Jensen Karp survives to write his own ending


When Jensen Karp was 29 years old, his doctor discovered three white spots in his brain. He was informed that these tumors could not be removed, and to start thinking about the possibility of dying. 

“They told me to get all my things in line, and to prepare my tombstone,” Karp said.  

The first thing he decided was that he needed to tell his story, an unbelievable tale that comes down to this: “When I was 19 years old, I was a rapper and had a million-dollar record deal.” 

The full story, written after Karp’s eventual recovery — the tumors never grew larger and are no longer a health threat — is recounted in his recently released memoir, “Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories From a White Rapper Who Almost Made it Big.”

The book, which came out June 7, details Karp’s love of rap music when he was growing up in Woodland Hills. He first performed at a friend’s bar mitzvah when he was 12, and wrote a song called “Killin’ at the Playground.” From there, he performed in rap battles at local parties throughout his teenage years.

Jensen Karp with Kanye West. Photo courtesy of Jensen Karp

On a whim one day, Karp phoned into “Roll Call,” a daily rap battle on Power 106 FM. After going up against another rapper, listeners voted him as the winner. The DJs asked his name, and he said, on the spot, “Hot Karl.” 

Returning to the show again and again, he eventually made 43 appearances. (The previous record held for winning “Roll Call” was 10 times.)

“As Hot Karl, I mostly made jokes in my raps,” he said. “I was a rapper who was always kidding. Though I was serious about the art form, I had punch lines.”

Pretty soon, the industry became aware of Karp, a white, Jewish kid from the suburbs, and Interscope gave him a $1 million record deal. He recorded his debut album, “Your Housekeeper Hates You,” with the label, and proceeded to collaborate and commingle with artists such as Mya, Fabolous, Redman, will.i.am and Kanye West.

West and Karp became friends over the course of a year, going to movies and eating out together. In one chapter, Karp writes about how West was a determined young producer who wasn’t taken seriously. He calls it “a real-life insight into a megastar when he was still living with his mother. There aren’t tons of Kanye stories about ‘I knew this guy when.’ I tell the truth. We were close.” 

Although Karp worked hard on his debut album, eventually, Interscope told him it wasn’t going to release it because of scheduling conflicts. This was at about the time that Eminem — also on the label — was becoming a household name. It turned out that there wasn’t enough room in the game for two white rappers, Karp said.

Karp was devastated. He continued to rap for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it anymore. “It was [painful] at times to write this book,” he said. “It shows everything I went through.”

Eventually, Karp quit rapping. He had majored in writing at USC, and decided to see where that path would take him. When a writing job for “WWE Raw” opened up, he was hired by the pro-wrestling/sports entertainment program, and his comedy writing career blossomed from there.  

Karp, now in his mid-30s, works for TV and awards shows these days, and he’s appeared on the web series “Burning Love” and the VH1 show “Barely Famous.” When he’s not writing, Karp runs Gallery1988, which has two locations on Melrose Avenue and showcases pop culture art. It’s been open since 2003 and features four to five group shows per year. 

He’s not completely done with rap, though. A few years ago, he wrote a halftime song for the his favorite basketball team, the L.A. Clippers, called “Where You At.” He’s been writing one new rap line per day, and will compose raps for comedians — including one he came up with for the MTV Movie Awards titled, “Leo Got F—-d by a Bear” (referring to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant”). It was performed by hosts Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and ended up going viral in April. 

Although rap will always be a part of Karp, he’s not interested in getting back into it full time. 

“Being 36, there aren’t many words that rhyme with ‘mortgage,’ ” he said. “What do you talk about? I should have children, not a mixtape. Rap is a kids’ game. I’m just happy how I wrote my own ending.”

Drake named his new Toronto club after his Jewish grandparents


Jewish artist Drake already has a reputation for being hip hop’s most sensitive rapper.

But that hasn’t stopped him from scoring some more points in the books of bubbes and zaydes across the country.

The Canadian-born Grammy winner announced on Instagram last week that his new nightclub – located in the Air Canada Centre, where the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs play – is named Sher Club, after his Jewish grandparents Reuben and Evelyn Sher.

