Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Jewish Education of Eddie Vedder

Today begins Lollapalooza, the weekend-long music festival. I won’t be attending and I’ve never attended a Lollapalooza festival. However, just hearing the name “Lollapalooza” brings back memories from twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1992, I was a 16-year-old on a Jewish teen trip called USY on Wheels. We were halfway into the trip when we arrived in Palo Alto, California. Our bus of 42 teens and four counselors pulled into the parking lot of our hotel and we immediately realized that we weren’t the only tour bus in the parking lot. There were rows upon rows of fancy luxury tour buses with beautiful designs covering their entire exterior. It was only when we entered the hotel to check in to our rooms that we learned that all of the performers of Lollapalooza were guests of the same hotel.

Waiting for the elevator I encountered Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I talked to him for a few minutes in front of the hotel elevator, until he explained that he was losing his voice from all of these back-to-back shows and needed to get some hot tea and go to bed. I remember laughing at the fact that this hard rocker with a reputation for partying was going to call it a night around 11:30 pm.

One of the other members of the Chili Peppers turned to our group and told us not to do anything stupid at the hotel. Not thirty seconds later did we attempt to pack as many of us as possible into one elevator only to find ourselves stuck between floors. Fortunately for us, our bus driver’s husband was a firefighter and managed to save us before the local fire department arrived.

That Saturday morning following our Shabbat services, a number of teens from our group met Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder by the hotel pool. Pearl Jam would soon become my favorite rock band (which it is to this day), but back in the summer of 1992 I hadn’t even heard of them.

Some of the teens in our group from New York had already become devoted fans of Pearl Jam and immediately recognized Eddie Vedder. Vedder and his girlfriend at the time, who had purple hair, were on their way to the tennis courts to hit some balls. While it was a USY policy not to use cameras on Shabbat, some of the teens in our group took pictures with Eddie Vedder. Some even had him autograph their paperback prayer books.

When one of our counselors saw what was transpiring, things got interesting. The counselors explained to Eddie Vedder that we were a Jewish teenage group that was not supposed to be taking photographs on the Jewish Sabbath. Vedder pointed to his girlfriend and told the group that she was partially Jewish and that he respected our religious observance.

One of the counselors told him that he and his girlfriend were invited to join us for our afternoon study session. (It is a tradition in the summer time to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, on Shabbat afternoon.) The teens who had their prayer books autographed were reprimanded and then Eddie Vedder went on his way.

If the story ended there, it would have made for a great anecdote of my summer experience. But twenty minutes into our study session in walked Eddie Vedder with his girlfriend. The teenagers began whispering and pointing to the back of the room at the surprise guest. What was usually a boring study session would became memorable.

Vedder and his girlfriend sat in the back of the room listening as we discussed Jewish values and theology. About thirty minutes went by and they decided they wanted to leave so Eddie Vedder raised his hand and said something bizarre about the existence of cows. We all sat there bewildered. (In fairness, it might have been an intelligent observation but it was lost on us teens.)

We left the hotel on Sunday and said our goodbyes to our new friends, which included rock stars, roadies and groupies. As our tour bus pulled away from the hotel parking lot we snapped our final photos of the tour buses.

At the first highway rest stop I got off the bus, walked inside the store and purchased Pearl Jam’s “Ten” on CD. I would listen to that album thousands of times over the next decade. And I would come back to it many times in the decade that followed. Eddie Vedder’s music spoke to me during the rest of my teen years and into college.

Last year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of “Ten,” Cameron Crowe produced a documentary called “Pearl Jam Twenty.” Watching the DVD at home late one night recently, I thought back to the memorable and life changing summer I spent on a tour bus out West twenty years ago. While I didn’t even know who Eddie Vedder was as he sat in the back of the room at our Shabbat afternoon study session, just knowing that I had learned Torah with Eddie Vedder brought chills to my spine. I don’t know if he ever studied Torah again after that one afternoon, but I sure feel blessed and honored to have witnessed the Jewish education of Eddie Vedder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Boy With Stutter Raps Adon Olam

I was looking forward to meeting many of the inspirational educators and thought leaders at the #140edu conference in New York City this week, but the one speaker I was really excited to meet was Lil Jaxe.

A few months ago, I watched a video of this 13-year-old boy at a previous #140conf and was amazed, impressed, and inspired. Lil Jaxe has a severe stutter, but he discovered that when he raps it goes away. So, it’s a good thing for him that he’s a talented rapper. And he’s only 13 so I’m predicting that he’s got a very successful career ahead of him.

