Ezra Furman: Orthodox Indie Superstar?

Remember when they used to call Matisyahu the “Chassidic Reggae Superstar?” It was an easy designation because Matisyahu appeared on late night television singing Jewish-themed reggae songs while wearing the chassidic garb of a Lubavitcher Jew. That’s probably why many saw him as more of a gimmick than a musician and artist. But marketing slogans exist because they work and Mattisyahu was embraced by young Jews of every stripe and every persuasion and he eventually developed a broader audience who couldn’t care less about his personal religious journey, glomming on instead to the universal themes in his music. It’s no wonder that when Matisyahu announced that he was no longer Orthodox, his first sentence on the subject read “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Clearly, he didn’t like that phrase much.

Now the JTA is celebrating a new Orthodox superstar – but this time, there’s a bit of a challenge with the nomenclature. Ezra Furman was raised attending a Reconstructionist synagogue and a Conservative school. A few years ago he started adopting Orthodox Jewish practices like Sabbath observance and regular Orthodox synagogue attendance. His persona as depicted by the JTA, however, is unambiguously androgynous. Using imagery from his latest video, JTA writer Gabe Friedman is verily breathless about this “gender-bending, genre-crossing, observant Jewish rocker” who is dubbed “the next big thing.” The JTA adds:

For Furman, who is thin and boyishly handsome, his faith and gender identity are not onstage gimmicks. As he explained in his soft, meticulous voice — he is prone to long pauses — both were “real, gradual, messy things” that, like his songwriting moxie, took years to develop.

Then they extol his Jewy bona fides:

…Furman started observing the Sabbath every week, calling it “too important to put aside for career reasons.” … “To me, Shabbat could be called the essence of Judaism, in a way,” he said. “It’s a time to love the world as it is instead of trying to change it — the way you do the rest of the week.” … Now when he’s on the road, Furman brings books by Jewish thinkers like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jonathan Sacks and Alan Lew. He even incorporates some of their ideas in the fabric of his songs, which tend to be achingly personal. His website, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” is named for Maimonides’ famous text… Furman’s “next frontier” is going kosher, he said… For now, Furman eats an “improvised vegetarian kosher” diet on tour, though he is on a short break from playing live while working on a book about Lou Reed’s classic 1972 album “Transformer.” He’ll be back on the road in June, hitting the European festival circuit as well as Israel — a country Furman hasn’t visited in over 10 years, he said, and can’t wait to see again… [H]e avoids dressing “too feminine” in the Orthodox synagogue he regularly attends in nearby Berkeley when he’s home… “What bothers me is that I feel uncomfortable wearing a dress to an Orthodox shul,” he said. “It’s not a problem with Judaism, it’s a problem with homophobia and transphobia in [American] culture, which includes Jewish culture.” … “I think of Judaism as something similar to being an artist, that it’s a non-capitalist thing to be. I think it’s a form of protest … To answer to a higher authority is, like, very radical.”

He goes to shul! He likes Israel! He wants to keep Kosher! So his music is a little meshuggah and he sometimes wears dresses. No one complained when Milton Berle did it! The millennials will love Ezra. See you soon at a JFNA TribeFest or something dude.

We’re being sarcastic. We just like his music.


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