I just got back from the Matisyahu concert in Boston. Like, the I’m still sweaty kind of just got back. I am totally blown away. And not necessarily by what you might think.
I felt a little weird going tonight because of the whole Jdub break. But I’m pulled to any places that have some twinkle of reaching upward. So tonight I left my history paper on second Temple period apocalypticism and ventured over to Lansdowne St in Boston.
I witnessed a deeply puzzling phenomenon: the Pseudo-Jew.
Walking into the Avalon ballroom, first thing I noticed was this was not your Moshav Band crowd. This was not Jewish hippies. There were few kippot and lots of pointy-toed shoes and frat t-shirts. That “us-ness,” that camaraderie I feel at Jewish gatherings, was distinctly absent. Because what creates a collective is a shared understanding of what you are participating in. I expected people to not quite get it, many to not be Jewish, but I was disappointed by the depth of it. It’s one thing not to know how to sing along to “yibaneh beis hamikdash, bimheira b’yameinu.” It’s another to be freak dancing with your girlfriend to the lyrics of a song describing the Jewish people’s survival of the Holocaust.
After two experiences at the concert tonight, my question is this: what makes people pretend to be Jewish at a Matisyahu concert?
First it was the candle-lighting woman. A good Chabadnik, Matisyahu brought out a chanukiah to light at the end of his set. He called out for someone in the crowd who knew the “brochas” and picked a woman (surprising to me) raising her hand up front. He asked, “Do you know the blessings? Do you speak Hebrew?” I guess she said yes because she got up on the stage. They had a brief interchange where she seemed unsure, now that she was up there, so he brought out a sheet with transliteration. She began to read over the beat of the bass: “BA-ru-KAH AH-tay a-DONN-ee…” To the second one she just said “amen’ tentatively after he said it for her. It is possible that she is actually Jewish and that I am totally misjudging a Jew who simply has not been taught the blessings. But she had clearly never heard them before. Was it getting up on stage that was the draw? Is it like a nice interfaith moment? Did she want to meet Matisyahu? Did she know what he was talking about?
My second experience was even more puzzling, though. I was there with LastTrumpet, who is slightly more Jewishly noticable than me in that he wears a big ol’ knit kippah and has a big beard. A guy near us, probably around 20 years old, started gesturing to LastTrumpet’s head and then to his own, and gave LastTrumpet a big ol’ handshake. The guy was wearing a black kippah. He said something about getting back from Israel. I asked, “Where are you studying in Israel?”
He said, “At the University of Israel.”
Please, I could not let that one go!
Me: “Where are you studying?”
Pesudo-Jew: “In Israel, in Israel, at the University of Israel.”
Me: “That doesn’t exist. Are you at Bar Ilan? Ben Gurion? Hebrew University?”
Pseudo-Jew: “University of Israel, in Jerusalem.” (gestures to the stage) “I’ll tell you after this song.”
After the concert ended, I had to find this guy again. In the name of sociological research, of course.
Me: “So you said you’re in Jerusalem, huh? What street do you live on?” [I am really asking in a nice tone, I promise. I am giving him a chance.]
Pseudo-Jew: “Uh… [cough] the fourth street. From the center.”
[Please note that he is not at all admitting that he is lying. He is truly and sincerely trying to pull this off. He thinks maybe I don't notice. He thinks maybe I don't know anything about Jerusalem, just like any other American. Just like him.]
Me: “Really. What bus line are you on? What neighborhood do you live in?” [I was really trying to give him a chance. A chance to back down? A chance to admit his ploy? I'm not sure. But I didn't expect him to keep going.]
Pseudo-Jew: “Umm… well, actually, my neighborhood just got bombed. So I had to move.”
Me: “No, no it didn’t.”
[I'm sorry, I really needed to push that one. Somewhere inside I was getting angry but I couldn't quite access it, I was so amazed. I couldn't believe he was lying about a bombing. Why? To impress me? To meet girls? To test out what it's like to be Jewish? Was it like the Eddie Murphy sketch where he becomes "Mr. White" for the day?]
Pseudo-Jew: “No, really. It did. But I used to live in [cough at same time as saying:] Jachmnbadah.”
[At this point I've noticed that what I thought in the dark was a black velvet kippah (marking him as Orthodox) is actually a black nylon kippah, the kind you get for free at bar mitzvahs.]
Me: “Where did you get your kippah?’
Pseudo-Jew: “Huh? My what?”
Me: [taking the kippah off his head... yes, I was being somewhat obnoxious at this point, but he was also touching my waist now and leaning in to answer me] “Don’ttouchmeWhat’s this on your head?”
Pseudo-Jew: “The yamakah?”
Me: “Where did you get it?”
Pseudo-Jew: “Where did I get it? I bought it! In Peabody. Do you know Peabody, Mass? Where are you from?”
Me: “Yeah, I know Peabody. I’m from here. And Jerusalem. I lived there last year.”
Pseudo-Jew: “Oh really?”
Me: “Yeah. You should really learn the neighborhoods of Jerusalem before pretending to live there.” [I promise I said it sweetly.]
Pseudo-Jew:: “Well, I’ve only been there for two months, so I don’t really know.”
Me: “Well, good luck finding your way. Good night.”
I spent the car ride back trying to analyze with LastTrumpet what was the impetus behind this behavior. We had some half-baked theories, involving safe exploration of the Other because Jews are white in America. Maybe Matisyahu is the first publicly accessible, seemingly authentic Orthodox Jewish culture for Americans, so they want to test out who really ARE these “Jews” that look like us but really aren’t like us? Because white Americans think they can pass just by putting on a kippah? Honestly we didn’t get that far. I’m still puzzled. What do you think?
[Side note: a synergistic moment. Chabad mobile out front of the club asking concertgoers if they're Jewish to give them chanukiyot; Jesus Guy up the street with his fiery sandwich boards proclaiming the second coming and non-believers' going to hell.]