Lil Jaxe presented before me at the #140edu conference today and I had a chance to shmooze with him a bit in the Green Room at the 92nd St. Y after his presentation. Here’s the video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam as he did back in April at his bar mitzvah.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein’s Detroit Roots

I’ve been following Rabbi Yonah Bookstein for several years now. He’s a little more than 6 years my senior and I suppose I’ve looked up to him as a social media guru in the virtual Jewish community of the Web. I learned about his Detroit roots from a blog post he published back in September 2008 following a “Young Detroit in Hollywood” event that took place in California for Jewish expats of Michigan. He wrote:

Jewish Ex-Detroiters like myself have a religious attachement [sic] to our hometown. We have a tight-knit Jewish community, allegiance to local sports teams, and favorite bakeries, cafes, or delis. (Notice the absence of any allegiance to a synagogue or temple). When we leave Detroit, we leave close family back home – grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, siblings and cousins. We get back for family events when we can. We try to keep up with the Tigers or Pistons. We root for U of M at the Rose Bowl. We often are connected to other Detroiters who made the move out here before us.

The Jews who left West Bloomfield, Birmingham, Southfield, or Bloomfield Hills, left for the greener pastures of Hollywoodland. Most are going to stay and put down roots. My Detroiter street cred: Zeemans [sic], Hillel Day School, Cranbrook, grandma at The Heritage, Tigers, Camp Tavor – I won’t mention the Synagogue.

I appreciated Rabbi Yonah’s honesty in that post and I let him know it. But I also made certain to inform him that Jewish Detroit was making a comeback and it was legit. Since that time almost 4 years ago, we’ve maintained a nice relationship through our blogs, projects, and Twitter. We regularly shmooze (virtually of course) about Detroit sports, and he will often ask me to weigh in on certain Detroit-specific issues.

The local Jewish newspaper, the Detroit Jewish News, often features young Jewish leaders who have returned to Detroit. I thought it would be interesting to look at someone like Rabbi Yonah with Detroit roots and no intention to return to Detroit, but an unwavering attachment to his hometown. So, two months ago I sent an email to the publisher and editor of the Detroit Jewish News: “Did you know Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is from Detroit and went to Cranbrook? He’s the guy behind Jewlicious. Might make for an interesting article. Maybe Robin Schwartz?”

Robin Schwartz’s story about Rabbi Yonah and his Detroit roots is featured on the cover of this week’s issue. Here it is:

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein recalls picking up a guitar for the first time at age 10, in the late 1970s, as a Hillel Day School student growing up in Detroit’s Palmer Woods neighborhood.

His late father, Marvin Bookstein — a bluegrass musician who played six different instruments — taught young Yonah the fundamentals, opening his eyes and ears to the beauty and power of music. He spent his early years attending concerts, going to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and attending chamber music festivals; so it’s fitting that Bookstein, now 42, of Los Angeles is the force behind Jewlicious. The nonprofit organization hosts hip seasonal music festivals in California that attract hundreds of young Jews from across the country.

“Music unifies and inspires people,” Bookstein says. “One of the reasons I got so into creating musical events is that music was an integral part of my life as a child.”
Bookstein’s family has deep roots in Metro Detroit. His father, grandfather and greatgrandfather all owned Ace Furniture Co.; the decades-old family business was sold in 1979. Bookstein attended high school and graduated from Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills. He was active in the Jewish Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and spent summers at its Camp Tavor near Kalamazoo.

Bookstein left town to attend the University of Oregon and Oxford University, was ordained by Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in New York and is a former Fulbright Fellow to Poland. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Rachel, worked for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland. They founded Jewish youth centers in Krakow and Lodz, revived the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw, established the annual Warsaw Jewish Book Festival and created a center for adult Jewish education. Since returning to the United States, Bookstein’s focus has been uniting and inspiring young Jews across the country, first as a campus rabbi and now as director of Jewlicious. He has four children: Moshe, 13, Sophia, 11, Shlomo, 9, and Naftali, 5.

“I believe passionately in the Jewish future, and young people are the inspiration,” he says. “Our overall goal is to increase participation in Jewish life.”

