Culture, Global

Will You Find A Nice Jewish Boy From The Colonies Already?

With The NY Times’ Kelefa Sanneh and a chorus of critics chanting down Matisyahu for making dough off Jamaican music, few if any who covered Matisyahu’s recent rise acknowledged the presence of Jews in reggae’s birthplace since they arrived there as refugees in 1530.
Much attention has been paid to the common imagery employed by Jews and Rastafarians to affirm their religious beliefs, but less has been paid to the struggles and triumphs of West Indian Jewry in general. By fleeing to the colonies, Jewish communities inhabited a unique space in a rapidly developing economy. As the British-Jamaican novelist Andrea Levy novelist noted in a recent Haaretz interview, Inquisition-era Jewish refugees came to settle the islands as actual countries, realizing that their fate there didn’t lie with the Christian planters or their slaves. Jewish communities were polylingual, which often encouraged their success in trade across colonial borderlines.
Although a small portion of Jews owned their legally allowed two slaves, most did not. A loosely enforced law decreed Jews were only allowed to hire indentured servants of their own faith. After one Jew introduced sugar cultivation technology to Brazil, another brought this technology to Jamaica, thus reducing the need for certain slave responsibilites. The Miami Herald reported in 1999 that the first parliament to abstain from meeting on Yom Kippur was the Jamaican one, in 1849. 8 MPs professed Judaism over 100 years after Jews were legally emancipated on the island.
In the fall of 2007, Yale University’s Center for British Art will be presenting Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: The World of Isaac Mendes Belisario. The Jamaican-born Jewish artist returned to Jamaica from London in 1834. His paintings evoked the visual culture of abolition and depict the slaves’ African costuming, creolization and consequent contextualization in the European cultural landscape. Now that sounds like a good job for a nice Jewish boy.
So to critics and fans of Matisyahu, me vexed. Our roots, seen?

16 thoughts on “Will You Find A Nice Jewish Boy From The Colonies Already?

  1. I highly recommend the film ‘Awake Zion’ for anyone interested in the topic . . .
    Awake Zion is a documentary that explores the connections between reggae culture and Judaism. Through the themes of music, roots and culture, it aims to expose the senselessness of hate or intolerance by highlighting kinship as opposed to difference.
    Screenings Information (sorry the links didn’t make it through . . . too lazy to put them in by hand)
    Makor, New York City – June 24, 2006 at 7:30 pm
    Screenings will be followed by Q&A with filmmaker, Monica Haim. Tickets: $15 Information & Reservations: 212-601-1000 or visit Makor online.
    Makor Web Site
    IndieFest Chicago – August 3 – 11, 2006
    Please check the festival website for exact screening details and information
    IndieFest Web Site
    Berkeley, CA – August 2006
    Awake Zion will screen at Chochmat HaLev, a spiritual community in Berkeley focused on the renewal of Judaism as a joyful and relevant path for people to live a spiritual life. Please check the website for exact screening details and information
    Chochmat HaLev WebSite
    Girl Fest Hawaii – September 8-17,2006
    Please check festival web site in July for exact screening details and information Girl Fest Hawaii Web Site

  2. Aha, that explains lion in zion.
    Funny thing is, even some muslims I know sang that song for fun. Of course not paying much attention to the lyrics.

  3. ah…I just visited Jamaica for the 1st time last week It was amazing. The people are so friendly. The next day we went to Grand Cayman and our boat tour guide, a light skin Jamaican, had a Star of David tatoo! We inquired…he told us his family is Rastafarian…and he is intereted in Judaism too!
    BTW, our tour guide in Jamaica called Rastafarians :”cult members”!

  4. fyi…should have added…could not find a Mikvah in Jamaica. I used Mayfield Falls and it was amazing!

  5. interesting post, but here’s the thing—matisyahu was born in westchester, pa and raised in white plains!!! he fakes a patua accent!!! that is not the same thing as recognizing historical roots and honoring people who come from there, nor grappling with the history of jews and colonialism–you lay out an interesting history, but you don’t show how that supports matisyahu as an individual in doing the kind of cultural production he’s doing–in fact, i’d say it more supports the problems behind it and honestly, cultural appropriation.

  6. the rastas appropropriated Zionism, so it’s cool if Matisyahu appropriates Reggae.
    The real issue is that us Jews have sold out, and that’s why Rastas appear real, while Jews appear white.

  7. The rastas appropriated Zionism, so it’s cool that Matisyahu appropriates reggae.
    The real issue is that us Jews have sold out, and that’s why rastas appear real, while Jews appear white.

