Culture, Global, Identity, Religion

Pseudo-Jews; or, who pretends to be Jewish at a Matisyahu concert?!

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.”
Me: “Huh.”
[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.]

41 thoughts on “Pseudo-Jews; or, who pretends to be Jewish at a Matisyahu concert?!

  1. whoa this is FASCINATING. i didn’t experience that at the gigs here in SF, but then, Bay Aryans are used to pretending to be from each other’s exotic cultures so maybe the fun has worn off. 🙂 thanks for the post.

  2. Oy have I been waiting for this! Yes! Now finally suburban kids will stop with the fake AAVE (African-American Vernacular of English) and start with the frumspeak!
    “What you won’t go out with me this weekend? Allison, that’s mamash a shande. What if your mom chaps you by 10:30?”

  3. I saw this once at a venue where the Dalai Lama was teaching – lay people (who might not even have been Buddhist) dressed in quasi-monastic garb. I imagine they’re searching for a sense of collective identity.
    People who attend concerts or rallies often dress in a manner that identifies them as part of a group. I think that this is an extension (albeit an unbalanced one) of that behavior.

  4. LOL. Will read to husband.
    In next paragraph will tell story of how we saw Matisyahu at Chabad party at Wash.U. at the Gargoyle. Obviously at that time he was simply an oddity. I remember that he sang a sarcastic song about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This almost makes up for missing Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins at the Hi-Pointe.

  5. I was actually going to make the same point as Y-Love, comparing Matisyahu groupies to kids who fake African American culture.
    Yehudit, you know how you felt that the sense of community was missing? Maybe these people wanted to feel like they were a part of that community, and didn’t think that anyone would call them on it. Some of them may even have been Jewish, just poorly educated.
    Mostly I feel sorry for people like your nylon-kippa-wearing friend. They clearly want to belong and don’t know how.

  6. Maybe I should also add what happened while LastTrumpet and I were waiting to get in. A guy behind us said, “Hey! Can I go in with you guys?” in slurred drunky speech. LastTrumpet said, “Well, we don’t have any extra tickets…?” Then Drunkypants was like, “Hey! I like the beard man!” and started stroking LastTrumpet’s beard. LastTrumpet is a good soul and so was just rolling with it. Drunkypants: “The beard is so awesome!” [stroke] Me: “Uh, lay off the beard, dude.”
    I realize now that LastTrumpet was like a beacon to those wanting to connect with Jewishness. When the guy asked, “Can I go in with you guys?” I think what he was asking was, can I join your group? Can I be on the inside?
    Also just have to add:
    After all was said and done, and LastTrumpet and I were getting ready to leave the mostly empty ballroom, one guy walking by with his friend gave LastTrumpet a shoulder pat and said, “Hey, that was awesome! That was really awesome!”
    Like, Thanks Jew! You did a great job! ?

  7. AND: When the chabadnik outside was giving a chanukiyah to a girl who turned out to have a Jewish mother and explaining what you do with it, he said, “Go home and light this. Sing Matisyahu while you’re doing it.”

  8. from second temple apocolypticism to modern day apocolypse desire?
    My Matisyahu freak out came when I was forced to listen to King without a crown during a spinning class. Nothing like watching your half-naked spin teacher lipsync boring jewish reggae without a clue what the song is about!

  9. Do we call them wh-idden?
    This, while a little jarring, is not so surprising to me: the product is counter to mainstream culture, so people want to get on board. Let’s play a brief game: think of all sorts of famous popular pop music/ rock star folks. People that sold millions of records. Got it in your head? Good. Now, name all the obviously Jewish ones. if you’re like me, aside from this guy,the closest I get is Benny Goodman. It’s new, it’s different, it’s cool. It’s right up there with the faux-mitzvah craze.
    Before I even read Yehudit’s added comment about the chabadnik, I thought about this guy being the anti-Jew for Jesus. We can just dispatch him and his disciples the next time J4J invade NY.
    The frat duhd grinding moment is never a fun one. I remember the first time I saw it at an antibalas show- not that dancing to antibalas is new, they make awesome grooves- but that they were grinding to “O My Sister” a song apologizing for rape, abuse, murder and mysogeny. Kinda made me want to yarf all over knucklehead. In fact, I want to go yarf right now.

