Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

30 comments on “Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

  1. “I’m wondering if others would care to share points of cultural clash in their experiences. That’s really what I wanted to accomplish with my article.”

    And I hope, Rabbi, that you write more articles on the topic.

    The “culture clash” is among the greatest struggles for BTs. What makes the clash particularly difficult is that the BTs are usually right.

    Here is a small yet important example.

    Almost all Jews have hot, meat meals for Shabbos lunch. If instead one has a cold, meat meal, or even a cold dairy or pareve meal, one is going to be questioned. One’s Jewish knowledge might even come under suspicion. “You’re supposed to have hot meals on Shabbos!” I heard a prominent rabbi blurt out once when the topic came up.

    And yet it is not correct, under the halacha, that one is required to have a hot, meat meal. Rather, the rule is that one is supposed to honor Shabbos and cultivate oneg Shabbos by having a special meal. This special meal can be cold, and it can be pareve or dairy.

    But FFB Jews typically assume that the current convention is identical to halacha. Halacha, under this notion, becomes “whatever Jews currently do.” This is putting tribe before Torah, and doing injustice to BTs and to Judaism itself.

    A thousand other examples of the same sort could be offered. Perhaps Rabbi Astor will offer more in future articles.

  2. You guys drive yourself too crazy. You can listen to Stairway to Heaven. The song has wisdom. I can’t say I know their whole catalog but there’s other Zep songs that are OK. Ramble on has some problems in the latter lyrics but if you channel the ideas towards your spouse they might be OK.

    All this destruction of your prior life can do more harm than good.

    One suggestion, don’t play it out loud in the house. Let your kids grow up on ‘frum’ music and laugh quietly to yourself as you recognize all the rock in roll riffs.

  3. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once heard a simple non-Jewish peasant play a certain melody on a flute. He asked the peasant if he would play it again if he gave him a coin, and the peasant agreed. This continued, and the Rebbe gave him several coins and he played it several times. Afterward he remarked to his followers: that melody was sung by the Levi’im in the Temple!

  4. First, let me say that as a BT w/deep roots in music I love this thread of ideas!

    And David, let me give you hope and tell you that there are places where you do get a response. I live in Highland Park/Edison (Central NJ), and the Orthodox and Convservative Jews routinely greet each other w/Good Shabbos. You usually get a reply. My children tell me it’s much different when they go elsewhere.

  5. Yakov – you’re right on the money – last week was parashas zachor where we read about Amalek – why are they so terrible? the Torah tells us “asher korcha baderech” they met you on the way out of Egypt – the word “korcha” can also be derived from the word “kar” cold or cooled off – what did amalek do? they cooled our passions – they threw waters on the flames of the excitement we experienced at Har Sinai – complacency set in – a humdrum “another day another dollar” type of spirituality – this is amalek – the cooling off of our passion for Hashem, for a Torah life – B”H BTs give us that needed shot of adrenaline, that recharge, rejuvenating slumbering passions and “stoking the coals” – keep the fires burning folks!

    Jaded Topaz – your “inner chossid” (also known as the “pintele yid” – that little one drop of the purest essence of our yiddishe neshamos (souls)) hasn’t left for the coast – au conraire mon frere – he’s fighting to come up for air and blossom within your very being – don’t worry if your spiritual kapote is in the dry cleaner – he’s a “come as you are” kinda guy:)

  6. Rabbi Simenowitz:

    It must have been an accent to the “Thank you”. Though when I shop in Monsey many storekeepers ask me where I’m from.

    Seriously though, I was just on Main Street, as everyday. I not only say Hello, Good Morning, Thank You, smile, etc. at all the storeworkers, clerks, customers, usually, but a homeless man asking for money, whom people don’t believe is Jewish stopped me and asked me to buy him a coffee as he was cold and not well. I got him the coffee, wished him well, and went on my way, thinking about how easy it can be to make somebody feel good. At the same time I was wondering if all the many people on Main Street, and the high school girls out for lunch were wondering why I was talking with him.

  7. Reagrding Yaakov Astor’s comment above (March 19 at 09:54):
    I’ve been in places where wishing a “Good Shabbos” to a Jew on the street who is not in one’s circle gets a similar hearty response, and in other places where there is a forced response or none at all. The rabbonim in these other places have work to do in this matter and should lead by example. I’m not willing to concede that Jews have a right adopt social mores that amount to a shunning of strangers.

