Hebrew School

Danielson: A Family Movie

For a while now, I’ve meant to publish a review and thoughts on Danielson: A Family Movie (or Make A Joyful Noise HERE), which I had seen on DVD this past winter. The award-winning documentary came to my Netflix queue’s attention at first not for its rave reviews or compelling story, but because a friend (and Sunset Park neighbor), Tom Eaton, who had played with honorary Family member Sufjan Stevens, had created an animation segment for the film (while making a brief cameo). My interest piqued, so I watched.

The movie trails Daniel Smith and his family band, Danielson, or Danielson Family, or Danielson Famile, or Smith’s solo project, Brother Danielson. Feeling a strong connection to his Christianity, he at one time lived at JPUSA in Chicago, an organization with ancestry in the Jesus movement of ’60s hippies, and somewhere along the way began to play Christian music. Weird and interesting Christian music.

Danielson’s success in the mainstream indie world, regardless of how people might have felt about it, resonated with me because of the questions it brought up about this music. (Seeing them open for Animal Collective last year probably helped, too.) The Christian music scene grew suspicious of Smith, as did indie music. Does great art get created in the space where vastly different parts of one’s potential audience both attempt to call a bluff? While Smith, with complete sincerity (…right?), pushed the creative boundaries of the Christian music juggernaut, does Jewish music push boundaries in an analogous way?

The answer to the latter question seemed obvious to me at first, but I can’t really be sure. If pressed I would say that Jewish music today, in all its shapes and colors, is a different cultural phenomenon altogether. But then again, being Jewish– albeit far (like, way far) less involved in my faith than Smith– kind of deprives me of any objectivity. Is “Christian rock” what non-Jews see in a Rorschach test of “Jewish rock?”

No answers forthcoming, though one of the most interesting moments of the film for me was when Daniel drummed up a compelling axiology: Christians and churches, he said, should be funding and supporting Christian bands– not the profit-driven music industry. Can we not say that Jews should also be doing more of the same?

OK, still no simple answers– but let’s have a beer some time.


3 Comments so far
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Hi David,

Your question “Is “Christian rock” what non-Jews see in a Rorschach test of “Jewish rock?”.” I think part of the answer is that a lot of Jews think so. Those of us that are hip to Jewish music, have a richer, more nuanced, understanding of the many sub-genre’s and issues that get played out in Jewish music. But lots of American Jews don’t. I was talking to one of my cousins recently who, when Jewish music came up, specifically said something like “oh, is that like Christian rock for Jews.”

In one of my recent posts I started pondering the question of how we can fix that. I’m not sure if having synagogues support Jewish music is the right answer. First of all, many already do. Reform “songleader” style pop-folk guitar (e.g. Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Rich Recht, Beth Schafer) is one of the pillars of contemporary Jewish American music and it is significantly supported. The term songleader comes specifically from their role in (mostly reform) religious services, a role they are paid to perform. Many (most?) of their gigs are either at synagogues or Jewish music fests, most of which have at least some synagogue support. Same is true on the orthodox music front. While they have their own profit-driven industry and concert scene, most of the performers revenue comes from simcha events associated (though not paid for) by shuls.

For me, the big question isn’t how to fund Jewish music, it’s how to get American Jews who aren’t already connected with a music-supporting Jewish community to be aware of Jewish music. Christian music (rock in particular) has an awareness that extends far past church boundaries. There are Grammy awards, local and satellite radio stations, genres listed on popular music websites, and lots more. The Jewish music scene doesn’t do nearly as well. Those of us (like you and me) that take to the blogs are trying to change that, as are all the Jewish music fest organizers and podcast & radio show organizers. But there’s a lot of work to be done.

Comment by Jack

For Jewish music fans who don’t know about “jewish rock,” point ’em to Jon Madof… his bands (Rashanim & CircuitBreaker) rock (and not in a lame xian rock kinda way). :)



Comment by postymcposterton

Hi Jack,
I agree and I think my post brings up more questions than answers at this point. Not to say that the multifarious Jewish music “scenes” can’t do better, but I wonder if Christian music is really a benchmark– particularly with the difference in the sizes of the communities we’re talking about. Clearly there’s a lot more to the story but if we look at demographics alone, there’s hardly a place in the US where there wouldn’t be a potentially sizable (if not engaged) Christian audience; there are many places like that for Jews. I guess that’s where, as you’re saying, things like satellite radio and the internet could be a huge boon for anything that references itself as “Jewish” and “music” in the same breath. Cheers Jack!

Comment by David

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