  10. wow, what an amazing trend.
    i imagine part of the appeal of matisyahu is his exoticism. this, of course, is related to his counter-cultural streak.
    when i was growing up in a strongly counter-cultural socialist youth movement i felt an odd kinship with the frum folks who were fighting a vaguely similar fight, to reject american secular materialism and get people thinking about what really matters. perhaps it is naive to think so, but there is some chance that a slice of the matis fanbase is actually interested in rejecting some of the wonderbread american cultural milieu. most, obviously, do not understand the music well enough to be on board with any deeper message, no matter what we think of the ethics of the chabad message.
    what does all this babble mean? i am not sure. matisyahu is quite different from anything most americans have ever encountered. if people are into him, they will try on some of his exotic aspects, probably not realizing how ridiculous this is.
    white kids know they aren’t black. a better analogy, even musically connected, is white kids who become interested in reggae and grow dreadlocks thinking they are kinda cool and make a statement (that may concur with their own, at least on the cannabis front). those dredlocks have a religious and cultural significance that is not readily apparent to this kids listening to Marley et al. this pseudo-yidden may be just as oblivious to the absurdity of their cultural appropriation.
    i imagine, ready to capitalize on this subset of the cultural appropriation trend, urban outfitters will soon (if they don’t already) carry black fedoras.

  11. Although it would be nice to feel that we are so damn cool people would lie to be us, the reality is that I think this is more of an isolated case involving a pathological liar and your bad luck in crossing him rather than a counter-cultural movement of any kind. I only went to one Matisyahu show and it was in Portugal. I can assure you, no one was pretending to be the hated. Although ironically, I learned it was much easier to say “mashiach” in Portugeuese then I ever imagined it would!

  12. so now i guess they should be dispatching dudes at these concerts handing out pamphlets on the Seven Laws of Noach.

  13. yeah, I think we’re giving psuedo-yerushalmi in the nylon “Yamaka” a lot of credit. Sounds to me more like someone trying to pick up girls who are at the show looking for jewy-jew types, not unlike the early raver phenomenon of fake british accents.

  14. Even if Yosef Leib is right, which is totally possible, the thing that makes it ridiculous is this: Judaism is not just an aesthetic movement. It comes with a web of information attached. There is content. There is 4000 years of content. I liked the Dalai Lama comparison above.
    I think what these comments on mainstreaming/appropriating more “Other” elements of Jewish culture, specifically aesthetic, pick up on is that the Matisyahu phenomenon suddenly makes some Americans think that Jewish is a style that can be donned.
    Remember the criticism of the “poseur” of the early 90s who didn’t skateboard? I never really understood the hostility. So what if someone don’t skate? They listen to Nirvana and wear Yaga and JNCO. Now I think I get it more: for many of those hostile to non-skaters, it was about a lifestyle.
    I think we are getting somewhere with this. He’s not a Pseudo-Jew.
    He’s a Poseur.
    Meaning, this isn’t about Judaism. This is the category of Poseur, and right next to subheadings of skater, Rastafarian, Buddhist, African-American, swing, and other subcultures with popular appeal and corresponding internal legitimization standards, is a novel new subheading (at least new in this millennium):

  15. I think you are missing the point about this being entertainment open to all. I thought it was great show and was thrilled as a Jew (by the way, I’m scared of your Pseudo Jews statements/classification) that general (a.k.a. gentile) populations heard messages of peace, spirit and togetherness. Last night, I’d rather dance at Avalon with all sorts of people than partake in a deep Talmudic discussion – I think you’d agree we can balance those joys.

  16. “You’re not even a real Jew, dude, you’re just a poseur.”
    “Dude, I’ve been Jewish since forever, like, OMGZ”
    “Whatever, I’ve been Jewish since, like, before Britney even…”
    “You are such a poseur, you are so not Jewish, I’ve been Jewish since like, the Rebbe was, like, alive…”
    “Poseur Jew” could be the new “sucker MC” 🙂

  17. loved this thread…when he was in Houston we were next to some “saved” types and they were doing the hand raising up in praise thing they do to many songs. gag…worst part: listening to non Jews try and sing Hebrew…gag.
    next best: seeing blondie girl yell out “I want Moshiach”

  18. Sorry Yehudit, but Matisyahu has joined pop culture. To me, you sound no different than any music snob, nostalgic for the good old days when your favorite band only belonged to you. Join the club of washed up hardcore kids, indie hipsters and jazz cats offended by the newbies in their midst. Why not enjoy your music without worrying that the person next to you isn’t allowing himself to be sufficiently edified?

  19. Sounds a lot different than when I saw Matis at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge about 2.5 years ago! That was before the JDub split, before he was on MTV, etc–and it was indeed a mostly Jewish crowd.
    “Poseur Jew” could be the new “sucker MC”
    Y-Love, that’s brilliant. I may have a new e-mail sign-off.

  20. This is, indeed, fascinating. Though I don’t necessarily buy into YB’s precise explanation of the dichotomy between the authentic and the contrived, it reminds me that there is such a thing as cultural appropriation. Though its exact contours are ill-defined, ambiguous and ever-changing, the truth is that such a phenomenon exists, even if its nature remains as elusive as Potter Stewart’s notion of obscenity. Using that admittedly subjective measure, it’s evident that Benny Goodman, Mick Jagger, and Eminem aren’t examples. Pat Boone and Vanilla Ice plainly are. In any case, there’s something a touch ironic about a discussion addressing the authenticity of reggae music fans, as said music is interpreted by an Orthodox Jew.

