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The Banjo on the spiritual road

Spiritual paths often start with an object of desire. Part 2 of “Jewgrass Blues at Park Avenue Synagogue”

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Best friends: Banjo & Matt Check in Tyler Park, Newtown, Pennsylvania, 1999. Photo courtesy of Matt Check

Best friends: Banjo & Matt Check in Tyler Park, Newtown, Pennsylvania, 1999. Photos courtesy of Matt Check

Spiritual paths often start with an object of desire. For Joseph his brothers turned themselves over with wrath when their father favored Joseph with a beautiful multi-colored garment. Moses’ wood staff represented his desert exile, his authority and God’s support. Placed in God’s Holy of Holies, it bloomed almond blossoms.

Check’s life-changing object was the hillbilly evoking banjo.

Check’s romance with bluegrass began at age 17 as a student at George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He was hanging out at Betty’s Place, the coffee shop by his high school, when a local bluegrass band took the stage. It was love at first twang.

The purity and cleanness of the music drew the high schooler into a different existence. “There was no electricity, no distortion, no wawa peddle,” he recalled dreamily. There was only music. Check walked away convinced, “I have to do that.” He went out and bought a mandolin, which then collected dust. Perhaps it was too refined.Cool Noir portrait of Bela Fleck in 1940s car on his album cover for "Drive"

Instead, two years later, he picked up a family-owned banjo that struck the right chord. The music compelled Check like “what video games were to other teenagers.” He started to practice incessantly, alternating after school lessons with his high school math teacher who played the instrument with solo sessions where he learned how to do Bela Fleck’s sensational fingerings. Learning Fleck’s way of picking the banjo is part of many young banjo player’s experience.

The real test came when he began playing along with the Flecktones' albums, which were complex fusions of bluegrass, jazz and folk produced by Bela Fleck's band. By  age 22, Check started to be able to mimic Fleck. He remembers the wonder “when Fleck disappeared from the album, I was playing him note for note.”

Matt Check & friend

At this point Check thought he could do something interesting in music if he could develop his own voice. It is one thing to be an adequate imitator of a master; it is another to have your own way of handling the banjo’s harshness.

Banjos are known to have an “attack” to them, a loud, demanding sound. Folk musician and activist Pete Seeger admired the aggressiveness of the instrument, saying that it “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” His mode of operation on the banjo paralleled his politics. A slightly tongue-in-cheek popular banjo joke goes, "There's nothing I like better than the sound of a banjo, unless it’s the sound of a chicken caught in a vacuum cleaner.”

Check’s personality is a bit more of the dreamer than the spanking sound of most banjos but more salty than the mandolin’s sweet sound. At the Rocky Grass Bluegrass Festival in Lyon, Colorado, he found companionship in the warmth and humility of an OME Juniper banjo, an open-back model that is known for maintaining the instrument’s loudness while giving it a softer sound. He found the one.


Forming a Jewish-Bluegrass identity

The fusion of Check's love for Bluegrass and his Jewish identity took a couple of years. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2004, Check served for a year with the Jewish Agency For Israel, a nonprofit that facilitates the immigration of transposed Jews to Israel. The young graduate explored his Jewish roots and worked with a mixed religious & ethnic community with a banjo in his hand.

On August 15, 2004, a date Check remembers as the night of what “was supposed to be the last Phish show in history up in Maine,” he flew out to Haifa. The seaport city was once the economic capital of Israel and drew in immigrants from Europe and Syria. Even now as the third largest city and largest seaport in Israel, Haifa is renowned for a strong religious tolerance in its streets. Present in its population are the three religions of the book, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as several minority faiths. Eighty-two percent of the residents are Jewish, the majority of which are secular. Fourteen percent of the city is Christian, and 4% is Muslim.

Check (in rear) learned how Palestinian Christians celebrated Christmas.

Check (in rear) learned how Palestinian Christians celebrated Christmas.

Check jumped into this blend by working with marginalized Christian youth. He decorated his first Christmas tree at a local church in Wadi Nisnas. In afternoons he would play chess with them as they tossed Hebrew back and forth in American and Palestinian accents. He also found familiarities to his life in the United States. In between work, he frequented the artists’ village Ein Hod and played his Ome banjo at a coffee shop whose owner had been a roadie for the Rolling Stones.  Haifa was a mix-master shaking up Check’s worlds.

Commemorative stamp for Jewish Theological Seminary in Upper West Side in New York City.

Commemorative stamp for Jewish Theological Seminary in Upper West Side in New York City.

Upon returning in 2006, Check moved from Philadelphia to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary then sent him in his first year back to Israel. There he would join up with a traveling team that included several musicians.

They crossed the Israeli countryside Deadhead-style in an old bus. Check and his banjo shared the ride with musicians totting bongos and two guitars. Jewish prayer is called davanening for its slight swaying and rocking while speaking to God. The group added some improvisational riffs to their swaying and rocking creating a “jam davan.” The effort was not very elegant religiously or musically; in fact Check recalls the jam as “kind of cheesy,” maybe something that he wouldn't report back to the seminary.  And yet, Check thought that the music fit the prayers like a glove.

Ahad Haam

Ahad Ha'am

As he traveled, Check read the works of the Zionist Asher Ginsberg, better known by his Hebrew name Ahad Ha’am. During the Jewish nationalist movement that started in the late 19th Century, Ha’am argued that a singular focus on founding a physical homeland was not going to solve the problems of Jewish identity. How would such a state ever hold together all the different national cultures of the Jews who were scattered everywhere. Ha’am, who became known as a “cultural Zionist,” summed up his criticism of nationalistic Zionism and his program as “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews." One Jewish culture was needed to infuse a Jewish core into Jews of various nationalities. Then, the diaspora cultures would bring to the state of Israel a singular identity inclined toward Judaism while also giving space to national cultural elements.

Check considered, what if he could fuse his identity as a bluegrass musician with his identity as a Jewish teacher? His hero Fleck was also a New Yorker who had made an unlikely discovery of bluegrass by listening to the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies” shortly before he went to the High School of Music and Art. Fleck then went onto fuse bluegrass with classical music and other genres.

The idea lay dormant while life continued. Check returned to the States in 2007. After completing his masters in Hebrew language and Jewish studies, he joined the Park Avenue Synagogue and began his time as the Director of Young Family Education in 2010. It was in this period of his life that the idea of the “jam davan” began to sprout.


Next, Part 3 "The Bluegrass Shabbat -- a cradle for a renewal of faith"


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