  8. David,

    It’s sad to hear about your “grudge/severe disappointment.” Don’t think you are alone, though, in your struggling with the post “heady days” of teshuva and “integration” into a community. That’s why there’s the need for this website. Perhaps there’s a tachlis in telling us which boro you reside in so people here can help you and your wife get Shabbos invitations and feel more connected and Jewishly alive again.

  9. Jaded Topaz,

    Rabbi Simenowitz ;regarding “your inner chossid is fighting to come out” that is definitely a little difficult to imagine considering the fact that the “chossid” took one figuretive look at my emotional attire or lack thereof and ran the other way (without even looking back).

    Ah, but that’s why he said “inner chassid.”

    If the inner chassid is another name for a truly spiritual person, then indeed we live in — as the Gemara says — an upside-down world. What seems one way is really another way.

    Of course, it’s not enough to just be your “inner” self. The point is to bring that inner self out as much as possible. And I think the greater part of my article — which I’m seeing more and more did not do what I really wanted it to do — is that we so often let external, cultural patterns define inner realities. It’s a type of idol worship, really, when you think about it.

    The Baal Teshuva is a godsend to the frum world, even as baalei teshuva deal with inferiority complexes for it. It forces frum culture to deal with inconsistencies and inauthenticities it may have incorporated into its very being.

    At the same time, living now in the FFB world for so many years I see how difficult it is to keep that inner coal of true spirituality burning. It’s so easy to get “burned out.”

    Our community needs blood transfusions of BTs and true inner enthusiasm to fight off the stiltifying effects of coming to view a living religion and ideology as an idolatry of superficial actions and excuses for a living-breathing connection to the Divine.

  10. I’m a baal t’shuva (with no claim of being a ba’al of anything!). The hachanasas orchim and openness I was a part of in my heady ‘early days’ has been replaced by a community which I’ve come to see as having major problems with interpersonal relationships.

    (I live in 1 of the 5 boroughs of NY – don’t know what would constitute lashon hara so I’ll leave it at that.)

    My wife and I moved in to a neighborhood 6 years ago, and have had about that many invitations for Shabbos meals to date. Its painful to watch people’s reply (or lack thereof) to a simple ‘good Shabbos’.

    I try to keep a stiff upper lip, and continue to smile, especially since I have to disply proper middos for my child, but its hard not to bear that grudge/severe disappointment in your heart. Relocation will be tough, but necessary, before the time my child is old enough to understand/be effected by the sad state of this community.

    And please understand, I write with (virtually) no anger, more out of a sense of great disappointment.

  11. Rabbi Simenowitz ;regarding “your inner chossid is fighting to come out” that is definitely a little difficult to imagine considering the fact that the “chossid” took one figuretive look at my emotional attire or lack thereof and ran the other way (without even looking back).Great parable though on the reasoning behind rashi’s glimpse at a horseback riding noblewoman. Its the stuff like this that makes me wonder if I indeed really did miss out on an education when too busy counting the seconds to recesss break in the midst of learning about the seemingly endless parsha stories in dull monotones from tired teachers with trite and packaged insights into daily living….

  12. Yaakov, regarding certain sects of Judaism- taking black and white a little to the extreme -literally and figuretively and leaving absolutely no room for friendly grey skies … I was walking with one of my charismatic ,lively little nephews (run of the mill Lakewood education)in a quaint frum community (not lakewood) and it was amazing to experience first hand how exceedingly difficult it was for certain sects of religious folks to acknowledge his enthusiatic ,charming and friendly good shabbas wishes.Alot of them had to (begrudgingly) wish back.And this is among regular religious people of the same gender albeit wearing different hats and cloaks ….

  13. yakov – point well taken – I was in a bakery in KGH and the woman from behind the counter said “you must be from out of town” I confessed that I was indeed from Vermont and asked her how she knew. She replied “you said Thank you” gevalt!

  14. “life its nothing like the brochure”……….

    Good line. I like it.

    It’s funny, in writing this piece I tried to use the Led Zeppelin incident as an illustration to open conversation about the real topic: integration into frum culture/community. Yet, most of the comments focused on the topic of secular roots of “Jewish music.” In my mind, this was just a vehicle to discuss the real stuff.

