Talmud by Day, Reggae by Night
At a nightclub in New York’s East Village called the Sidewalk Café, a guy known as Rav Shmuel performed on a recent Saturday night, after the Sabbath had ended. The Rav, as he is known to friends and fans, closed his set with an original composition titled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Are True.”
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are true/ and I am a member of standing./ Our goal is to milk all the money from you./ It’s world domination we’re planning,” he sang to whoops of approval from the audience.
The encore to his set of fast-paced, reggae-infused original compositions was “Christian Baby Blood Matzah,” which was requested by several of the 20- and 30-something men wearing yarmulkes in the audience of the club’s Anti-Folk room.
The 38-year-old FFB (“frum from birth”) rabbi insisted that he only be identified in this story by his stage name. A native of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who now lives in Monsey, N.Y., he is the father of six. And though you wouldn’t know it from his rockin’ appearances, Rav Shmuel’s rabbinic moniker is not just a stage name. The ordained Orthodox rabbi earns his living teaching Jewish studies, working at, among other institutions of learning, Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.
Though Rav Shmuel insists he doesn’t want to be classified as a Jewish music act, he performs with his long earlocks dangling. In class they are tucked underneath his yarmulke.
“I am who I am, and no matter what I call myself, people are going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that rabbi who plays music,’” Rav Shmuel said. “So I decided to co-opt that.”
As a youngster he attended chasidic yeshivas, and he said that he first heard a secular song at the age of 12, when Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” came on the jukebox in the pingpong room of his Jewish community center.
As a teenager at a Baltimore yeshiva he and other students surreptitiously listened to rock and roll on a small radio that appeared to be a cassette deck. The yeshiva boys were ostensibly listening to Torah tapes but in fact were rocking out to the Beatles and Billy Joel.
“There were voices outside of me saying, ‘This is treyf – stay away from this,’” Rav Shmuel said. “The voice inside me always said, ‘This is music, and there’s no such thing as evil music.’”
Though Rav Shmuel said that rock and hip-hop lyrics can be problematic, as are the values expressed in some songs, he “always felt that one can distinguish.”
“It’s true that everything that you listen to has an effect on you,” he said. “But at the same time I always felt that I could deal with this.”
His high school, college and graduate school years at Sh’or Yoshuv Yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Queens, were seminal in his development. Young Shmuel had moved into the yeshiva’s dorm without permission. Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld asked him at an admissions interview, “Do you want to learn?”
Shmuel’s candid reply: “No. But I want to want to learn.” To which Freifeld replied: “Okay, you’re in.”
“He was the first rabbi who I felt really wanted me to be me and wasn’t looking in any way to put me into a mold,” Shmuel said.
At the age of 17, while attending Sh’or Yoshuv, he borrowed a small acoustic guitar with nylon strings from a friend.
“I took it back to the dorm, and I wrote five songs. I couldn’t put it down. I had to stop after 20 hours because my fingers were starting to bleed.”
After receiving ordination from Sh’or Yoshuv, Shmuel became a teacher, like his father and grandfather. In addition to his job at Stern College, he teaches a course on the prophets for employees of IDT, the Newark, N.J., telecommunications company with a heavy concentration of Modern Orthodox Jews.
In 1991 he took a job at Ohr Torah Institute in Queens, presiding over a class of boys, many of whom came to the yeshiva “in various states of altered consciousness.”
The principal agreed to give Rav Shmuel wide leeway to reach the students. They furnished their “clubhouse” with a collection of discarded couches, coffee tables and lamps. One student brought in a guitar, and before long the Rav was jamming before he started lessons for the day.
An intense period of song-writing soon followed.
“The songs that I wrote back then, they were terrible, just terrible,” Rav Shmuel says. “Every song I wrote back then was completely hokey.”
The Rav spent seven years in Israel, teaching first at a yeshiva and then at Bar-Ilan University, where his philosophy classes incorporated the unorthodox writings, so to speak, of Tom Wolfe and the Grateful Dead. While at Bar-Ilan, he started performing at a little joint in Jerusalem called the Fuzzy Duck and a bar called Mike’s Place, where he covered songs by the Grateful Dead and Phish.
He was something of a Phish-head, and when he made recruiting trips for Israeli schools to the States, he timed them so he could follow the Phish tour. During the summers of 1999 and 2000, he was part of Gefilte Fish, a jam band of Jews dedicated to creating “a positive Jewish space” and countering the proselytizing of Hare Krishna and other gentile groups on the Phish circuit.
On an outreach mission the following summer, he attended a Rainbow Gathering, which features communal camping and some nudity. The Rav camped near the Jerusalem Kitchen, a kosher enclave at the hippie get-together.
These days Rav Shmuel only performs his own songs. Some of his tunes deal with love lost or youthful rebellion. With the exception of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Are True” and “Christian Baby Blood Matzah,” he doesn’t think of his music as overtly Jewish.
“I’m writing about the world, about how I see the world. People, so far, have found that to be interesting,” he said. “Being a rabbi means being a teacher. It isn’t necessarily a Jewish or religious thing. Performing is the same as teaching, in that I am sharing what I have learned. Not only Jews are coming to my shows — and coming back to my shows. I have people coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, I thought you read my diary.’”
Rav Shmuel performs March 22 at the Sidewalk Cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.