The concept of Jewlicious was created in a garage in Long Beach, Calif., in 2005. The first festival attracted about 100 people, and the crowds have grown bigger and bigger each year. One event is held each summer; a second festival takes place each winter on an old cruise ship.

“It’s a mash up of a music festival and a conference, and it has about 90 programs over the course of three days,” Bookstein explains. “Everything from Jewish yoga to conversations with famous Jewish actors — it’s a pluralistic weekend with all kinds of offerings.

Tickets are currently on sale for the third annual SummerFest Music and Summer Camp Festival Aug. 16-19 in Brandeis, Calif., which has been described as “Jewish summer camp for grownups.” The event includes concerts, speakers, horseback riding, rock climbing, midnight hikes, bonfires, swimming, yoga, wine and pickle making, and more.

“We get people from 20 states and 50 colleges and universities,” Bookstein says. “It’s a really amazing pilgrimage.” Tickets range from $60-$175 for the weekend.

Participants can camp out or pay more for a room in a bunk or cottage. Right now, these events only take place in California, but Bookstein’s goal is to take the show on the road and host Jewlicious Festivals across the country. He already creates Shabbat hospitality tents at national music festivals. He’s also a member of the band Shankbone, which performs Jewish and Indie music a few times a year.

“Young people love festivals, and they love music,” he says. “We’ve created this platform, and it really could be replicated all over the country.

“I know Detroit because I grew up there. The Jewish community in Detroit has always been more cohesive, but in other places there’s a huge amount of assimilation. There’s an unengaged population of young Jews.

We’re only tipping the scales somewhat; there are so many people to reach and so many people to engage. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Bookstein relies heavily on social media to get his message out. His Jewlicious.com blog is said to be the Internet’s most-read Jewish blog. He also has podcast classes on Judaism on iTunes, more than 5,000 “friends” on Facebook and more than 8,000 followers on Twitter. In 2009, he was the top vote-getter in the Jewish Federation of North America’s inaugural Jewish Community Heroes Award, receiving more than 90,000 online votes.

“I’ve made it my focus to connect with young people,” Bookstein says. “If I want to be relevant and reach the constituency I believe is so critical to our future, I need to be engaged in social media on a daily and hourly basis.”

Rabbi Jason Miller, a local Jewish leader, entrepreneur and president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, follows Bookstein on the Web. Miller has his own blog, RabbiJason.com, and thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers. He believes the “traditional borders of the global Jewish community have disappeared through globalization and new technology.” The two rabbis are in regular communication online, but have not yet met in person.

“Yonah is one of these Jewish thought leaders of the social media age,” Miller says. “I read his blog regularly, and we mutually re-post and ‘retweet’ each other’s content because we run in the same social media circles. Yonah has an immense Twitter following and strong social clout, but it’s the way he uses those to push the boundaries of the ‘Jewish establishment’ that has really earned my respect. Not only is he a change agent helping the Israeli and Diaspora communities to think outside the box, but he also exudes a contagious form of excitement and optimism. I hope to meet him IRL (in real life) soon.”

Rabbi Bookstein tries to get back to Michigan at least once a year to visit friends and family members. Last summer, he brought his friend, Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, to the Motor City Moishe House in Detroit. The communal home for young adults offers subsidized housing and is meant to breathe new Jewish life into the city. At least 50 people showed up to meet Matisyahu and share a kosher meal before his concert at St. Andrews Hall.

After the visit, Bookstein wrote an article for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. In part, it reads: “When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950s… However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past.”

Just as Detroit is trying to revitalize and reinvigorate Jewish life locally, Bookstein is working to generate excitement and increase participation among young Jews nationwide. Jewlicious is attempting to win a Chase and LivingSocial grant of $250,000 through an online contest to further Bookstein’s efforts.

“Like everybody in the nonprofit sector, it’s challenging to fund these programs and meet the financial demands of creating these kinds of opportunities for young adults,” he says. “[Young Jews] care about their Jewish future and want to be a part of it. Business is booming. There’s a huge demand for what we do.”

While Rabbi Yonah might not be planning on a return to his hometown of Detroit, it is important for Detroiters to know that such an important figure who is making the future of American Jewry fun and exciting and vibrant got his start here. Deep down he wants to see the Jewish community of Detroit succeed and he has much insight to offer. I’m glad that Robin’s article will bring Rabbi Yonah and his energy a little closer to home.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

RIP Adam Yauch (MCA) – Jewish and Buddhist

Back in 1987 at Camp Tamarack, I remember a couple of friends and I decided to sing “Paul Revere” for a talent show. “Only if I can be MCA,” I recall saying to my two fellow campers. There was something about MCA that I always liked.

