Excluding strange mystic experiences and perplexing dreams that whispered lech lecha into my soul at night, I had a perfectly outlined ‘covenantal identity’ childhood. My family was not religiously homogeneous nor observant. I was bar-mitzvahed at a Reform synagogue. I was a High Holiday Jew, a covenantal Jew. I would argue I have since become tribal. Is that a win? Capturing the covenantal Jew, Rabbi Schwarz claims is the new opportunity but to what end? To become tribal?
Let me begin again. Excluding highly imaginative religious experiences from recurring dreams to mystic moments, I am firmly configured as Bill2 from this essay: A covenantal Jew from an intermarriage who was a philosophy major son of a doctor. Shortly after college, I went on a Livnot Israel trip and I discovered the beit midrash. I didn’t go back to my campus as a b’al teshuvah, but rather back to my rap group to become the “poster Jew” for the crew. I had more experience as a folk singer (or folk-rapper, honestly), but I’d been rapping more and more with an all-black group called Renaissance. We produced my first bible raps: “10 Plagues” and “Am I My Brother’s Keeper.” The group’s producer, Jamo Mims, whom I’ve known since he moved from LA to my high school, said with complete sincerity, “You should be a rapping rabbi!”
My love for hip hop and my burgeoning appreciation for Judaism, specifically the intellectual aspects of our heritage, led to the creation, and contributes to the success, of Bible Raps. Bible Raps can, therefore, be most closely categorized under the first proposition of chochma. I start with the wisdom of the text. My performances and raps about bible stories are not, however, solely for the purpose of transmitting wisdom, but rather to illuminate the excitement of the story and their power for reflecting on one’s own journey. Where the real chochma is transmitted is in our workshops. This is where we study a piece of text and our students reflect on timeless questions and notions and internalize them and then literally spit them back out through their own verses in rap. And when they bust these raps in front of their peers and community we have divrei Torah being celebrated openly and with fervent cheer.
In a way, I’ve always seen my job as teaching Torah to the kids and hip hop to the adults. “I am hip hop” is a serious thing to say, in the way one says “I am a Jew.” A quick way to become intimate with others is to say ‘here is my truth’ and for them to say ‘here is mine.’ That’s hip hop. And it’s also Judaism. Hineni. Here I am. Hip hop’s power as a method of alternative education for text/reading/writing is an opportunity, even if it isn’t a vessel only for Torah, which is why Hamilton has seen such success. Lin Manuel-Miranda is able to take the (for some, stale) topic of the Founding Fathers and Alexander Hamilton’s life and inject it with fervor by using rap and hip hop as the language through which to tell his story.
For some students, hip hop provides a way for them to prove their comprehension in a language more commonplace than the Queen’s English, which ain’t easy. I was that student who, if I had to write an essay with a thesis and follow the common five paragraph structure, it wouldn’t be so great. But if I could find a creative workaround for the writing, I displayed a deep understanding of the material. For some students, the difference of sophistication and honesty that rap allows is worth investing in.
For example, having read Sid’s background and about his grandparents, here’s a rap that illuminates one piece of his story, using the voice of Lady Liberty:
“But rewind to ‘39 when I turned you back
It’s as if I turned my back, I hope we learned from that
Saw the St. Louis ship sailin’, lost my breath
As I saw you flailing back to your guaranteed death, what the heck?!
A nation of immigrants yelling ‘no immigrants here!’
Man that’s a little weird, I fear my light disappeared…”
Aligning with the theme of kehilla, we are now experimenting with taking our workshop into the virtual space. Breaching the in-person and digital realms, we are not just doing virtual learning, but virtual creating, and by entering the space where many of our youth are spending a considerable amount of time, we are able to bridge that divide and create lasting relationships. Many compelling rap songs and videos about Torah and other core texts have been created without ever meeting in person. But the most promising results in the advancement of kehilla are the combination – to have 3-5 hours with students virtually and then do a live show and present their work as part of the performance always makes for a great climax. Using technology to create moments of in-person celebration!
Matt Bar developed a distinct HipHop/Folk fusion of Bob Dylan and Lil’ Wayne and then found a way to combine it with Jewish content with his founding of Bible Raps in 2006. His debut album, “Lying in Chalk,” contains singles that have played on MTV’s “The Real World” and NBC’s “Hip Hop Nation Notes from the Underground.” Since its inception, Bible Raps has reached tens of thousands of young Jews with Torah-rich performances in schools, Hillels, conferences and camps across the US and abroad.