Mayer and Matisyahu: Two distinct beats

We know that music captures the rhythm of the cultural zeitgeist, but with a world so complex there can be more than one beat. Two popular musicians, John Mayer (born 1977) and Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller, 1979) – judging not least by number of records sold – could each be a spokesperson for his generation. However, the philosophies represented in their songs represent two very discordant rhythms. Although both appeal to the same demographic, the messages Mayer and Matisyahu play to their listeners and the gestalts reflected in the lyrics are almost direct opposites.

In Mayer’s popular Waiting on the World to Change, he asserts in verse two:

We see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it

In contrast, Matisyahu’s Youth begins

Young man, control in your hand
Slam your fist on the table and make your demand
Take a stand

The essential difference in these two passages is the sense of agency. Whereas Mayer is waiting passively for the world to change, Matisyahu is enjoining his listeners to take an active and assertive stance. In Mayer’s universe, the young people are waiting apathetically – almost meekly –abdicating responsibility, while Matisyahu’s youth are outspoken agents for changing the system.

The songs continue:

Mayer:

It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change …

One day our generation
Is gonna rule the population
So we keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Matisyahu:

storm the halls of vanity
focus your energy
into a laser beam
streaming shattered light
unites to pierce
between the seams

Despite the recognition on the part of both artists that their generation is soon to rule the world, Mayer’s lyrics embody ennui while Matisyahu’s bespeak energy, activity, vitality. Matisyahu followers will seize the future while Mayer’s will passively inherit the earth. Mayer’s world exudes torpor and world weariness. Matisyahu’s on the other hand evinces power and mastery.  The question that naturally emerges then is why? Why should two talented artists so similar in age and both idolized by youth everywhere (perhaps even by the same audiences) have such incompatible messages?

Mayer:

Now if we had the power
To bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas
No more ribbons on their door
And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want

Matisyahu:

fan a fire for the flame of the youth
got the freedom to choose
you better make the right move
young man, the power’s in your hand

One possible answer to the question of conflicting messages is that Mayer and Matisyahu are rooted in two different traditions which impart disparate messages. Mayer’s worldview derives from the Christian understanding that the meek shall inherit the earth, while Matisyahu’s viewpoint stems from the Jewish value taught by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). What better expression of “tikkun olam” than Matisyahu’s injunction to the youth to take a stand, to assertively, even aggressively, demand change.

It is evident that Matisyahu is a Jewish singer but surprisingly, Mayer also identifies as a Jew. Matisyahu is an American-Hasidic Jew whose music is rooted in reggae, hip hop and Jewish hazzan tradition; Mayer is a signer-songwriter playing acoustic rock dipped in blues. Mayer, it turns out, is Jewish on his father’s side and has said in an interview that he “relate[es] to Judaism” though elsewhere he has said that he does not practice any religion. Whatever his background, an examination of his philosophy reveals that it is steeped in the American Christian majority culture.

Both Mayer and Matisyahu’s videos (available on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBIxScJ5rlY&ob=av2e and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9Kf4esMvdE&ob=av2e) show the singers walking the streets of New York City, hub of the world, symbol of perpetual youth. New York, though, is also the ultimate meeting place of multiple cultures, many creeds all living together in relative harmony and as such is a true hope for the youth and the future of our planet.

As a final comment, when listening a few months ago to the radio and hearing of the turmoil and uprising of the people in Egypt before I switched stations, my two sons – ages 7 and 4 at the time – asked me what was happening in Egypt. I explained as simply as I could that the people were angry at their President and they were demonstrating because they wanted to change their country. So, my little one pipes up, “oh, that’s like what the song says: “slam your fist on the table and make your demands.” Tikkun Olam starts young.

Peace is Catching: Dialogue in Your Community

Having recently returned to Israel after spending nearly a decade in the U.S. , I find that my observations of the country reflect both its changes and my own. My awareness has grown, but so too has my perplexity. The paradoxes and complexities of Israel are what I notice now more than ever. Although these may have always existed, they are in sharper relief against today’s pessimistic political reality – a far cry from the heady days of optimism created by the Oslo peace process of ten years ago. But also the paradoxes are sharper for me because of my own growing awareness in light of my doctoral research on Arab-Jewish dialogue groups in the United States. Despite some of the issues I discuss here I want to begin and end on an optimistic note that the reality calls out for opening channels of communication and promoting dialogue between Jews and Arabs in the United States and all over the world.