Three Jewish white boys at a Jewish summer camp pretending to be three Jewish white boy rappers called The Beastie Boys. We knew every word from every song on the License to Ill cassette tape. We didn’t understand every word the Beasties were singing, but we loved their mantra: “Fight For Your Right to Party.”

I flashed back to that summer earlier today when I heard the horrible news that Adam Yauch (“MCA”) had succumbed to his cancer fight and passed away. A friend of mine who attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony told me last week that he heard that Adam Yauch was nearing the end of his life. I was moved when my friend told me that in a true act of solidarity the other two Beastie Boys Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz refused to perform in Cleveland at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony without MCA. In fact, they refused to ever perform again until Yauch beat his cancer.

Adam Yauch was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, but as an adult Yauch practiced Buddhism making him the world’s most popular JewBu. In recent years, he took an active role in the promotion of the Tibetan freedom cause. In addition to his successful career as MCA of the Beastie Boys, Yauch will also be remembered as an independent film maker. Under the pseudonym “Nathanial Hörnblowér” Yauch directed many of the Beastie Boys’ music videos.

Many times when we hear of the premature death of a music star it is related to a drug overdoes, an tragic accident, a murder or a suicide. Adam Yauch’s death at only 47 should remind us all of the need to support the fight against cancer and to fund research efforts to find a cure. Condolences to the wife and daughter Yauch leaves behind as well as to his fellow Beasties Horovitz and Diamond. Rest in peace MCA!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Drake’s Bar Mitzvah (Again)

In Judaism when a Jewish man turns 83 he ceremoniously celebrates his bar mitzvah for the second time. The reason for this is that Judaism believes that the length of a man’s life is 70 years so at 83-years-old he symbolically turns 13 once again. Aubrey Drake Graham, AKA “Drake”, is only 26 and far from the traditional age of getting a re-do on the bar mitzvah ceremony, but that didn’t stop the Jewish rapper from having what he has termed a “re-bar mitzvah”.

Apparently, last fall on October 24, 2011 (a Monday) Drake decided to have a re-bar mitzvah as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion. We learn this from Drake’s new music video for his song “HYFR” (look it up!). The video opens with footage of a cute little Drake as a child at a friend or relative’s bar mitzvah saying “mazel tov” to the camera. There is also video footage of the young Drake dancing at the bar mitzvah.

The next part of the music video shows the outside of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Miami. The camera then takes us inside Temple Israel where we see Drake’s bar mitzvah ceremony, including his reading from the Torah after kissing the the inside of the scroll with the tzitzit (fringes) of his tallit (prayer shawl).

Then things get a little crazy and become more typical of a rap video. Of course Drake gets lifted in a chair for the traditional Horah dance, but there is also the debauchery one would expect of a party attended by the likes of Lil Wayne (in a panda suit!), Trey Songz, Birdman and DJ Khaled.

Drake with a bottle of Manischewitz wine next to a guy wearing a JCC basketball jersey.

According to an interview with Drake (whose mother is Jewish), his original bar mitzvah took place in a nice Italian restaurant where he wore a yarmulke and read from his “portion”. However, he says he never went to Hebrew School (“I cheated!”). Perhaps that’s why he was eager to have a “re-bar mitzvah” in October. Matisyahu once said about Drake: “He’s Jewish, but he’s not representing Judaism. He happens to be Jewish just like Bob Dylan happened to be Jewish, but what I’m doing is really tapping into my roots and culture, and trying to blend that with the mainstream… Drake’s being Jewish is just a by-product.”

The “HYFR” video is too explicit for this blog, but it is available on YouTube by searching for “Drake” and “Bar Mitzvah”.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Whitney Houston’s Israel Connection

Whitney Houston was not Jewish, but she did have a connection to the State of Israel. The singer, who died yesterday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, traveled to Israel in 2003 with her then husband Bobby Brown.

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown were invited to tour Israel by the Black Hebrews, who live in Israel’s southern city of Dimona. Together with their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, the couple traveled the country for a week and even met with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Houston reportedly told Prime Minister Sharon that she felt at home in Israel. Houston and Brown were named honorary citizens of the Israeli city.

