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The day the music died: Debating JDub’s demise

The music business is going through some tough times. That’s one reason the pioneering nonprofit Jewish record label JDub gave in its announcement last week for why it is closing up shop after nine years.

But JDub, which is best known for helping to launch the career of Chasidic reggae phenom Matisyahu, is more than just another record label. That’s true for both its fans, and for its detractors (or at least its one detractor), as is clear from the outpouring of commentary prompted by the news of its impending demise.

Over at Commentary, Matthew Ackerman isn’t exactly weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Instead, he dances on JDub’s grave, celebrating what he sees as the latest blow to a constellation of organizations and initiatives that he derisively calls the “self-declared American Jewish innovation sector.” He writes:

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The turn against these outfits by their funders should be welcomed as a potential indication of growing seriousness in American Jewish priorities. It is no doubt true there is nothing wrong with innovation in itself. Yet we should be wary of the enthusiasm generated by unsustainable appeals to passing whims about the nature of Jewish commitment.

A media culture obsessed both with Jews and anything that claims to be new and convinced by the idea of a new “hybridity” in personal identity granted heaps of publicity on the efforts. As the initial promoter of Matisyahu and with a record that included attracting 150,000 young people to events in 472 cities, JDUB seemed to stand as the most successful organization, at least among those with a creative bent. Typical also was JDUB’s claim it could “forge vibrant connections to Judaism” for a population with anything but.

Of course, dodged entirely was the question of what was specifically “Jewish” about attending a rock concert, even if the performer wore payes. Also left unaddressed was the long-term sustainability of such a loosely defined Jewish identity.

Tablet’s Marc Tracey thinks Ackerman is being both narrow-minded and shortsighted:

But how to answer Ackerman’s concern about JDub’s lack of “seriousness”? Would it be better if young Jews just had no connection with Judaism at all? Better there be fewer of them who, when they get older, are members of congregations and other Jewish institutions? Fewer who marry Jews and raise their kids Jewish? If this is a trade-off Ackerman is willing to make, that is his right, but to my mind it makes him the only slightly more lenient (and much more secular) cousin of the ultra-Orthodox. More likely, though, this is just a case of lazy thinking, and in an honest, sober moment, Ackerman and Commentary would admit that they would gladly have 20-somethings relate to Judaism through indie rock bands so that these same people, when they are 40-somethings, relate to Judaism via more traditional—Commentary would say “serious”—institutions. They’d never admit it, but the fall of JDub means fewer future Commentary subscribers.

For others, the news about JDub offered an opportunity for communal introspection into our shortcomings when it comes to supporting innovative initiatives:

Ariel Beery endorses the idea that Jewish institutions should set aside 10% of their budgets for young innovators. Beery argues that investing in efforts like JDub that reach out to young Jews (“customer acquisition,” as he calls it) will yield dividends for the community in terms of greater affiliation.

And in The New York Jewish Week, Maya Bernstein says that JDub’s closing should “give us pause, and challenge us to rethink the way that we support emerging organizations, what we ask of them, how we guide them, and how we sustain them.”

And in a JTA Op-Ed Stephen Hazan Arnoff and Steven M. Cohen write that the closing of JDub "highlights a critical gap in the Jewish communal landscape — the absence of what may be called a ‘Jewish cultural policy’ in North America."

But enough punditry for now. New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, swings by a bona fide JDub event and enjoys some actual music from JDub band DeLeon.

Here’s some DeLeon:

New Voices has more videos from JDub artists here.

And, finally, Rabbi Andy Bachman offers a nice tribute to JDub’s founder, Aaron Bisman, for his achievements.

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