The rambling thoughts of a Modern Orthodox Chassid (whatever that means). Contact me at emansouth @

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Real Greatest Threat To Yiddishkeit


To my guests via Dov Bear who do not know me so well and did not get the joke: This is, indeed, satire. And, as Jewboy, points out, it is a page out of Joe Schick's playbook. Finally, this is a definition of Shiny Shoe Music

I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic "Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius." I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius.

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Brooklyn, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked me, "What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?" I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.

"Shiny Shoe Music," turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend's central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Shiny Shoe Music industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew's life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: "MBD: The King Of Jewish Music" right next to "The Greatest Concert Ever;" "600 Piece Orchestra" next to "Separate Seating Only."

Smoke and sound effects, digital distortion, dancing bears, disco sound and famous singers are de rigueur for the full musical experience. And many throw in exotic locations – Hawaii, Cancun, the Bahamas. What exercised my friend the most was the way that well-known community leaders are impressed into service in the advertisements, as if to put an imprimatur of ruchnius on the festivities.

My friend was raised in a particularly biting style of mussar, and he was just warming to his subject. He described the screaming by teenie bopper girls when the kids in goofy vests runs out and the rush forward on stage. Concert producers have to put security guards around the stage, lest some poor soul from the audience jump up to wish a Shkoiach to the performers.

"The chilul Hashem alone," he said, would be reason enough to close the concert extravaganzas. What does the staff at the record producers and concert halls come to think of frum Jews? That they care only about playing horrible music and nothing but money? What impression does it make to see a group of pot-bellied men in Armani suits and shiny black shoes trying to reach ridiculously high notes?

He related to me the story of one local frum boy who had accompanied his father to a kumzitz. They found only a guitar and some percussion. On the way out, the boy asked his father why there weren't 25 horns and ten violins. He had never in his life seen, much less participated, in such a kumzitz.

That boy, my friend lamented, cannot possibly connect to the idea that Jewish music parallels an inner process of removing the se'or she'b'isa – the physicality and inner materialism that holds us back in our performance of Hashem's commandments. His experience of Jewish music has nothing to do with destroying the chametz either within or without.

When we gather in our homes around the CD player, and contemplate the deeper meaning of a niggun, we link ourselves to all the generations of our ancestors. But if our ancestors could return to observe our kumzitzin, they would recognize their descendants and feel comfortable joining us. It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a concert hall stage – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe.

EVEN MY FRIEND recognizes that there are many perfectly legitimate reasons that families might go to a shiny shoe concert. Not every Jew understands the depth of a beautiful niggun.

For such cases, there should be alternatives. But it is not these families that are fueling a hundred million dollar industry, or who have transformed Jewish music into a kosher version of disco.

The issue of concert extravaganzas is, in truth, just one more aspect of an ongoing tension in modern Orthodox life. Rabbi Yehoshua Geldzhaler once described to me the pre-war Antwerp Jewry of his youth. During the Three Weeks, he said, you would not see an older Jew smile or engage in any frivolity. The Churban was present for them. Today, Jews listen to "sefirah CDs."

Jews who can really feel the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash are much rarer today. On the other hand, Rabbi Geldzhaler remembers, most of the younger generation in his day was in headlong flight from Yiddishkeit. Today, however, we have made it so much easier to be frum. Our kids can enjoy most of the pleasures of their secular counterparts, and no longer feel the need to rebel to such an extent. Religious observance may not be as internalized as formerly, but at least most of our youth remains within the fold.

We ask our rabbonim and roshei yeshiva to elevate our understanding of Jewish music to the point that a series of horrible, digitized, overproduced CDs is self-understood to be a contradiction to the freedom from materialism that Jewish music celebrates.



  • At 11:31 AM, Blogger Tzipporah said…

    It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a concert hall stage – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe.

    LOL - you must be joking. Is the sole point of Jewish practice to create experiences in which our long-dead ancestors would feel comfortable? Or is it to live Jewish lives full of meaning, relevance, and ruach to the Jews who are living them?

    From all accounts, "shiny shoe music" is ridiculous - but really, come on. It's not like these kids are spending their whole lives at a concert. It's an occasional occurrence in lives that are full of other activities. Hopefully the rest of their experiences are giving them a framework in which to understand such silly concerts as not the be-all and end-all of Judaism, or even Jewish music.

  • At 11:45 AM, Blogger Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said…


  • At 12:01 PM, Blogger BrooklynWolf said…

    Please forgive the ignorance, but what, exactly, is "shiny-shoe music?"

    The Wolf

  • At 12:53 PM, Blogger Yehudi Hilchati said…

    The issue of concert extravaganzas is, in truth, just one more aspect of an ongoing tension in modern Orthodox life

    I doubt very much that most of attendees at these concerts would identify themselves as MO. Most MO I know think that Shiny Shoe music is pretty awful to listen to. It's totally a creation of the Yeshivish world.

    Unless you meant the "modern" simply as an adjective and not part of the label. Please clarify.

    The chilul Hashem alone," he said, would be reason enough to close the concert extravaganzas. What does the staff at the record producers and concert halls come to think of frum Jews?

    They probably think nothing worse than they do of Christian rock concerts in those venues. Cloistered rabbanim in yeshivas are not the best judges of what the outside world thinks. Even though I think shiny shoe music is atrocious, the lack of sexuality and skimpy clothes probably makes the staff think such events are pretty wholesome.

    Plus, what about all the kids who it keeps from going "off the derech"?

  • At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Chaim Rubin said…

    [stands up]

    [slowly clapping hands]

    [building up into a roaring applause!]


  • At 1:22 PM, Blogger Jewboy said…

    It seems that not all your readers recognized this as satire. Good job taking a page out of Joe's playbook.

  • At 2:17 PM, Blogger G said…

    Well played

  • At 3:34 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Yenems ruchnius iz unzer gashmius.

  • At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    that was great
    just like during this time of year we try and rid ourselves of the chametz in our homes may we all be zocha to rid ourselves of the shiney shoe music in our homes.

  • At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i once saw eitan katz wearing really shiny shoes, rahmana litzlan

  • At 6:25 PM, Blogger Jewboy said…

    By the way, I share your distaste for shiny shoe music.

  • At 9:35 PM, Blogger Jordan said…

    Lay off the horns in your satire, you hippie freak.
    I gotta eat too. Besides, the one man bands are screwing me out of enough work already.


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