Finding Jewish Relevance and Meaning in Rasta and Reggae Culture -- A Personal Journey

Just about the time I realized being brown and Jewish was to others more fascinating than fabulous, I was also an emerging adolescent, complete with the requisite knuckle headedness and edgy attitude that are hallmarks of the tween and teen years.  Being a young person is hard enough.  Being a young person at that time caught between two conflictual cultures was sometimes just plain hard.  I often sought relief from people who were neither Black nor Jewish. The outside perspective was welcome.  I would often end up at my neighbor Lotus’ house.  Lotus, the mother of a friend, seemed to understand exactly what I needed at the time—to be introduced to David Letterman and Bob Marley.   I started to listen to Reggae music and reflect on the words of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and Israel Vibrations, and I knew I needed to know more about these mysterious Rastas who, from my Black Jewish perspective, seemed somehow related to me.

I asked my mom to buy me the book, Itations of Jamaica and I Rastafari.  For the next several years that little hand-sized book lived on the shelf in the front bathroom, and was my personal retreat-reading anytime I needed to get closer to the symbols and images of Judaism that resonated with me.  Right there in the pages of one single text were images of the Magen David and Lion of Judah, denouncements of pork and admonishments to eat vegetables, and images of beautiful multiracial women--something I never, ever saw in Shul (and still don’t, unfortunately).  I needed to go all the way to Rastafarianism to find symbols and images that resonated with me as a Jew.   I must have been about thirteen at the time, and that year I become Bat Mitzvah and proclaimed to my mother that upon adulthood I would have Dreadlocks and tattoos.  My mom said, “fine…” She must have been distracted during that conversation, but I was serious.

While my high school years presented me with a variety of opportunities to try on different personas, I found myself with at least one foot firmly planted in Rasta and Reggae culture.  Always the bespectacled scholar, I understood from a very young age that dreadlocks and peyos are rooted in the same lines of biblical text.  And I was completely hip to the fact that Ital and Kashrut were basically culinary cousins.  What’s clear to me now is the reconciling of my Jewishness and biracialness that was so challenging to initially grasp as a young person, was in fact providing me with a very special vantage point—one that allowed me to see connections where those with more monocular perspectives could not.  What I know now is that what felt like a Jewish/biracial burden was really a developing gift.  One of my purposes in the world is to see connections where others are unable, and to bring together disparate elements when others see a distance they perceive as discommon.  30 years ago I found Jewish relevance and meaning in Rasta and Reggae culture when the expressions of Judaism I experienced quite frankly failed to provide meaning for me.

So this past winter, while lazily scrolling through various Facebook postings, you can imagine I almost fell over when I stumbled upon a link to Time Out Tel Aviv (English Edition) that had a little story about the film, Awake Zion, directed by Monica Haim.  A film exploring the shared roots of Rastafarianism and Judaism! In that moment I was certain that Awake Zion needed to come to San Francisco, my home town, both to enrich the conversation we as Jews are having about Judaism and our own history, and to extend and advance the conversation we are having with our brothers and sisters of other faiths.  Facilitated by the power of the Internet, I sent a Facebook message to Awake Zion’s director, introduced myself, guaranteed nothing and expressed my passion for what I knew about her film in the sincere hope that somehow I could help bring Awake Zion to the Bay Area.

On August 9 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, Awake Zion (Director’s Cut) will make its West Coast Premier.  Director Monica Haim will be in the house, as will Doctor Israel and Dub Gabriel; headliners of the live Reggae and Dub concert following the film.   While this event marks a moment of building and deepening connections and bonds across Rastafarians and Jews, sure—it’s also about something so much bigger.

While I have yet to meet Monica Haim, she shares my perch and the vantage point that allows for seeing connections where so many see difference and distance.  Perhaps Monica and I are kindred spirits in some way.  It seems we both are here to, on behalf of our People and quite frankly for all people, facilitate connections, fuse bonds and build bridges.  Awake Zion closes with an Elder Rasta reflecting on his new understanding of the shared honor and respect both Rastafarians and Jews have for the Star of David.  When this gentleman finally takes in the fact that both Jews and Rastafarians find the Star of David as holy, the man sits with his understanding and realizes that Jews and Rastafarians have deep, deep shared roots.  The Elder remarks, “So both of us are the same?  All right. Blessed.  Blessed.”  That’s right.  Among so many differences really we are the same.  And blessed, blessed?  We are indeed.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs from July 25 through August 12. Tickets for Awake Zion, screening on August 9, are available now.


Categories: Community, Events, Videos


July 15, 2013