Of the many social incongruities causing dissonance in Israel, relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel is a troubling case in point. On the one hand a significant majority of Israel’s Arab citizens live in villages (some say 85%) but those who leave the villages to become educated at Israel’s universities often become integrated and play an important role in a multi-cultural Israeli society. There are Arab doctors in hospitals who are heads of departments, there are Arab psychologists, Arab professors at the institutions of higher learning and many have attained respected positions in Israeli society. And yet despite some of these impressive gains, racism against Arabs in Israel is explicit, blatant and unabashed.

Many who follow the Middle East on the nightly news have an image in their heads of the Palestinian villager oppressed by settlers and this image is unspeakably appalling. But it is not the whole picture. A drive through for example the Israeli-Arab village of Kfar Yasif in the Gallilee reveals other layers and nuances. There the houses inhabited by Arab citizens are large and impressive mansions. But scratch the surface and you realize that here too contradictions abound. Sometimes three generations live in the spacious home (not so spacious when you consider how many live under the same roof) . Also, basic infrastructure provided by the authorities is often scanty or lacking in these villages. Is the lack of civic services a result of discrimination and persecution and the specter of second class citizenship as the Arabs claim or is it because of the difficulty of collecting taxes in these villages as claim the Israelis? Why wouldn’t anyone refuse to pay taxes though to a state that discriminates against them – isn’t that civil disobedience as celebrated by our Henry D. Thoreau? So the argument goes around in circles.

Of course most Israeli Jews don’t drive through these Arab villages. Most don’t even know they exist, or seem to have sprouted blinders when driving past. When asking the typical Israeli what population centers he would pass on a drive from, say, Netanya to Nahariya, he would certainly mention Hadera and Caesarea and Zichron Yaakov to the east of the Coastal Road, but would he mention Faradis which has a population about the size of Zichron? Haifa is impossible to miss, but what about Shfar’am with a population of 35,000?  If they were to take Road number 70 which avoids the traffic of Haifa and the Krayot, they would certainly mention Yokneam and Akko but screen out Tamra and B’ilin. How has a society so successfully managed to hide 20% of its population in plain sight? Poe’s story re-written as the “Purloined People.”

The reality is that prejudice against Arabs is blatant, flagrant and unconcealed by veils of political correctness. There’s no attempt even to hide this ugliness. A prominent Arab psychologist recently related how, returning to Israel from an overseas conference , he hailed a taxi back home from the airport. He reports that the taxi driver told him he refuses to pick up drunks and Arabs in his cab. When my friend observed with barely concealed irony that a drunk might be easy enough to recognize but how does the driver distinguish an Arab from a Jew, the driver replied, “I can smell them.” Needless to say, the taxi driver’s olfactory sense must have been malfunctioning that day because he never suspected the psychologist was Arab.

Several months ago I sat at a Shabat dinner table with a childhood friend who claimed stridently that that Avigdor Lieberman is the only honest politician in Israel. Such a statement is shocking considering not least the corruption charges that have been leveled against him and his indictment for fraud. But this statement is even more deplorable considering Lieberman’s virulent anti-Arab rhetoric. Is it better to have racism out in the open rather than swept under the rug of political correctness as some claim occurs in the United State? Personally, I think that the attempt to hide racism is an acknowledgement that it is a shameful thing or at the very least indicates an awareness that it is wrong, which is the first step toward rooting it out.

I’ve also had dinner this year – the Pesach Seder at my home in Karkur  – year with a genuinely lovely Arab family from Akko whose daughters have grown up in the Israeli Jewish school system. My friend’s 12-year-old was excited to come to our Seder because – as she told her mother – this is the first time she would get to see what a real home Seder looks like and not just the ones they do at school. Should I be shocked to learn that despite her 29 Jewish classmates and myriad Jewish neighbors she had never before been invited to anyone’s family Seder? Most of my Jewish Israeli friends were not surprised by this.

Despite the accusations out of Europe these days, Israelis are not Nazis and Israel is not an apartheid state. I know we are a people which generally cares about tikkun olam and doing right in the world. It is time to ignore the stalled out top-down peace process and start making peace for ourselves. If we have learned anything from this past year’s social protest movements both in the Arab world, in Israel and now in the U.S. it is that we do not need to wait for government to make the changes we want to see.

In this season of soul searching as we approach the High Holy Days, I urge every one of you to join the social movement toward peace. This movement is already growing strong with countless organizations striving for peace and social justice in Israel, with innumerable Arab–Jewish dialogue groups in the US and in Israel. I encourage Jews everywhere in Israel and in the US  to join the movement by taking the time this upcoming Sukkot holiday to invite an Arab friend or an Arab family  into your Sukkah or to your Passover Sdarim in the spring and to open a dialogue: one on one, family to family, and in small groups. Reach out, listen to the other’s stories, make a friend. Peace is catching. Pass it on.