Sunday, April 04, 2004

Bedikas Chametz

An Open Letter To My Friends In The Jewish Music Industry.

My dear colleagues,

As part of his Shabbos Hagadol drasha, the Rav of our shul raised the question of why we do not make a bracha of "Shehecheyanu" on "Bedikas Chametz". He offered up a number of different answers including the following philosophical approach. He explained that one of the ideas behind "Bedikas Chametz" is that in addition to the search for physical "chametz", it reflects the search for – and removal of – spiritual leaven as well. The search for sin and evil, although an important cause, is a sad one that therefore doesn't warrant a bracha of Shecheyanu.

As a proof, he cited the famous Midrash about Kriyas Yam Suf where the angels wanted to sing shira, and Hashem told them to stop;"masei yadai tovim bayam v'atem omrim shira?" Confronting sin, although it is crucial, is not something we are pleased to do, and so we do not recite a bracha thanking Hashem for bringing us to that point.

The following post is one that I had hoped not to have to write.

Several months ago I posted with regard to a scandal involving one of the JM singers which had occurred about six weeks prior in Israel. The full text of that post, "A Dilemma", can be found here. In that post, I wrote the following:
The industry's response to this scandal is even more important than the individual artists. To date, there has been no public response by the industry, and perhaps there shouldn't be, but privately there should be some deep introspection on the part of those who produce and promote Jewish music.
It is my hope that people in the industry take this message to heart, rise to the challenge, and help to make our community better. If not, know this… people are watching and the truth will out!
I had hoped that the matter would end there. Sadly, I was wrong.

Over the last few months, I've watched as this artist has continued to be built up by the JM industry. He did drop out of sight for a short time, but he's already back and getting "star" billing at an upcoming concert. Additionally, over the past few months, his picture has been featured on the redesigned homepage of one Jewish Music website, and a song of his was released on a "best of" compilation CD. The song had been a hit, but there were many other songs that could have just as easily been included on the CD in its place.

It seems clear that some people in the JM field have no problem with promoting this individual. I was forwarded copies of an email exchange in which the promoter of the upcoming concert was challenged about his choosing to promote this individual. His response:
"I know what he did, I also know what he allegedly did, he is a good guy, I know him well. Imagine girls throwing themselves at your feet day in day out? Like I say you can't judge until you've been in his shoes (you should be so lucky!!! :)"
Is there no shame? Why must we promote an artist who behaves like this? And let us be honest, we all know about his behavior. The response of those in the industry to the reports of his arrest in Israel last September was one of "so 'X' got caught", and not one of surprise or shock that he would have been engaged in such activities at all.

In December, one respondent wrote in response to my original post:
"Where I do agree that some kind of exclusion should take place is on the concert and recording circuit. Let's be realistic. No one is hiring him any time soon. And keep in mind that a person can always do T'shuva."
It's only a few months later, and already, it's as if nothing ever happened. We as an industry – and as frum Jews for that matter – cannot allow this to go on. We are obligated to protest. And, if we don't confront the issue now, then others will do it for us, and the" Chillul Hashem" will be that much greater. The Lanner episode should have taught us all about the futility of attempting to cover up such behavior. The story is out there – it's already been covered on several websites that I'm aware of – and we do our industry and image grave harm if we don't condemn this behavior. Our lack of response not only reflects on us as individuals, it also causes our profession to be viewed in a very negative light.

There are those who will argue that we are required to be "dan l'kaf zechus" and that even if the charges are true, we should allow for the fact that this performer has done teshuva. Although we are certainly required to do just that, taking this approach without addressing what has been happening is simply wrong. It's not just my personal opinion that I'm expressing here. I have consulted with Rabbonim who have experience addressing these issues and they feel the same way. (Indeed, this post has been vetted by one of them.)

Others will argue that Jewish music performers aren't meant to be role models. The fact that some of these performers don't want to accept the responsibility doesn't change the fact that JM performers are looked up to by many of the youth in our community. I wish that it were not the case, but the reality is that our children admire these "stars" and are influenced by what they say and do.

What then is to be done? It has become clear that the singer and his family have no sense of shame and no intention of allowing morality to stand in the way of making some money.

That being the case, it is incumbent on us to address these issues ourselves.

Here's a list of steps that those in the industry should take:

1) We should try to influence those in the business who are promoting this singer to stop. Many of us have personal or business relationships with some of them and presumably could have an influence here.

2) Those of us in the "simcha band" side of the industry should not introduce any more of his music into our repertoires. The songs that have already become popular needn't be banned, but we shouldn't be "pushing" his new material in any way. (I'm not addressing those cases where a client requests a specific song, rather, I'm speaking to the bandleaders who are deciding which new tunes to add to their repertoire.)

3) We should not be promoting this singer for concerts, or even as a featured singer at "simchos" with our bands.

4) We should write the sponsors of events featuring this singer, or use behind the scenes influence in those cases where we have it, to ensure that he is not presented to the public as "kosher" entertainment.

5) Many artists engage in essentially harmless cross-promotion. At concerts and in their liner notes, singers frequently name-drop about other performers. This should be stopped with regard to this performer.

6) Perhaps most importantly, we need to make it clear that such behavior has consequences within our profession.

It is my fervent hope that this entertainer has in fact done teshuva. My heart goes out to him and especially to his family during this trying time. But, the fact that he and his family may be hurt does not mitigate the obligation we have to ensure that our youth are not exposed to inappropriate role models, or chas v'shalom taken advantage of.

It is not pleasant to have to write this. But not addressing this will only result in greater unpleasantness down the road, for if we don't clean our own house, others will do it for us. Must we wait until the story hits the press before we act?

Wishing you all a Chag Kasher V'samech!