Star-studded panel on Jewish identity turns awkward

Presidential Conference discussion featuring comedian Sarah Silverman and singer Matisyahu suffers from obvious lack of chemistry or coherence.

Sarah Silverman 311 (photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
Sarah Silverman 311
(photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
One of the most anticipated panels at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem took a strange and unexpected turn on Thursday leaving participants and audience members alike asking what went wrong.
The discussion about Jewish Identity: The Young Generation vs. the Ancient Tradition featuring singer Paul Matthew Miller AKA Matisyahu and stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman was one of the more hyped sessions at the conference. The auditorium at Binyanei Ha’uma was packed with people who came to see two of their favorite Jewish celebrities talk about Jewish issues.
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But within a few minutes the conversation seemed to have hit a wall.
The Jewish academics spoke about Jewish statistics and trends. Meanwhile, Silverman and Matisyahu seemed puzzled, unsure what they were expected to add to the discourse. Moderator Liad Modrik did her best but struggled and failed to frame the conversation which shifted rapidly from topic to topic. One minute the revival of Jewish life in the Soviet Union was debated, the next Silverman was asked if she wanted Jewish babies –if, that is, the 40-year-old comedian ever has children, the moderator added for good measure.
Awkward, as Silverman’s character in her show The Sarah Silverman Program might say.
Silverman had her own share of faux pas. At one point she impolitely stopped academic Micha Goodman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in mid-speech to correct his slight mispronunciation of the word androgynous.
Later, she tried to make amends with a joke.
“As for Jews mating with other Jews,” she said, referring to high intermarriage rates in the US,” if the Jewish guys in America were like the Adonises here and not the way they are in the US, which is more like a human sneeze, that probably would happen.”
It got laughs but not all were happy.
“On behalf of the human sneezes,” retorted businessman Safi R. Bachall, reminding her that many of the people in room were Jewish-American males.
“I’m dating a sneeze,” she added apologetically.
Meanwhile, Matisyahu, who looked more like a trucker than a hassid dressed in baggy jeans and a white baseball cap, got up and left the room twice without explanation. He later said he was trying to stay hydrated ahead of his concert which made him have to go to the bathroom often.
Despite the obvious lack of chemistry or coherence the debate did have a few meaningful moments.
“When I came to Israel at 16 I was ready to party, basically,” the singer said, his face hidden by his cap, beard and sunglasses.” But I did have an experience in Jerusalem and felt the heritage, the richness of it. The depth and the sorrow and the pain and the struggle, all those things that are part of Judaism and I felt them erupt within me.”But Matiasyahu’s comment on the allegedly passive nature of Jewishness did not strike a chord with the audience.“Jews feel they’re Jewish when someone’s trying to kill us or eliminate us,” he said. A few faces in the audience frowned. 
When the panel was opened up for questions from the floor, the audience did not help elevate the conversation.
One elderly woman angrily asked why European Jewry was ignored, oblivious to the fact that a panel held the day before was entirely devoted to that subject.
Then a British student asked how to make Judaism sexy on campus.
“You just have to be sexy,” Matisyahu laconically replied, the crowd giggling in their seats.
The next question was from a student who asked Matisyahu to hook him and his friends up with tickets to his next concert.
After the panel adjourned, some young members of the crowd weighed in on what happened.
“It’s the fetishization of young people,” said 20-year-old Deborah Blausten of London. “Everyone is obsessed with Jewish continuity and finding an answer to Generation X. So what do you do?! You find people who have communicated with them successfully and ask that generation to sit in a room and listen, but this format is totally unempowering.”
Aaron Weinberg, 20, of Chicago, said he got nothing out of the hour-and-a-half debate.
“They had this random splattering of people and they wanted to put them on a stage together,” he said.
Recuperating from the experience, panel member Goodman later said the panel’s failure was predictable.
“Those who thought there’d be a real conversation didn’t read the names of the participants,” he said. “It was supposed to be a combination of toilet humor and intellectual thought but anyone there saw that that mix was impossible.”
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