Jesse Rifkin: Real "Bad Jew"

07/08/2010 02:09 pm 14:09:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

"I'm a bad Jew," a friend said, grinning ear to ear and then biting into a bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich. Even looking back on the Jewish gangsters of the 1920's, socialist Jews of the 1930's, hippies of the '60's and punks of the '80's, seldom has being a "bad Jew" seemed so trendy.

Time and time again, American Jews simultaneously act and critique their own actions, rigidly adhere to ancient precepts and then question them. As a community, we create the counter thesis to our own tradition through rebellion, with the rebellion itself long since becoming a tradition. The problem is that "bad Jews" don't always play their part so well. Some don't rebel against particular Jewish traditions or approaches to theology. Instead, they actively adhere to American Jewish cultural traditions -- bagels and lox on the weekends, self-effacing humor, and political activism -- while still claiming that they are somehow devious. How rebellious can conformity be?

True rebelliousness has been partially relegated to literature, where a set of young Jewish giants is replacing a generation of retiring ones. But how long can Jonathan Safran Foer's brilliant, if incessant, references to his sex life be considered truly rebellious? Are we losing our tradition of losing our tradition?

I was becoming somewhat concerned about conformity within a religious community that has sought to affirm its heterogeneity for generations, until a colleague of mine pointed me in the direction of musician Jesse Rifkin and his band "The Wailing Wall."

Rifkin's lyrics at times wail with the sacred Wall, at times against it, and at times by its side. His new album, "Low Hanging Fruit," produced by JDub Records, does not aim to critique Jewish American life in well-worn ways. Instead, The Wailing Wall jams with the institutional thesis and grassroots counter-thesis of American Jewry, at times emphasizing their dissonance and at times appearing to create a new sound altogether.

As a product of Hin-Jew parents who attended an Orthodox Day school for over a decade, Rifkin brings an entirely new approach to traditional Jewish rebelliousness. Initially, when I asked Rifkin about his connection to Judaism, he emphasized its tenuousness:

I don't know if I can say where I am at in any concrete way now, or if I will ever be able to, except that it is constantly searching. I've experimented with atheism and found that it didn't really fit right. I've spent a lot of time reading mystical texts, Jewish and otherwise, and while much of what I have read there rings truer to me than anything else, I've found it would be a lie to call myself a real practitioner of any spiritual practice. I identify as a Jew because I generally conceive of spirituality and morality in Jewish/Hebrew Bible terms, but that's as far as it goes.

Yet musically, Rifkin's connection to Judaism is more than terminological. In fact, Rifkin appears to be critiquing modern, highly structured forms of Jewish worship in favor of an even older form of rabbinic prayer, in which improvisation was emphasized over adherence to norms:

It's that sense of desire and searching that I am also trying to communicate, and I think so many members of my generation are desperate to hear. The work of my favorite songwriters has become a kind of alternate liturgy, and I can only hope that my own work might be at such a level where I am contributing to that liturgy.

While Rifkin's angst about more structured liturgy is modern in its tone, his response to this angst is a strikingly ancient reversion to a more fluid form of thematic prayer -- one to which the earliest rabbis are known to have ascribed. Rifkin may in fact be praying through music in a way that is far more traditional than even the most classic of rabbinic blessing arrangements. His criticism of contemporary Jewish prayer -- and Jewish life as a whole -- therefore may not lie so much in its essential ideas or terms, but in its manner.

Prayer lies at the border of structure and improvisation, focus and freely flowing thoughts. The creative tension wrought by Rifkin's critique of contemporary Jewish prayer keeps us from erring on the side of structure and focus. His rebellion is itself a blessing. It forces us to innovate within the scope of our tradition, looking to the ancient for guidance about the new.

Within the mellifluous chords of The Wailing Wall's indie music, we hear the discord of a ukulele jamming with a guitar, a trumpet vying for airtime with a bass, and a harmonium and pipe organ on stage with a trash can. This beautiful, organic pandemonium again puts us in touch with the creative origins of Jewish prayer.

That's Jewish rebellion at its best. That's real 'bad.'