Where the olives grow
For Jews who came of age any time between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, there were plenty of reasons to take to the streets and demonstrate. In addition to close-to-the-heart causes such as Israel’s very existence in two wars (1967 and 1973) and the effort to free our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union, Jews were also at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans, as well as the anti-Vietnam War movement.
And American Jews didn’t just march. Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi while trying to register blacks to vote; three of the four unarmed students killed at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest were Jewish.
So what stirs the passions of young Jews today? In the case of one 23-year-old USC med student, those same unresolved, intractable issues of racism, anti-Semitism and war and peace sparked a remarkable video that is starting to go viral on Youtube.
Roee Astor has been writing poetry and rapping since the age of 12, which is also when he and his family moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Woodland Hills. He attended the Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino, public middle school, and New Community Jewish High School in West Hills before his undergraduate studies at USC.
In recent months, Astor became increasingly agitated over the killings of unarmed black men by police, growing global anti-Semitism, and the bloody conflict in Israel and Gaza. He decided to voice his frustration and outrage in a poem called “Where The Olives Grow”.
“I call it a poem”, Astor told the Jewish Journal, “but it’s really a hybrid of Slam Poetry and Rap. I’ve jokingly been calling it ‘SLAP Poetry’, but that’s a good way to describe it, since I’m using this art form as a wake-up call, a kind of slap in the face”.
Astor’s longtime friend Aviv Gilboa urged him to record the poem; they enlisted another friend, writer and filmmaker Oren Paley, to shoot the video.
The result is a riveting seven-minute discourse that references everything from Ferguson to Auschwitz, and everyone from Natalie Portman to Astor’s legendary ancestor, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
Astor had never before publicly shared any of his poetry. Why now? “I felt a moral responsibility as a Jew to be outspoken on these issues. I am against all forms of discrimination, and I wanted it to be clear that I am against discrimination especially because I’m Jewish. I was hoping that others would see this and take their own stand in some way.”
Astor, who has done volunteer work at HIV clinics and with homeless youth in the inner city, doesn’t feel he’s suffered much from prejudice in his own life. “The worst anti-Semitism I witnessed was when a groups of boys in my middle school etched swastikas into their arms and ran around the field yelling ‘Heil Hitler’. And once, my Jewish fraternity was in a basketball game and our opponents chanted ‘big-nosed Jews’”.
He calls those kinds of events few and far between. What really stunned Astor over the summer was what he saw happening in Europe. “The fact that the streets so quickly and easily filled with anti-Semitic riots and signs saying “Death to the Jews”, within the lifetime of Holocaust survivors, made me feel almost hopeless”.
That sensitized him even more to the national outrage over the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. The details of the shooting of Brown and the choke-hold death of Garner, he believes, are largely irrelevant. “When blacks or Jews feel a gut sense that they’re being discriminated against, trust them. We’ve suffered from it generation after generation. It’s not about technicalities at this point. If a community speaks to you, listen”.
Astor finds common ground in the diversity of discrimination. In “Where The Olives Grow”, he says “We share the same fear and share the same bravery, both persecuted and both were in slavery”.
His poem speaks of ethnic identity, and how Jews “can be perceived as white, but we really don’t feel that way. I want to be recognized as Jewish, and I want you to associate my Judaism with positive things, not with age-old stereotypes”.
In the wake of hatred and killings, in the aftermath of Gaza and Garner, Astor has issued a fervent plea for change. “All people should take part in this, regardless of your perspective on the individual cases. It’s not only about that anymore. It’s much bigger”, he insists.
In 1964, a 23-year-old Jewish guy named Robert Zimmerman… better known as Bob Dylan… wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Exactly 50 years later, 23-year-old poet Roee Astor hopes that dream can still come true.