Kosher Reggae

Recently an amateur video has been spread across the Internet: against a grey urban building in the background a young Hasid is playing sunny reggae in such a way that the video got 6000 Youtube views. After googling a bit we found out that a potential star of the Belarusian Internet space, Pinchas Tsynman, lives in Pinsk and for several years he has been creating vital reggae music in a cultural ghetto of a small town.


Yeshiva University, Matisyahu and mixed audience

I make an appointment with Pinchas in Minsk where he is going to record his new song. To prepare for the interview I’ve listened for a couple of times to his full album New Jerusalem that can be found on the singer’s page in a social network Vkontakte; I’ve long thought about whether it will be appropriate to shake hands when meeting this guy. As far as I remember Hasidic customs after living in the Orthodox Jewish district in New York, it is prohibited for men professing this religion to touch strange women. I decide not to take risks not to screw up.



We are meeting in the morning before a recording session in the studio. “It’ll be better if you ask me questions because I can speak endlessly,” – a guy clad a grey suit warns me at the very beginning. He is very nervous – it’s obvious that the reggae artist is not used to being given attention to.

Pinchas (or Vyachaslau, according to his passport) is 29 years old. He was born in Minsk and being a high school student was transferred to a private Jewish school. Thus began his close relationship with religion. After studying for a year in Belarusian State Economic University Pinchas “following a Jewish line” moved to Moscow to continue his education in another university. Approximately in a year he was offered to study at Yeshiva University in New York. “Why not, I thought, – tells Pinchas. – I spent two years in Sea Gate, Brooklyn. Right there I bought my first guitar”.

At this turning point Tsynman listened for the first time to perhaps the most famous Hasidic musician in the world – Matisyahu. Next ten minutes of the talk will be focused on this personality. “Now Matisyahu doesn’t perform. He lost his authority, shaved off his beard and took off a kippah, – Pinchas lifts his cap to convince me he hasn’t done the same. – Earlier he used to go on stage like a true Hasid, clad in a jacket, with a beard, lyrics was about Jews leaving Egypt, and his performance was flawless… But with time passing the problems began as not only adults but children were listening to his music, and that was what religious people didn’t like: reggae music doesn’t belong to Jewish musical genres. So he started to be exerted pressure on, and he, probably, used to give concerts to mixed audience…” Tsynman speaks really fast.

Mixed audience?” – I extract an expression from a rapid speech flow of Pinchas. “It’s when men and women dance together. I still haven’t faced such problems: there were only sitting grannies and granddads where I performed, nobody was dancing, - explains the guy. – Another music band I like is 5’Nizza”.



How to follow 613 commandments

After talking about Matisyahu’s treason we start discussing the peculiarities of the study of the Pentateuch and the ethics – that’s what is done at Yeshiva Universities all over the world. Here I learn that Jews have 613 commandments to follow. “Do you follow all of them?” – I ask with a light shade of doubt looking at my lively interlocutor that seems to belong completely to the reality of the 21st century. “In theory everyone has to observe them. But 248 commandments are to be followed and the rest – 365 – is what we are prohibited to do. Many of them have to do with the temple destroyed by the Romans, others are related to Israel. Now, for instance, the Sabbath year is when we can’t cultivate land and buy its products. Here in Minsk avocados from Israel are sold and we deliberately don’t consume them: they are considered non-kosher, - Pinchas explains knowledgeably. – In short, only a couple of the main commandments are hard to follow”.

After graduating from Yeshiva University Pinchas continued his studies in Israel where he spent two years and got his diploma according to the law of Kashrut; he also clarifies why one can’t cook a kid goat it its mother’s milk. Pinchas makes it clear that according to his diploma he as a rabbi – but it’s not only a job title in Synagogue but also a kind of rank that is given according to one’s level of knowledge. After finishing his studies in the Yeshiva of Israel the guy returned to Belarus: “I could continue my education but here, in the Commonwealth of Independent States, this is the way things are done: one comes back and works as there’s much to do on this land”.

Now our guest works in Pinsk: he is teaching traditions in Beit Aharon School (which means “the house of Aharon”), that is the place of that very rabbi from Karlin, Pinsk suburbs, who is the father of Karlin-Stolin Hasidism. “For many years the School lay empty, but now people returned there. All Hasidic organizations in the world are called Beit Aharon, that’s a brand”, – explains Pinchas. The Ministry of Education of Israel sends here those who have been chosen to revive Jewish culture on the Belarusian Palesye. Families of such “temporal settlers” make up a significant part of Pinsk religious community. Pinchas himself, by the way, belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.







Sources of Inspiration and a rabbi-advisor

Pinchas recorded his first song in Moscow at his friend’s studio. It was the song Saldat (eng. Soldier). “I made it in 2008 when I was 30 kilometers away from Gaza in the Yeshiva University. Operation Cast Lead began at that moment and air-raid sirens were wailing all the time, - the singer describes the situation. – The idea of the song was simple: what’s the matter, they are at war and we are sitting here and studying like loafers? But the soldiers at war don’t study law even though they are obliged to, and we are doing it for them so that we are offering spiritual help”. Other songs have their histories too. The name of the song Ad Mataj means “how long”: how long should we wait for the Jewish Messiah? The song Karacej (eng. Shorter) was at the beginning about circumcision. “Short isn’t always bad, on the contrary, it’s good, brevity is the soul of wit and etc.”, – rapidly explains Pinchas. But a reputable rabbi and at the same time famous local businessman, whose advice Tsynman asked, said that it would be better to change the lyrics. “He often contacts with common people and as a psychologist understands how people will react. So the rabbi said that people didn’t understand anything at all”, – blurts Pinchas out. I ask him whether he tried to convince this businessman to sponsor him. “Yes, I tried, but reggae style doesn’t appeal to him at all”, – Pinchas sighs sadly. It turns out that the issue of promoting his music is the biggest sore spot for the Hasid reggae performer.



The main dream

There are only a few minutes before Pinchas will start working on a new song and we discuss with Tsynman his musical career. The album which can be found on the Internet is a mix of the records made in different periods of time. “It’s just to offer the listener something exhaustive”, – says Pinchas. About 20 songs are waiting to be recorded but to do it money and time are needed, and that’s what a father of two children is lacking. Pinchas makes arrangements himself, and only recently he’s found a session bassist who helps while recording.

The biggest success of Pinchas to date is his performance at Brooklyn College on the results of the international Jewish pop music contest. The amazing video clip through which I learned about the performer was made right for this contest. Pinchas doesn’t feel enthusiastic about answering the question about the quality of the video. “My college, the bassist,  has told me that my problem is that nobody knows about me. People come to some concerts even to Graffiti Club in Minsk; and I need to a sort of a promo video so that people can learn about me”, – says the guy with a sigh.

A stream of sad thoughts again makes Pinchas tell his biggest dream. He mentions it for the third time during the conversation: "I want people to listen to my music so that I get any kind of feedback. I could receive so many comments! Now only my friends know me, and even the Israelis belonging to our community sing along a couple of words as they do not know more of Russian, " – says Pinchas before disappearing in the basement of the recording studio.




Pinchas Tsinman at Soundcloud     Vkontakte


Article was initially published in January 2015
Text by polevik
Photo by Agatha Poison
Translation by Alexandra