  8. So he didn’t grow up with the accent he sings with – neither did the guys performing trad Celtic music at the local Irish pub here in Alabama. Nor, for that matter, did the singer of the C&W band I saw several years ago in a hotel bar in Cardiff, Wales. The charge of “cultural appropriation”, it seems to me, boils down to a kind of biological essentialism that’s just as silly applied to music criticism as to gender studies or any other area of human behavior.
    The only questions I think worth asking about a performer who works in a specific tradition are, is the performance true to the tradition? And then, does s/he do something new and interesting within that tradition?

  9. Kelefa Sanneh only seems to cry cultural appropriation when Jews are involved. What about all those British rock musicians who “apprpriated” the Blues. Ironically, at a time when most Black people had abandoned the blues.

  10. Jews making serious cultural and political contributions to Jah-make-ya does not change the fact that if Matis was Matt Miller playing in a band like John Brown’s Body, y’all still wouldn’t know him. JUDGEMENT!

  11. not to mention, david gould, former bassist of john brown’s body, whose project adonai & i predates matis in the jewish reggae department, and is, in some ways, musically superior. yet i gather you’ve never heard of him. i was his webmaster before i was matis’ however.

  12. You know, I was about to mention Adonai & I, and I think I’ve even mentioned that project in previous rants. word, Mobius. Didn’t know you had connex with him.

  13. All of these comments are very interesting. I guess I had a point to make, that I didn’t make clearly. It was that, as in evidenced in the responses here: that people are quickly to assume that Jews with any sort of relationship to Jamaica are building it off some of inspiration they draw from the rasta culture in the black ghettoes- as they developed by themselves, apart from Jews. While Matis and David Gould are fine examples of Jewish-Americans playingin reggae music, they don’t address Jewish history or communities in Jamaica – ones that existed parallel to, but seperate from, the black suffera masses. I don’t believe for a second that there is any social or cultural connection between Kingston 12 and Halfway Tree, Jews’ Street Kingston – and I think that Jewish people who play reggae because they like the music – thats enough. A discussion about cultural ownership is another topic. This post wasn’t about authenticating Jewish reggae musicians. I don’t think they are authentic, nor will they ever be. What I do think is that Jews have a Caribbean history, and its hardly ever mentioned, even with people like Matis and David Gould around to spark interest.

  14. from a reggae afficionado, i have really enjoyed matis’ music – he’s obviously a highly talented individual and his reggae-inspired jams certainly show this clearly
    on the other hand, after initially enjoying his beats, i began to listen more closely to his lyrics and i honestly felt a bit alarmed at how pervasive were matis’ references to israel and judaism – thinking back now, i guess it was mostly a feeling that the ‘genre’ was being misappropriated in some way – you see, it’s my belief that reggae roots and the rastafarianism from which it sprang has virtually nothing to do with judaism – the confusion probably springs from common references in reggae lyrics to ‘zion’, the ‘lion of judah’, and ‘babylon’ – to be clear, zion in a rastafarian context is a reference to the oppression of blacks and the garvey-like dream of repatriation to africa, specifically ethiopia – consider a situation where an american indian used the word ‘zion’ to refer to reestablishing a cherokee ‘promised land’ in appalachia ; the ‘lion of judah’ is one of many titles referring to haile selassie, a member of the ethiopian christian orthodox church, and the legend of his descent from solomon and the queen of sheba, not necessarily from falashas descended from the tribe of dan; and ‘babylon’ is a reference to the oppression in jamaica specifically and materialism in general, not a jewish exodus from persian bondage
    yes, these references are biblical in origin, but they spring from like-concepts, not from any literal connection to judaism – any argument for such a connection would necessarily need to ignore completely a much closer connection with christianity, but that’s not the point, really – reggae music and rastafarianism spring from the suffering of blacks, specifically caribbean blacks – as well, their sacrament is ganja, which matis apparently forsakes – there’s simply no valid connection between a flatbush hasidic jew feigning a jamaican patois and the nyah bingie or cudjoe uprisings of post-colonial jamaica… aside from the beats and the message – if it’s the message that brings matis to the genre, then perhaps he could focus more on that without further blurring its cultural roots through rampant references to judaism and israel – no offense is intended here, folks – i just feel disappointed in matis’ lyrics in the same way i now feel when hearing a vanilla ice song, even though i bobbed my head and sang along like everyone else when his songs first became popular

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