    Did I write it too obtusely? Are people afraid to discuss the real stuff?

    This Shabbos I had a guest at the table and he shared something along these lines. He became frum in an out-of-town community where when you passed a fellow frum Jew in the street you always smiled and said hello, if not stop and have a conversation. However, when he got to Monsey, he explained, he recalls the first time he walked down the street and there was a woman coming in the other direction. He had no idea how to react, i.e. what the local custom was. In his old community, there was no question. Say hello or at least smile and acknowledge the other person. Here it’s not so simple.

    He said he’s learned that if it’s a chassidish woman it would probably be perceived inappropriate. Some litvish or yeshivish or other woman might also consider it inappropriate.

    Then we discussed chassidic men. His experience (and mine too) is that many do not acknowledge you — forget about hello. Even on Shabbos — you won’t get a good Shabbos.

    I’m not discussing necessarily if that’s good or bad; but it’s a major cultural shift for a BT to deal with. That’s a topic I really wanted to open up. I’m wondering if others would care to share points of cultural clash in their experiences. That’s really what I wanted to accomplish with my article.

    “Life is often not like the brochure.”

  15. Jaded Topaz – your inner chossid is fighting to come out!
    Yes, that’s indeed how it works (see my piece entitled “What to do with our Baggage” -if their’s an archive – it touches on our potential riches)
    There was an interesting Rashi last week as he struggled to describe the ephod – the apron worn by the Kohen Gadol (high priest) He couldn’t find a ource to describe what it was for as the KG was already fully clothed. He says “My heart says to me that it was like an apron fastened in the back like those worn by noblwoman when they horseback ride” unusual, no?
    There is a legend that Rashi was once walking and saw a noblewoman riding horseback – he was bothered by the sight and wondered why he had seen it. Years later he understood that it had been shown to him to enable him to visualize the layout and purpose of the ephod.
    So too with our lives. We ask ourselves why we had the experiences we had. Perhaps we can plumb them for meaning in our current lives. Why did I hear a Sheryl Crow song with the lyrics “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have” perhaps it was to remind me of the mishneh in Avos “Who is rich, he who is happy with his lot” Riches indeed

  16. Phil – I heard that 3 blind mice story back in my YU days from an argentinian guy named ephraim who I drove to NY from Miami with. I recall laughing so hard I had to pull over. If I’m ever on the spot for a niggun I find that the theme for “Gilligan’s Island” or the Stones “paint it Black” will work just fine :)

  17. Great post

    a few weeks ago we read parashas Yisro which employed a curious phrase when describing Yisro’s reaction upon hearing about the miracles and the fate of the Egyptians – “vayichad yisro” Rashi brings down competing definitions from the gemara that it either derives from the root meaning “rejoicing” or from the word meaning “pinpricks” – meaning he got goosebumps (tremors of stress and fright) from the news (and from this the Torah teaches that we should not remind converts of their past lives) – well which was it? It couldn’t be both or could it? the Baal HaTurim has yet another definition “vayichad Yisro” – from the root “to unite” – that both seeming contradictory facets of his essence were reconciled in the face of the G-dliness to which he was exposed. So too with us – we still experience the “goosebumps” when confonted with aspects of our previous lifes – the people, culture etc. Yet we can subsume the petty internal quarrel towards a greater “yichud” unification of Hashem’s name – it doesn’t require amnesia or a lobotomy – just perspective

  18. Yaakov , awesommmmme blogging and great proper perspective facilitator……With regards to your brilliant quote ;

    “We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.”

    This is definitely the perfect mission statement for the Soul.All we need to work on is the branding/ logo and decide what markets to target and we got the “Me Inc” marketing strategies down pat……..just gotta remember not to sell soul to the devil in disguise in the process……..

    “If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.”

    -my brain is having a difficult time grasping the profundity of this utterly awesome & profoundly profound statement.Its right in sync with the theory that everything that happens in ones sparkly and thrilling and sometimes dull life happens for a reason, and u gotta use the glitter dust of sparkly everyday or yesteryear happenstance to further enhance your mission statement, and shape your life experience down here on earth with the proper understanding and focus .cuz as i’m sure youve already figured out; “life its nothing like the brochure”……….