Here’s the classic coverage of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown’s Israel visit as reported by Jon Stewart who even managed to drop the Yiddish word farkakte.

In 1986 French Jewish singer Serge Gainsbourg met Whitney Houston on a French television show. It appeared that Gainsbourg was intoxicated. Here’s the video (caution: includes R-rated language):

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Best Hanukkah Videos for 2011

Tonight begins the Festival of Lights – Hanukkah 2011. As Hanukkah parody videos have become more popular on YouTube it’s getting more difficult to find the best ones. One thing is certain however, if the video has “Best Hanukkah Video” in its title… it’s probably not. Here are the best Hanukkah videos of the year (according to me). Enjoy and Chanukkah Sameach!

The Shlomones – Rocky Hora Chanukah Song

Cantor Eyal Bitton – Rock Me Maccabeus (Falco Cover)

Aish – Chanukkah Rock of Ages

Fountainheads – Light Up the Night

Maccabeats – Miracle (Matisyahu Cover)

Pella Productions – Holiday Party (Tonight, Tonight)

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – Can I Interest You in Hanukkah

Six13 – Hanukkah Rights

Jew-Z – Hanukkah Groove

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Matisyahu on Contradictions in Religious Observance

As any man with a beard, goatee or mustache will tell you, it is a transformative experience to shave it all off. Something tells me that Matisyahu felt a sense of freedom after he shaved off his iconic beard the other day. There has been a lot of discussion about Matisyahu’s transformation after he came clean [shaven] and claimed he has evolved from a Hasidic reggae star. The opinions have ranged from those who interpreted this as Matisyahu’s having left a religious lifestyle (going “off the derech“) to those who can’t figure out why this story even qualifies as “news.”

While I personally question if shaving off his iconic beard was a wise PR move, what I think is more interesting is how he has made his personal religious journey into a public narrative. His rise to super stardom occurred after he had already adopted a religious lifestyle and his break from Lubavitch a couple years ago wasn’t very well publicized so this is really the first time his observance has been discussed on such a broad scale. And now that he’s gone public with his shifts in observance, Matisyahu has (unintentionally?) brought the conversation of religious shifting and spiritual seeking into a very public sphere.

I listened to Matisyahu’s first interview since his transformative shaving experience and there was an interesting exchange toward the end. Soundcheck host John Schaefer began to ask Matisyahu a question that was sent in to the program by a listener having to do with him living some sort of a contradictory life. Matisyahu quickly cut Schaefer off and said something that I think is of utmost importance in any conversation about religious observance and spiritual seeking.

I’d like to say one thing about contradictions — I don’t mean to cut you off — but the whole thing is contradictions. And that’s what I’ve realized, is that everything has multiple sides to it, you know? We’re so quick to go, to make things black and white and to put things in their box. You know what I mean? But everything is this mixture, and that’s what this world is, is this blend of different things.

Exactly! I hope Matisyahu’s quote goes viral because it is so true. Religion is not black and white although some may claim that it is. I recently had a conversation with a young venture capitalist in Detroit who is a ba’al teshuva, meaning he adopted an observant Jewish lifestyle. As he hammered away at the contradictions of non-Orthodox Jewish religious practice (“they keep strict kosher at home, but eat vegetarian in non-kosher-certified restaurants,” “they don’t drive on Shabbat except to go to the synagogue,” etc.), I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that these contradictions exist across the board. Human beings are inconsistent and religion (including religious law) is fluid so that it breeds inconsistency (across denominations, between communities, and in individuals).

Some observant Jews may find comfort in their own reality distortion field, but I am certain that contradictions exist in their own personal religious practice. As a colleague of mine often says, “Every Jew can find another Jew who isn’t as frum (religious) as he is and look down on him.” There really does not exist any baseline for religious observance because religion has many sides to it and is a mixture, as Matisyahu expressed. Perhaps the end of 2011 marks Matisyahu’s most meaningful religious epiphany yet. Shaving off his beard helped him open his eyes to the sea of grey that is a religiously observant life and a spiritual existence.

Beard or no beard, I’m sure that Matisyahu’s music will continue to resonate with millions. I hope his insight will as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Detroit Brothers Produce Over 500 Mobile Apps

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

There’s An App For That!
Local brothers’ jacAPPS business rolls out more than 500 mobile apps.

In what could have easily been mistaken for a scene from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, two brothers sit at a conference room table in Southfield bouncing ideas off each other for mobile applications that could improve Jewish life.

