Depending on the context, hearing “You don’t look Jewish” can be quite disconcerting. The words can tell a convert that they are failing at assimilating into the Jewish community; or they can tell an ex-Orthodox Jew they’ve irreparably damaged their connection to their observant community; they can tell a child that he or she is not at home in Judaism. They are words that have no place in the Jewish community.
After completing my conversion process in the year 2000 in one of the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn, N.Y., I felt palpably different from the rest of my community. Far more than skin color, everything — from hair texture to language — required that I explain myself and the ways in which I was Jewish. (Jews of color are often subject to this question, as if it were a valid question to ask anyone.) Some obvious differences in my outward identity were easy to spot: I grew up with an urban slang and colloquialisms, but through the process of conversion, I replaced much of my “non-Jewish language” with a newfound Yiddish; my ease with Yiddish made assimilating linguistically a snap. And a box of hair relaxer from the corner store made my peyot spiral and flow like any of my European-American counterparts. But still, I didn’t “look Jewish” — and everything from the stare of an ill-trained child to the poorly posed questions of Hasidim made me acutely conscious of this fact.
My first year of yeshiva education accentuated this issue. During my first class on my first day in yeshiva, the rabbi said that the difference between the biblical Hebrew slave and a Canaanite slave was that the Canaanite slave “was a big shvartzer” whose laws were more lax. The following day would be my first Talmud class, where I discovered hip-hop as my signature mode of learning.
My first partner in chevruta was a hip-hop artist, a Jewish MC (rapper) from Long Island named Cels-1. He and I initially approached the text as an associated compendium of facts and names to be memorized and soon forgotten. We tried taking notes, using artwork, and even acting out the text, but it wasn’t until Cels-1 began to beatbox while I was reviewing the talmudic cases out loud that we connected on a deep level with the concepts being expressed.
The “ox goring the cow” of the Babylonian Talmud was, to us, only a story about two farmers until we put it over beats; once we introduced hip-hop into our learning, we ignited a fire of Torah study that has not been extinguished in either of us. Is there anything more Jewish?
Yet, that year, we continued to encounter criticism that we were bringing a “non-Jewish” art form into the most Jewish of pursuits, Torah.
When my chevruta and I returned to New York, we began performing together. I asked him for a stage name for an announcement in the Village Voice, and spontaneously, he named me Y-LOVE. Our repertoire consisted almost exclusively of our previous year’s learning: verses in a talmudic Hebrew/Aramaic/English hybrid, combined with the urban slang he and I both knew from childhood. The crowds loved it, and to this day, all of my shows include at least one partially Aramaic track.
In Baltimore, I was an anomaly in the ’hood. I eschewed hip-hop, preferring to listen to hard rock, heavy metal, and punk rock. Hip-hop culture during the 1990s when I grew up, for gay kids, was an unwelcoming place because of homophobic lyrics and an overtly anti-gay fan base. For me, hip-hop emerged only when I found it in a spiritual place, and it is this fire that continues to drive my lyrics and outlook, even after I left the Hasidic world. But will hip-hop ever be universally accepted as an art form suited for Jewish expression, expressing Jewish concepts in a uniquely Jewish voice?
The Talmud teaches that Jews are recognizable by three characteristics: They are bashful and merciful, and they perform acts of kindness. Jewish is not just something one is: “Jewish” is something one does. Jews have been recognized as a people known for their good traits and actions. In fact, our sages taught us to “check someone’s lineage” if one were to see an individual being excessively cruel. One’s impact on the environment need not be circumscribed by one’s ethnicity, orientation, or background, nor by their Jewish identity.
I have always been someone who defied defining markers (Jews “look” or “sound” a certain way, or black kids in the “inner city” “look” or “act” a certain way). I’ve had a hard time accepting from some quarters that my music is not Jewish by virtue of its being hip-hop, or that my look is not Jewish by virtue of my dreadlocks. A driving force in my music is to show that we all fit into various groups, and we redefine those groups with our identities. My Jewish songs are Jewish because they simply are Jewish music; hip-hop’s absence from the 19th-century shtetl does not contradict this fact.
When I converted, I had to make many choices; but one can never change one’s history. I draw on all my experiences and on all parts of my identity — as a black, Latino, gay, Jewish man — and since coming out, I am loath to “tone down” any aspect of that identity. Hip-hop is the art form that behooves us to tell our own stories: For me, that began at a yeshiva table while learning Talmud. It continues as I tell life lessons in track after track.email print