  19. My non-Chassidic brother-in-law, known for his lovely voice and his wit, once began a wordless niggun at the Shabbos table. It started very slow and serious.
    BUMMMMMM……..bum-bum……….BUMMMMMM. The melody then changed to something oddly familiar. I couldn’t quite place it at first. Finally I realized it was the tune of Three Blind Mice. It brought smiles to the whole table.
    Try it out at your next Shabbos meal, and report back!

  20. It’s sad really, but it’s funny too. My kids have a parshah tape called “The Sedrah Velt” which tells the entire story of Yetzias Mitzrayim in Chassidishe Yiddish. The music to accompany Moshe Rabbeinu’s first vision at the sneh was the opening lick to “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s absolutely bizarre. But the music that represents the beginning of the Ten Plagues is all Yiddish and makes me get up and dance every time.

    Goodness, with all these mentions of rock ‘n roll, Starbucks, and other elements of goyishe culture, I’m thinking my next post should be entitled, “Harry Potter and the Eternal Soul.”

  21. “Here’s where you can get into trouble: when you try to be cute as shaliach tzibbur and use a pop-culture tune for, say, kedushah. A definite no-no at my shul, unless it’s Simchat Torah, of course.”

    Probably shouldn’t do it on Simchat Torah either. However, I have to admit that I once hummed the tune to Badlands during Birchat Kohanim on Simchat Torah. Not sure if it was my lack of musical ability or the crowd, but nobody seemed the wiser for it.

    Two of my favorite secular Shabbos Nigunim are Shir Hamaalos to Scarborough Fair to and Dror Yikror to Sloop John B.

    I understand the reticence of some here to this type of thing. But I have to say that I often find these combinations very spiritually uplifting. I think part of it has to do with the fact that much of this music has very positive associations for me. Maybe it’s the chassidus in me. My name IS Menachem Mendel. :)

    Of course most “Jewish” music is either heavily influenced by or taken directly from the culture and era in which it was written. My favorite example is MBD’s Yidden, which was THE wedding simcha dance song for years. Apparently MBD “borrowed” the music from a German group called Dschinghis Khan who performed the song to very lewd lyrics at a Eurovision concert in the 70’s.

  22. I just reminded myself of a friend who introduced a new niggun to us one shelosh seudos many years ago. He pounded his fist on the table in Chassidish style and introduced the slow, slowful niggun. A lot of us — it was a BT yeshiva — sat there and really got into it. So did the rabbeim it seemed. The whole place was rockin’ after a while and we repeated the refrain again and again.

    Afterwards, someone asked where he got the niggun from.

    “It was the theme song to the Munsters (the TV show).”

    And it really was… but no one realized it.

  23. Here’s where you can get into trouble: when you try to be cute as shaliach tzibbur and use a pop-culture tune for, say, kedushah. A definite no-no at my shul, unless it’s Simchat Torah, of course.

    But isn’t that lifting the unholy into the holy (or, if we’re still talking Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy)?

  24. The irony is that the intro to Stairway to Heaven was stolen by Led Zeppelin. It was composed by a Jew: Randy California of Spirit. The song was called ‘Taurus.’

    In a sense, the ‘judaizing’ of Stairway to Heaven is just bringing it home. ;)

  25. In response to Bob:
    A hard trick, indeed. Gotta love Lenny and Shlock Rock. Country Yossi, too. My personal favorite in this genre is Gershon Veroba and Variations. When he sings Billy Joel, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon — he /sounds/ like Billy, Elton, Neil, and Paul.

  26. The difference in the story above of the chassidic girls and our own memory banks is that the chassidic girls have nothing “non-kosher” related to the music whereas some of us do. Also, the chassidic girls have no idea that the music comes from a culture associated with lack of tsnius, drugs, etc.. We do. That affects us. People can deny it all they want. The brain never forgets. We see it in “trigger” reactions to things from a persons past.

  27. The trick is to know which tunes “out there” can or should be diverted to a higher, Jewish purpose. Can we all intuit this or do we need some guidance, and, if so, from whom?

    I can think of a number of 60’s or 70’s tunes, for example, that could work well as nigunim or as songs with Hebrew lyrics, including some zemirot and parts of the davening.

    Note that whoever records a copywrited tune from “out there” should name the composer and music publisher and pay the appropriate royalty money per the established rules. I hope no one in the Jewish music business is assuming that all tunes are in the “public domain”.

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