A small collection of iPhones and iPads sits on the table, as one brother remarks that it would be cool if they created an app that would replay the rabbi’s sermon just in case you dozed off in the middle. The other brother suggests they create an app that allows congregants to choose High Holiday seats by selecting the seats before the holiday and making a donation right from their cell phone. They share a brotherly laugh as they reflect on one brother’s seat-saving tradition in which he drapes tallits (prayer shawls) over the rows of seats for the entire family.

With one look these brothers seem to intuit that they’ve found a need for another app. This look is one that has no doubt been flashed from one brother to the other more than 500 times over the past few years. When there’s a need for something to be available on a mobile phone, Fred and Paul Jacobs will be there to come up with the way to do it.

The brothers launched jacAPPS (pronounced Jake-Apps; a riff on their last name) three years ago when they noticed a need for mobile applications in the radio industry. “Back in the fall of 2008 with the economy facing unprecedented challenges, few would have expected a company like ours to emerge as the leading app developer for radio,” company president Fred Jacobs, 60, of Bloomfield Hills explained.

The brothers’ entrée into the mobile apps market wasn’t by accident. Fred, the oldest of three brothers (Bill isn’t involved in the apps company), formed Jacobs Media in 1983 and went on to create the Classic Rock format while sitting at his kitchen table. Today, the company is the nation’s largest radio consulting firm specializing in rock formats. Each year, Jacobs Media uses Techsurveys to track the leading-edge technology trends in their industry, and in 2008 those surveys pointed the way to the smart phone revolution and the explosion of mobile apps. jacAPPS hasn’t stopped creating apps since and today it is one of the top developers in Michigan.

Having consulted rock and indie radio stations since the 1980s, the Jacobs brothers always try to figure out what radio listeners are doing and how they’re using technology. Their job is to help radio stations better understand the listeners. They knew that radio had lost much of its portability as people were choosing to listen to an iPod or MP3 player in place of a Sony Walkman or portable boom box. In recent years, when they realized that people were beginning to stream their favorite radio stations on mobile devices, they recognized that radio would once again be portable and they leapt into action. Rather than allow their clients to have their music streamed along with other radio stations’ music, they decided it was better to have single station apps. Apple’s AppStore had only been open for 90 days when they got to work on their first mobile app.

“Individual station brands deserved their own mobile apps,” wrote Fred Jacobs on the jacAPPS blog. “Surprisingly, some of radio’s biggest broadcasters took a different direction, building their own ‘umbrella apps’ that featured hundreds of their stations. You cannot underestimate the success of iHeartRadio or CBS’s Radio.com — apps that aggregate hundreds of radio stations under a big tent. Many smart phone owners swear by these apps, allowing them the ability to hear ‘favorite’ stations, while providing a diversity of choice. But our contention was that consumers are less focused on corporate brands than they are on hometown stations in their markets — or in cities where they once lived or visited. And for individual stations, the app experience has been powerful.”

After its incorporation, jacAPPS designed and released 20 apps in six months and began hiring young talent to grow the business. They continuously asked themselves what a mobile application can do that the radio station’s website cannot do.

They already had the listening ears of radio station executives across the country who were ready to implement whatever Fred and Paul Jacobs were recommending. When they told these radio stations that there existed a strategic need for customized mobile apps, the radio stations got in line and put in their orders.
The first app jacAPPS created was for WRIF, a Detroit based Rock radio station. “They did a great job and allowed us to be one of the first radio companies to provide iPhone apps to our listeners and they helped us transform our business from strictly broadcast to a multiplatform media company,” said Tom Bender, senior vice president and general manager of Greater Media Interactive, owner of local stations WRIF, WCSX and WMGC.

“We are now in the development of version 3.0 of our station apps for both iPhone and Android phones,” Bender added. “We have brainstormed for additional new functions that would be of high user interest, and jacAPPS was invaluable in that process. It’s easy to get enthused by a shiny new piece of technology, but to have the research and user input to know how often and exactly how it’s going to be used make the difference. That, more than flashy graphics or slick colors, is the real creative input for me.”

