“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are true and I am a member of standing / But I’m undercover as a singer/songwriter down here at the Sidewalk café.”
This is the catchy chorus of Rav Shmuel’s new hit video and song, which is being passed around on YouTube like a hot falafel. The irony-filled animated film features the rabbi playing indie rock and sends up clichés by the dozen. The rockin’ rabbi, as he is known, takes to the stage bearded and sporting impressively long sidelocks; but there is no hora dancing or cantorial singing in his repertoire, just unadulterated indie pop.
“Protocols,” the title song of his debut album, was written in reaction to a string of antisemitic incidents that Rav Shmuel experienced. One time, a man in Manhattan’s East Village came up to him, shouted “Heil Hitler,” gave the Hitler salute, smiled and then waited for the Rav to respond. The Rav wrote the song as his response. His favorite performance of this hit was at an open mic near his hometown in Nyack, N.Y. A slack-jawed audience of locals, already stunned by the Rav’s appearance, was treated to him dancing Borat-style with a grin, and singing “We gonna have fun” in his most exaggerated Eastern European accent until he stopped short with the words “just kidding.” The Rav joked that he is eagerly waiting for the song to become a hit in the Islamic world. Such appreciation of irony is characteristic of his approach to the fight against antisemitism, which he believes is here to stay. “Humor is a great tool to reach people, and one not appreciated by mainstream organizations. More grass-roots art-based efforts are needed,” he said.
The Rav’s musical home is the East Village Sidewalk Café. Unlike those at the clubs of Israel, the country in which he lived for eight years, his audiences at the Sidewalk get past his image and don’t tease him with “Moshiach, Moshiach,” as he often experienced in Tel Aviv. The Sidewalk hosts the yearly Anti-Folk Festival, which he has also headlined. The Rav described anti-folk as folk with a slight punk edge, without the safe feeling of traditional folk. “The anti-folk artist is not necessarily in alliance with his audience,” he explained.
And about the obvious comparison of him with American Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu, Rav Shmuel smiled and said: “He has been great for me.” But he is quick to point out the differences. The 42-year-old father of six doesn’t share the wide-eyed wonder of one who has “found” faith later in life. The Rav’s family consists of Orthodox rabbis going back generations. Though he was raised in Hasidic schools, unlike Matisyahu there are no cherubim’s “sparks” or “lions of Zion” in his lyrics. “My values come through in a more subtle way,” he said.
The album “Protocols” was released last fall and acclaimed by Billboard magazine. It pokes holes in the surfaces of the world without explicit Jewish reference, such as in the song “Dumb World.” He sings of love without melancholy and critiques reality TV and the culture of celebrity, revealing a bizarre congruence in the social outlooks of traditional Judaism and indie culture.
Although Rav Shmuel is a teacher at a yeshiva in Newark, N.J., don’t expect to see any of his traditional students at his gigs; the Rav makes it a point to keep his musical career and his Talmud teaching (not to mention community standing) strictly separate. But he does want other students to see him. The Rav is working on more videos and will tour during the summer. His goal is to play at every college campus across the country, bringing the message of the importance of getting past appearances. As he sings, “It’s important not to conjecture, just to know.” Rav Shmuel is not undercover; rather, his rabbinical persona is on the cover, with the rocker inside always finding a way to come out. Adam J. Sacks is a writer living in New York.