Matisyahu: You disappointed me

Dear Matisyahu,

Tonight you performed at the Windstar World Casino in Oklahoma, seventy miles from my Dallas home.  The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion it is right around the corner.  I did not attend your concert.  I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again.  You have disappointed me greatly.  I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in.  But you have let me down.  All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message which resonates with America, a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing towards secularism, and helps right it.  How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base.  When your song One Day was chosen to be the theme melody of the NBC 2010 Winter Olympics my heart fluttered with pride.

Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism – Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study – is numero uno and everything else is numero dos.  It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose.  It would have to someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing.  With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and   refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.

When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained I took pause, but your reassuring Tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently Tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa – you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint – made me realized that you are no longer singing z’miros in Reggae. You are singing a different song.

I drive by the Windstar World Casino often.  It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the Heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights.  The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking.  It is not the place to offer even the most watered down Jewish values. 

Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before.  A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message.  What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.”

“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop-culture.

I grew up in New York where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture.  12 years ago my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business.  It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered and Jews are respected.

Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our Patriarch Avraham did.  The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak?  You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak. 

But now I am discouraged.  You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.”  Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence.  You have become connected to the hedonism which abhors rules and undermines values.  And it says that I will too, if I go it alone as you did.

Sometimes I lay under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness, and that discipline is the precursor of Kiddush Hashem.

I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it.  I still believe that if we speak the world will listen.  But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community.  And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of Kiddush Hashem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand, and appreciate.

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of AD Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi at NCSY – Dallas

Enter Three Little Maidelehs

For strictly observant women, being Orthodox can often mean putting a kibosh on artistic aspirations. Halachic prohibitions against singing and dancing in front of men means that many women who enjoy those art forms find they have little opportunity to perform.

Enter Margy Horowitz, a Los Angeles-based piano teacher from Chicago who’d heard about all-women’s productions in her hometown from a friend. Intrigued, she started envisioning an all-women’s production for Los Angeles with women not only just in the cast, but also in the audience.

“There are a lot of opportunities for religious high school girls to perform [in school-sponsored, women’s-only musicals], but for older women who have graduated from high school and want to perform, they have no outlets,” Horowitz said. “And plenty of them have so much talent.”

With support from Rabbi Steven Weil at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Horowitz teamed up with Linda Freedman, a Beth Jacob congregant who sings in the choir at nearby Congregation Magen David. The two decided to put on a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “The Mikado,” with proceeds going to charity.

“The Mikado” is a raucous tale of the prodigal son of a Japanese emperor who runs away from his father’s court to escape marriage, pretends he is a poor musician and falls in love with a young geisha.

“We chose the play because it is in the public domain,” Horowitz said. “It has also got great music and comedy.”

She said she wanted a musical that was not as obscure as many of the productions done in girls’ high schools: “I didn’t think it needed to have a Jewish theme, even though it was for the Jewish community.”

After posting audition flyers throughout Los Angeles and the Valley, the two found their cast of 21. All the women in the play are observant to some degree, and they represent most of the Jewish neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles, including Fairfax, Pico, North Hollywood, Marina del Rey and even Yorba Linda.

“We were so happy to give these women the opportunity to perform,” Horowitz said. “Even if we are not successful, I would still feel that we did something great.”

The all-women’s production of “The Mikado” will be performed at Beverly Hills High School’s Salter Theater, 241 Moreno Drive, on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, call (310) 726-9333.


Orthodox Mother Opens New Opera

File under Incongruities, Major: One of the latest luminaries in the world of grand opera is an Orthodox mother of four from Brooklyn.

In the male-dominated world of opera composition, Deborah Drattell is a rarity, but from childhood she never doubted she would excel in the world of music.

“It was clear from the time I picked up a violin that I would be a musician,” said Drattell, 46, who began playing at 7 as a participant in a program designed to introduce New York schoolchildren to music. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught composition and theory at Tulane University in New Orleans through the 1980s.

A composer since age 19, Drattell began with instrumental works for orchestras and chamber groups but eventually included the voice as an important medium, setting texts ranging from poems by Edgar Allan Poe to writings by Sylvia Plath.

“It’s been a slow process,” she told The Journal. “I realized when I started to write for the voice that in my instrumental works I was telling a story…. I wanted to tell a story, and using words seemed the way into the piece for me.”

Her most recent work, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, will have its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 14, with Mstislav Rostropovich making his Los Angeles Opera debut as conductor and Plácido Domingo in the role of Rasputin.

Opera has occupied most of Drattell’s work time for the past several years.

“I love the collaborative process. It’s the most exciting medium,” said Drattell, who served as composer-in-residence for both the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., from 1998 to 2001.

William Vendice, the Los Angeles Opera’s chorus master, praised Drattell’s music for the voice.

“She obviously has a wonderful ear for how to set the language,” he said. “She has the flow of a singer’s line in mind when she writes music.”

Sascha Goetzel, the assistant conductor for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is just as impressed with Drattell’s writing.

“It’s very deep and powerful music,” he said. “She wonderfully uses the colors of the orchestra.”

Drattell originally wrote the role of Rasputin for a baritone and wanted Domingo to sing Nicholas, but the tenor asked Drattell to rewrite the opera so he could sing the “mad monk” who holds sway over the royal couple. Drattell accommodated his request as a permanent change in the work.

The saga of Nicholas and Alexandra, Russia’s last czar and czarina before the 1917 revolution, is “a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Drattell said, adding that she originally had been intrigued by the story of Anastasia, the self-proclaimed long-lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Even when she shifted away from a story with a clear female protagonist, she kept Alexandra central, as did the librettist, Nicholas von Hoffman.

“It’s Alexandra’s story: her experiences with Rasputin’s power, her son’s hemophilia,” Drattell said. “As a woman, I find it intriguing to write from the point of view of a woman.”

Drattell’s parents grew up Orthodox, and while they were not strictly observant as adults, she grew up attending the Orthodox Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn and cites the music she heard there as one of her earliest artistic influences. She returned to traditional observance through her husband, a gastroenterologist.

Juggling a demanding musical career with the care of four children is challenging but not impossible, as most of her work is done within a reasonable commute from her Brooklyn home.

“I don’t do that much traveling,” she said.

During the rehearsal period for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Drattell’s first extended period away from her family, her husband has taken the kids to visit relatives in Israel.

Drattell said the Los Angeles Opera has made “a really amazing leap” in accommodating her rigorous observance, scheduling the premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra” on a Sunday and slating next week’s dress rehearsal early enough so it will end before Shabbat. “I’ve found Plácido Domingo and the administration here amazingly respectful,” she said.

It’s another milestone in one of serious music’s most idiosyncratic careers.

“I forged my own path,” Drattell said.

The Los Angeles Opera will hold its premiere of
“Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. Other performances will
be Sept. 17, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available
through the Los Angeles Opera at , by phone at (213) 365-3500 or in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office.