness, Coolness and the Loss of Both in the Death of JDub”

  1. Laura
    July 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    JDub has never been anything but a Jewish record label. Yet they’ve never bent over backwards to explain the Jewishness of any of their artists.
    Oh, that is so essential. It’s why I hated Matisyahu at first; he was wrapping tefillin randomly in one of his videos and I thought that was so tasteless. But we’ve reconciled.

  2. David A.M. Wilensky
    July 18, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Glad to hear you and Matisyahu are getting along these days.

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  1. Forward quotes New Voices editor on JDub « New Voices - August 1, 2011

    [...] news of JDub’s impending death first hit, we blogged about it a bit. And then New Voices reporter Alisha Kinman checked in with them at their last [...]

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