About this project
Zion – It’s closer than you think…
Awake Zion is a documentary that explores the surprising and unsuspecting connections between Rasta, Reggae and Judaism - through one woman’s beat-laden adventure into the meaning of identity.
All the way back to the alleged sultry affair between the Jewish King Solomon and the African Queen of Sheba, Jewish influence is evident in the spiritual history of Ethiopia - turning up consistently in Rastafarian lifestyle and, inevitably, Reggae.
Uniting Jewish and Jamaican musicians, scholars, and historians in a celebration of roots and culture - Awake Zion travels from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Caribbean and Jewish cultures share a history of adversity - to Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae - and ultimately to Israel, where a sizzling reggae scene thrives today.
Awake Zion challenges our shared preconceptions of what it means to be Jewish, to be Rasta, to be white or black - and, most importantly, the universal search for “Zion”, and what it means to be "home".
Awake Zion is the story of how of my love for reggae music led me on an unexpected journey that reconnected me with my Jewish roots and identity.
Why, I had often asked myself, was the Star of David on almost every reggae album cover I’d ever seen? And why was there a band called 'Israel Vibration', or an album called 'Exodus', or song titles like 'Solomonic Dub'? Why was Marcus Garvey, a pivotal figure in Rasta history and ideology' known as 'The Black Moses': and why did I hear the melody of 'If I Were A Rich Man' in an Augustus Pablo dub track? These things had long made me curious - and fifteen years of Jewish yeshiva-style education had etched a profound sense of heritage into my worldview. The more I learned about reggae, the more I wanted to understand how and why it was connected to the symbols I had always prescribed as simply being Jewish. This curiosity led me to more questions - the search to even more connections.
My interest in this mysterious link found its first expression as my graduate school thesis at the Gallatin School at NYU, which would launch an unanticipated, serendipitous journey of personal discovery - a journey that would shake the fundamental assumptions I had always held about my Jewish identity, and force me to explore the notion of identity in general. Over time, the project developed into a full-fledged documentary - soon finding myself spanning the world in search of a deeper understanding of these connections.
Awake Zion takes a closer look at the shared history of slavery, exile and oppression endured by both the Jewish and Black communities, uncovering unexpected cultural similarities and kinship - particularly resonant for me in light of the infamous '91 Crown Heights riots, which pitted these very communities against one another in the neighborhood of my childhood. We learn about the famous Jamaican Pan-Africanist black leader Marcus Garvey, and how he looked towards the Jewish Zionist movement of the 1930s as an inspirational model for his own agenda of a “Black Zion,” a back-to-Africa campaign that is at the core of Rasta ideology. We explore how Rastas and religious Jews take identical cues from the Bible in the form of strict observation of the laws of hair-cutting; and how both cultures view speech as an aspect of creation, something sacred, to be taken very seriously. And then there's that alleged affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba - whereupon a certain blend of Jewish flavor crept into the spiritual history of Ethiopia, turning up subtly in Rastafarian lifestyle and, inevitably, in reggae.
As a graduate student of ethnomusicology, my research uncovered compelling similarities between Rastafarian and Jewish Orthodox lifestyle rituals - but more surprisingly, I discovered a fascinating relationship between reggae music and Jews today. I began to document a wide range of contemporary Jews who were each, in their own way, manifesting a distinct and ever-evolving Jewish-reggae blend. Whether it was a ska-klezmer fusion band, Hebrew prayers played dubwise, or a reggae Passover album, they—the "Reggae Jews"—ran the gamut: musicians, musicologists, DJs, record label owners, and straight-up enthusiasts. All of them, like myself, felt a very real connection to the biblical underpinnings of the music. The film plays close attention to this musicological relationship that often appears to resonate as a soundtrack for both cultures. Throughout the film, reggae music continues to suggest that each culture is somehow expressed in the other - the project serving to explore the historical and spiritual context of why this may be so.
From Brooklyn and California - to Jamaica and Israel - I set off on a search for the meaning of these unlikely connections. By talking to scholars, experts, rabbis, Rastas, reggae enthusiasts, musicologists and musicians alike - my quest became to peel back the layers of what it means to be Jewish in the world today. The film speaks directly to the nature of identity, and aims to shed light on the power of understanding one’s own Judaism in the context of a different, even counter-intuitive, culture and worldview. In doing so, the film challenges preconception and prejudice, asking everyone—Jewish or not—to entertain the possibility of their own culture as connected to, and even part of, the lore and belief-system of others.
Tying together the various religious, cultural and musical elements that emerged after years of unfurling this Jewish/reggae-flavored thread, Awake Zion evolved into a highly personal documentary, exploring the nature of identity - as much a meditation on the meaning of being Jewish, as a story about shared cultural connections by people who, on the surface, might seem to be on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. Through the themes of music, roots and culture, it aims to expose the senselessness of hate and intolerance - highlighting kinship over difference. There has been much debate as of late about the future of Judaism, and what it will mean for Judaism as it changes shape with the times. While some believe that the ancient religion is being diluted - through intermarriage, modernity, and cultural assimilation - others contend the interface with other cultures only makes Judaism that much richer and more relevant - and keeps it's true spirit alive and burning bright. Awake Zion serves to spark this necessary dialogue - and pave the road for more tolerance and understanding.
Now, with a new team of creative producers on board, we're about to embark on a final edit of the film - bringing together a newly revised script, additional interviews from pre-eminent musicologists and rabbis, re-imagined graphics, and a color correct and sound mix worthy of the project. Our Project Funding Goal aims to make this a reality, and prepare Awake Zion for a full worldwide commercial release.
But because Awake Zion is more than just a film, we're also about to launch a new web site (www.awakezion.net) - including a new trailer, intuitive Facebook interface and, for the first time, a digitally downloadable soundtrack featuring songs from the artists featured in the film.
Since the film’s inception, we’ve received countless calls, e-mails and letters from friends, fans and followers—all wanting to share their perspective or insights about the themes explored in the film. Now there's a forum where this dialogue can be expressed - AwakeZion.net creating such an opportunity for an open discussion about the nature of identity, and the power of music as a cultural bridge-building tool.
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