  21. mur-
    I don’t think Yehudit Brachah was reacting primarily to the fact that non-Jews were listening to Matisyahu, but that they were pretending to be Jewish. There’s a world of difference.

  22. I was at one of the New York shows, and I did notice a lot of frat boy/pointy shoe girl skank dancing, as is to be expected in NYC the crowd did seem to be pretty Jewish. Also: very young. Unfortunately, I had a much different experience, and it was an unpleasant one: the opening act was an African-American rapper named Mr. Lif, and the (almost entirely white, whether or not it was actually mostly Jewish) crowd heckled and booed him. I was appalled. I thought it said some important, not very complimentary things about Matisyahu’s fan base. And so I think it is important to remember that, while we sit here and judge someone for (poorly) co-opting a culture that is not his, in an important sense, Matisyahu’s fame — and especially his mostly-white fan base — is at heart already based in a large cultural co-opting. I believe that Matisyahu has a great deal of respect for the culture his style of music comes from (after all, he invited Mr. Lif to open for him), but it seems to me that his fans haven’t internalized this — even if they weren’t the ones booing, how many of them listen to the same style of music when the person singing it is African American? Even if only a small segment of that fan base is Jewish, it still behooves us to check ourselves and our own reactions and rationalizations before making fun of someone for his nylon yarmulke and his ultimately harmless lie.

  23. I’m a little behind here.
    What makes people still go to Matisyahu concerts?
    I was hoping he would go out like that “Lazy Sunday” video.
    Can you imagine him in a “Where Are They Now?”
    For that matter, can you guys tell me how you would imagine him in one of those?

  24. People booed Mr. Lif? In addition to all the cultural and racial ways that should give one pause, it also makes me question their taste in music. Lif is a great musician, not to mention one with some great left-wing lyrics.

  25. I am not surprised to hear that the show was full of posers-types, for two reasons.
    1. I have found the entire club scene in the Landsdowne St area to be lame, insipid, superficial, and faked. This can probably be traced back to Boston University’s gentrification of Kenmore Square, when good venues like The Rathskeller were shut down and Mr. Butch was exiled to the Allston/Brighton area.
    2. Matisyahu (Yes, that’s a combined googlebomb and shameless self-promotion.) is a fake, through and through. His Jamaican patois is fake, he’s a suburbanite whiteboy. His Judaism is faked, he’s a suburbanite whiteboy with a heavily Americanized and nominally Jewish background who’s being used as a publicity stunt by a FUCKING CULT. His “musical talents” are faked, nothing but MTV-style hype by the evil recording industry.

  26. I think your article is pretty closed-minded and quite hypocritical of the Jewish faith. Who are you to decide what is accepted as a devout Jew at a Matisyahu show? Our whole exsitance as Jewish people has been based around us not being accepted for being different, being persecuted for our beliefs, how we look and not conforming. I am pretty sure that frat boys like good music, that girls with pointy toed shoes can be Jewish and damn good at it for that matter. Maybe they don’t know as much as you but they have adopted Judaism in to their lives in a way that works for THEM and have found something in the music and who are you to judge that? Matisyahu was an acid indulged dead-head for the better part of his life. I doubt he knew any of the things you claim to be the deciding factor of who or who is not a Pseduo-Jew. People find their religious identity on their own time in their own way. Some get to a point that others never will but it does not make it any less real or genuine. It’s a beautiful thing that we are all here and have come so far. Maybe you should not be so quick to judge in the future because it seems to me that the only “Pseudo-Jew”, is you.

  27. Ha! Stumbled upon this page after googling for ‘pretending to be Jewish’. I had a similar experience a couple of nights ago with a guy who pretended to be from Tel Aviv and so on… How odd.

  28. I know a girl who has pretended for several years to be jewish, but she used to be an anti-Semite. she even has white-power themed tattoos. she’s just a joiner. sad.

  29. Really?
    You’re complaining about people mimicking Jewish culture at an event headlined by a Jew mimicking black culture?
    I love this:
    ” that camaraderie I feel at Jewish gatherings, was absent… I expected people to not get it, many to not be Jewish, I was disappointed by the depth”
    Imagine that. You go to a black-culture event, and you the event is not as deeply Jewish as Jewish-cultural gatherings are.

  30. I’m not Jewish, though my roots are Spanish and I have been told it’s in the blood, I strongly disagree. If I was, my brown skin would always hinder me from acceptance either way here in America.
    It goes both ways though. You’re correct in saying there are people who pretend to be Jewish -Take christians from example: They believe they are either loosely Jewish by association or only suck up to Jewish people to get the blessings of God (now is that disingenuous or what?)
    Then there are Jews who are sometimes Semitic, and sometimes not. There are Jews who are converts. White when the social or financial time calls for it, and ethnic when facing persecution.
    Case in point? We’re all full of it.

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