Jewish Discs: Phishy rabinnics

The Rosh Yeshiva at IDT's call center, Rabbi Shmuel Skaist once told the press that he doesn't fit into conventional sectarian categories. He is, rather, "a hassid of God."

shmuel disk 88 298 (photo credit: )
shmuel disk 88 298
(photo credit: )
RavShmuel Protocols (JMG) Shmuel Skaist B'yameinu (JMG) The Rosh Yeshiva at IDT's call center, Rabbi Shmuel Skaist once told the press that he doesn't fit into conventional sectarian categories. He is, rather, "a hassid of God." Raised and ordained in the New York area, Skaist oversaw youth outreach programs for the Orthodox Union before relocating to Israel, where he taught at Bar Ilan University's overseas program, the Bat Ayin Yeshiva (a hotbed that has spawned musicians like Raz Hartman and Eden Mi Qedem) and the Neveh Tzion Yeshiva for American youth at risk. Around this time, Skaist began flirting with rock stardom, fronting bands like Jerusalem's Not Yo Momma (together with Mike's Place resident lead guitarist Yoni Becker and the Heedoosh drummer Ari Leichtberg) and then New York's Bartlebees jam-band. Soon Skaist was living in the US again, gaining a following as "the Phish rabbi" by doing outreach in concert venue parking lots, guest lecturing on the campus Hillel House circuit and performing original folk-rock songs regularly at the Sidewalk Caf in the Lower East Side. "When I'm in that world, I see myself as an ambassador of Judaism," he has said of the bar gigs - years before Matisyahu ever hummed a niggun. Now that overtly Jewish music is ready for its mainstream close-up, the Grammy-winning Jewish Music Group has released twin Skaist albums, the cheeky folk-rock of Protocols and the more traditional hassidic-style B'yameinu. Protocols presents us with a wayward existence desperate for repair - song titles like "Dumb World," "Realistic" and "Last Chance" say it all - but Skaist maintains a healthily silly attitude through most of the disc, pointing out the colorful quirks of friendship on "Big Talkers" and pretending to confirm an infamous early-1900's anti-Semitic conspiracy theory on the title track. The album gets sinister towards the end, with the refrain on "Confused" proclaiming, "I want to be enlightened...but I'm only confused" - effectively kicking off the section of increasingly darkening final four songs of the disc. Along the way, Skaist and his team of Doghaus Studios engineers/session men go for a sonic landscape that is low-fi yet adventurous. The opening "Dumb World" sports a rapid-fire verse phrasing structure that evokes dub-punk-pop auteurs Sublime at their folkiest. "Talkers" rides an infectious groove until it closes with a Chili Peppers-like coda. And with its sweeping rock feel, the optimistic "I Feel Love" is topped by an Edge-like soaring slide guitar part throughout. Protocols is contemporary, fun and accessible but made heavier by a nuanced, early Dylan-like smirking sense of doom. B'yameinu, on the other hand, goes for a more na ve yet traditional feel. Here Skaist ironically sounds far less at home, and his loose vocal style doesn't work as well - the "contemporary hassidic" genre is crooner fodder, after all. The majority of the album is marked by dry new takes on niggunim. On the accordion- and cowbell-anchored klezmer polka of "Mattersdorf" and the staccato organ whimsy of "Maoz Tzur," Skaist starts to have a bit of fun. B'yameinu's best moments, though, come when the disc reprises Protocols territory, as in the case of the folk-reggae of "Hashem Melech" and "Ani Rotzeh." Ben Jacobson can be reached at