The watershed moment for jacAPPS was when Christian Radio signed on. “We were recognized early on by iconic brands like K-Love and Air1, which opened up the Christian Broadcasting world to us,” explained company vice president and general manager Paul Jacobs, 57, of Farmington Hills. “Car Talk, C-SPAN radio, and other great non-commercial radio franchises have added to our portfolio.”

jacAPPS has been grateful for the many Christian radio stations that have ordered customized mobile apps, but they are especially proud of some of the Jewish-themed apps their company has created such as Jewish Rock Radio, launched by Jewish recording artist Rick Recht. “We launched Jewish Rock Radio with the goal of creating the first truly high-caliber, 24/7 international Jewish rock radio station – a critical communication channel for the Jewish world based on the business models, the aesthetics, and ‘best pratices’ of the very best online radio stations offered in the Christian and secular worlds,” Recht, the executive director of Jewish Rock Radio explained. “When we dug deeper to find the developer behind some of the stations we wished to emulate, we found JacApps. With JacApps, we had found a developer who could not only create apps that were on caliber with some of our favorite Christian stations, but literally had created some of those apps!”

The Jacobs brothers believe strongly that radio stations were originally questioning if their music should be available on a stream, but they have taken it to the next level as their clients realize that they must have an app. They see themselves as improving the radio experience in the 21st century by helping radio stations create something that will generate revenue, enchant their audience and help them better distribute their content in the digital age.

While radio was their springboard into the mobile application industry, jacAPPS now designs and builds apps for a wide array of business categories and industries including festivals, events and sports brands. The Southfield-based company, which was spun off from Jacobs Media this summer, has created apps for the Spartan Sports Network, Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Taste of Atlanta. The company is looking forward to creating apps for political candidates as the upcoming election approaches.

One difficulty for jacAPPS has been the lack of compatibility across platforms. They have had to create separate custom apps for their clients on Apple devices, as well as on the Android and Blackberry platforms.
Since its launch in 2008, jacAPPS has created more than 500 apps for hundreds of clients. And with more than 11 million downloads, they can likely claim the most amount of downloads for any app company in Michigan (Crains Detroit wrote, “The company is by far the leading app developer in metro Detroit.”). What has set them apart is their ability to build a company’s entire mobile strategy from the concept of the app to its design through development and marketing. In today’s portable world, Fred and Paul Jacobs have figured out how to elevate their clients’ brands and to successfully integrate that into the dynamic mobile space.

The jacAPPS team is made up of a handful of young, talented employees who are several decades the Jacobs brothers’ junior. They all seem to understand that mobile applications are the next step in the technology revolution. Bryan Steckler, operations manager, said, “We are now where we were with websites in the 90s. Big brands have mobile apps, and now every business is realizing they need an app.”

The two brothers enjoy working together in the same business. Pointing to his younger brother, Fred said, “If you can’t trust this guy, who could you trust?”

They are both quick to acknowledge that they would not be as close if they weren’t in business together. “It’s a family business and that leads to group collaboration,” Steckler said. “The fact that they’re brothers is what makes the company what it is. And that transfers to our clients as well.”

“We’ve been fortunate to build a team of smart, young talented people here in Southeast Michigan. Our apps are truly ‘exported from Detroit,’ and showcase the resurgence of the technology industry in an area more commonly recognized for its heavy industry,” Fred Jacobs remarked.

The future for jacAPPS is bright as the mobile app market continues to surge. “We see nothing but growth and expansion ahead. By blending strategy, research, and keeping a laser focus on the consumer experience, our expectation is that jacAPPS will become a leader in full-service mobile resource for brands of all types that recognize the mobile future,” said Fred.

The company has had its share of proud moments as it became one of the top mobile app developers. jacAPPS has had the top app in the App Store in New Zealand; its NPR Radio app was featured on the front page of the U.S. App Store; and its app for Pulse 88.7 in New York was featured on a billboard for Apple.

jacAPPS has developed a number of mobile apps for nonprofit companies at either no cost or discounted rates. The team has also taken pride in having the opportunity to work with interesting people. Among its clients is a Native American Council made up of several tribes. jacAPPS has created an educational application to teach the Native American language to children. As the development team demonstrates the app on an iPad, it is clear that they understand the role they have played in the continuity of these people’s heritage.

Paul Jacobs holds his iPhone and with a smile says, “We’re never more than six feet away from this device. This is the one device that’s always with you and the one that you’ll return home for in the morning if you forgot it. It is the hub of a person’s identity.”

The phrase “there’s an app for that” has become a popular punch line and much of the reason for that can be attributed to Fred and Paul Jacobs and their creativity.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller