This is a story of two nice Jewish boys, one named Peter and the other named Matthew Paul.
When I was in college and grad school, I loved Peter Himmelman‘s music. I sort of lost track of his newer stuff as I became busy with life as a working mom and time for keeping up with music – even that being made by my favorite artists – dwindled to zero. (I finally understood how it could be that my parents, who began having children in the mid-1960’s, were not experts on the Beatles). I do remember, though, the hours I spent in the days of cassette tapes and Walkmans listening to Himmelman singing his own compositions. I connected to his music because his lyrics were so Jewish while at the same time not. He sang of spiritual matters in a way that was universal, yet clearly particular to those of us with the tools to decipher and analyze his language and recognize the Jewish neshamah and sources inspiring it.
I considered Himmelman a Jewish musician. I thought I was pretty on the money about this. After all, he always covered his head (if not with a kippah, then with a bandana or hat) and he even wrote a song about his encounter with an anti-Semitic taxi driver while on his way to shul to daven with a Holocaust survivor with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.
But then when I went to see him perform live at the Bottom Line in the Village (this was in the early ’90’s, or as my husband and I call that era: BC – Before Children), I realized that he was a crossover artist. Not in the “rock/R&B” sense of crossover, but in the “Jewish/everyone else out there in the world” sense of crossover. I looked around the smoke-filled venue and saw that there were lots of trucker hats and almost no black hats (or even black kippot) surrounding me. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “These people see him first as a musical artist and then as a Jew [if they even knew at all that he was Jewish].”
Now, a decade and a half later, another really cool (do I sound un-cool saying “cool?”) Jewish musician never even had to cross over. He burst onto the international commercial music scene, noticed and admired by “everyone else out there in the world” before anyone pigeonholed him as a Jewish artist. Pretty amazing given that he is a Hassidic Jew and dresses like one (though I have to say, he does have a sexy je ne sais quoi that I generally find lacking in other men belonging to his sect). He reminds me a lot of Peter Himmelman. Not so much in terms of musical style (Himmelman can do reggae, but Matisyahu is reggae), but in terms of their lyrics being that very delicately balanced mix of the particularly Jewish and the universal.
I speak, of course, of Matisyahu, whose song One Day has been chosen by NBC for use in its advertising campaign for its coverage of the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics. Not everyone knows who Matthew Paul Miller is, but music lovers world over know his Hebrew name.
P.S. While I was writing this post, my 13-year old son came by and glanced at the screen. I told him what I was writing about and how exciting I thought it was that Matisyahu’s song was being used to to build interest in the Olympics. My son gave me a look as if to say, “omg u r SOOOO old!” He, who of course knows One Day, and who obviously cannot recall a time when the only Jewish music non-Jews could reference was Havah Nagilah, or maybe a Connie Francis cover of a Yiddish song, watched the NBC clip and asked without a trace of irony, “And this is a big deal because…?”
P.P.S. omg i must really b SOOOO old
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.
Tags: crossover music, crossover musicians, Greenwich Village, Hassidic Jews, Jewish musical artists, Jewish musicians, Matisyahu, NBC, One Day, Peter Himmelman, The Bottom Line, Vancouver Winter Olympics