Judaism & Hip Hop: A Love Story

Graffiti in Tel Aviv, 2016: "And you shall love?#!"

Graffiti in Tel Aviv, 2016: "And you shall love?#!"

Music has always been a dominant force in my life. When I was 5, I would sit on the floor in our living room at my dad’s stereo and listen to whatever he had: The Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, James Taylor. I listened on big, beige studio headphones that engulfed my little head. 

When I was 7, I got an Aiwa boombox - exactly the kind that you could rock on your shoulders like the cool kids. Except that, I was 7 and it never left my bedroom. Instead, I used it to record my favorite songs from the radio onto cassettes, with the DJs routinely ruining my perfect recording by talking over the last few measures.

When I was 9, I was at a friend’s house whose older brother lived in the top floor attic. It was something of a music sanctuary. CDs and albums and records and posters. He offered to let me buy a couple CDs for $1. I grabbed two that I knew: Adam Sandler's What the Hell Happened to Me? and Puff Daddy & the Family’s No Way Out. I didn’t know it at the time, but buying those albums together was a peek into my future.

When I was 13, I bought my first mixer. My buddy Grant and I went into a Radio Shack at the Willow Grove Mall. It was a simple, 2 channel mixer that I connected to two portable CD players. Those early years of musical infatuation, learning the ins and outs of my basic equipment and doing my first DJ gig at a block party around the corner - were about sharing music I loved and curating a musical experience. I knew nothing about the art of DJing. At that point, it was all about the music.

When I was 15, I started training to be a DJ at a local Philadelphia company called Cutting Edge Entertainment. I learned to count BPM - beats per minute - before computers did it for you. I learned how to blend tracks, listen for keys, and craft sets. I learned genres and music history from the owner of the company. I peripherally learned to MC from the amazing people around me. I learned what quality entertainment looked like, and quickly became obsessed with the art.

When I was 18 I started my own company and have been providing my life with a soundtrack ever since. And a lot of that soundtrack was hip hop.

And I share all this with you tonight, for two reasons. First, today marks the 44th anniversary of hip hop. On a warm summer night at the mythic 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx, DJ Kool Herc threw a back to school party for his sister. At least in Hip Hop’s creation narrative, that party was the foundational moment in what we now know as hip hop, the culture comprised of DJing, MCing (Rapping), Breakdancing & Graffiti. 

Second, we find ourselves in a section of Torah that has a lot to do with listening. Last week we read, “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one,” and this week, Parshat Eikev begins with “And if you listen…” And the connecting word of these parshiyot, is, Sh’ma. To hear. To listen. But the Hebrew word, Sh’ma, is so much deeper than that. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that sh'ma "is fundamentally untranslatable into English since it means so many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, to obey.”  And moreover, Jews learn by this Hebrew word, sh’ma. The metaphors employed by the Talmud to denote understanding all use sh'ma. Hearing is active, relationship building, and attachment forming.

Graffiti in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, 2016

Graffiti in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem, 2016

And this nuanced word - sh’ma - bridges the world of Judaism to the world of hip hop for me. When we read Torah, when we pray, when we unify our voices in song, there is no simple word to reflect that experience. The word “hearing” doesn’t encapsulate the emotion and understanding that comes with the retelling of our oppression in Egypt during Passover, or singing Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur, or reciting Kiddush on Friday night, or Mourner's Kaddish following the death of a loved one. Our prayers, our stories, our songs have deep roots that extend into the earth of history and evoke emotion we can’t explain. Hip Hop is similar.

Hip Hop is not surface level. You cannot simply “hear” Hip Hop. Hip Hop needs to be “Sh’ma-ed”. Like our tradition, Hip Hop is laced with piercing darts of emotion that “hearing” doesn’t capture and cannot be understood out of historical context. It is a story of oppression, of repentance, of holiness and also cups that runneth over.

On the podcast Beyond Belief, Lehigh University professor of religion Monica Miller explained the connection between religion and hip hop. She said, “Religion is hip hop’s grammar, its way of life - beyond religion or spirituality. It really goes much deeper than that and it cannot be divorced from that large and long arc of Black American history. Hip Hop is social commentary on black life, it’s a continuation of a complex subjectivity, whether it’s slaves speaking in coded language on plantations or whether it’s an unemployed black male on the corner in 1973, rapping about the realities of life, the inequalities of life, that alchemical and magical language that takes over hip hop when we say how do I make a dollar out of 15 cent, how do we get a full human, 5/5ths of a black body out of 3/5 a body, 3/5 human.” When I first heard Professor Miller’s poetic explanation I felt like I understood what it meant to “sh’ma”. I’m not sure how many folks in our communities are aware of this deep connection, and the more I reflected on it, the more I felt her words paralleled our history and our experience.

Hip Hop culture, as a reflection of African American lived experience, cannot divorce itself from its long, arduous history as a persecuted and oppressed people. Jewish culture, which we know includes Jews of Color, is intricately braided into our historical narrative. 

Hip hop is a culture that uses the tools it has at its disposal to produce commentary, innovations and new forms. Our culture has innovated under oppressive, calamitous conditions to invent paths forward.

Hip hop is a culture whose story includes oppression, slavery, persecution and also a greener pasture, a promised land. And we too, dream of that utopian promised land that we are always fighting for, dreaming for, marching towards.

Like Hip Hop, our Jewish culture has the grammar of religion, but extends far beyond simple religion or spirituality. And in both our communities, music plays a large role in expressing our deepest pains, our sincerest yearnings, and our highest aspirations.

This week we read in Deuteronomy 10:8 the duties of the Levites: to carry the Ark of God’s Covenant, to stand in attendance before God, and to bless in God’s name. And while Carrying the Ark and standing in attendance seem straightforward, what does it mean for the Levites to bless in God’s name? 

Graffiti in Tel Aviv, 2016

Graffiti in Tel Aviv, 2016

Later in the Tanakh, in Chronicles, we’re given some guidance. It reports that of the 38,000 Levite men, 4,000 praised God with instruments and song (1 Chronicles 23:3–5).  King David installed Levites as singers with musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals (1 Chronicles 15:16), and at the inauguration of Solomon's Temple, Levites sang dressed in fine linen, holding cymbals, harps, and lyres, to the east of the altar, and with them 120 priests blew trumpets (2 Chronicles 5:12). 

Our Tanakh teaches us that blessing God’s name is done through song, through music. But, as Chance the Rapper sings, "When the praises go up, the blessings come down." And I like to think the only way to receive those blessings, is “to Sh’ma.”  To hear the callings of God through our neighbors, to listen to their needs, to pay attention to the cries of our world, to understand each other as best we can, to internalize our differences and respond with empathy.

Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 8/11/2017.

Alex KressComment