“Rest in peace to my grandparents Rueben and Evelyn Sher,” Drake wrote on Instagram. “My grandmother was the first person to ever play catch with me and my grandfather was the biggest sports fan in the world. I opened this club in the memory of both of you.”

Yes, you may sigh a collective “aw.”

The club, designed by luxury architect Ferris Rafauli, is billed as the “ultimate pre- and post-game destination.”

Drake has never been shy about talking about his grandmother and his Jewish roots more generally. Tablet points out that he tweetedabout his grandmother’s death in 2012 and put an actual voicemail from her at the end of his 2011 song “Look What You’ve Done.”

This is all coming from the guy who posts annual Hanukkah celebration photos on the Internet and proclaimed his Jewishness in an SNL monologue.

So while they may not like certain four-letter words that feature prominently in his songs, Jewish grandparents everywhere would approve of Drake’s gesture.

The Muslim-Jewish side of Russell Simmons


Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is bringing his passion for Jewish-Muslim relations to the West Coast.

Simmons, who co-founded record label Def Jam at the age of 26 and helped jumpstart the careers of the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, relocated from New York to Los Angeles in January to pursue the development of film and television projects, he recently told the Journal. But while here, he also hopes to bring more visibility to the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based nonprofit that is dedicated to face-to-face dialogue between ethnic groups, including Jews and Muslims.

“The rights you take for granted are no good unless you fight to give those same rights to others,” said Simmons, the foundation’s chair. “And that’s the mantra we live by.”

One of the foundation’s initiatives, known as the Weekend of Twinning — which is held in partnership with the World Jewish Congress and the Islamic Society of North America — brings congregations at synagogues and mosques and young leadership groups together every November and December for joint programs. 

During the initiative’s inaugural year in 2007, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques from across North America participated. The Weekend of Twinning has grown steadily since then, with communities in 33 countries currently participating, according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co-founder of the foundation.

Local twinning efforts take place each year. In 2010, Jewish teens from Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Muslim youth from the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City joined to feed the homeless of downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Outside of New York, Los Angeles has the largest communities of Jews and Muslims, making the city prime for twinning programming, Schneier said.

But the foundation is about more than increasing dialogue between Muslims and Jews, Schneier said. Its most important work is urging Muslims and Jews to support each other when one is under attack by a third party. 

Muslims standing up for Jews can be more effective than Jews standing up for Jews, and vice-versa, Schneier said. He pointed to examples: In 2011, when Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) held congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans, the foundation responded by holding a demonstration in Times Square that gathered Jewish leaders under the slogan, “I am a Muslim, too.” That same year, the foundation worked with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, in calling for the release of then-captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“We believe that the great challenge for the 21st century for interreligious dialogue is strengthening relations between Muslims and Jews,” Schneier said. As the leader of the New York-based Hampton Synagogue and its Manhattan affiliate, the New York Synagogue, Schneier regularly visits the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and exchanges pulpits with Imam Shamsi Ali, a prominent Muslim scholar from the same city.

Founded in 1989, the foundation originally was focused on improving dialogue between blacks and Jews. Relations between the two groups deteriorated after the Crown Heights riots of 1991, which was the result of neighborhood tensions between African-Americans and Orthodox Jews.

Simmons, who is in his mid-50s, became chair of the foundation 11 years ago, and in 2007 he co-starred in a public-service announcement with rapper Jay-Z that denounced anti-Semitism, likening it to racism. The commercial aired internationally, but nowhere did it appear on television more than in Europe. Schneier had recently come back from a trip to France, where anti-Semitism was on the rise. 

“ ‘We have to do something,’ ” Simmons recalled the rabbi saying. “And I said, ‘You’re right, but let me come up with an idea that’s not … Jewish people defending themselves.’ ” 

This was in accordance with Schneier’s view that the foundation is not just “about dialogue. It’s about fighting for each other.” That tenet was central to the foundation’s rebuilding of black-Jewish ties.

Now that he is living in Los Angeles, the center of the entertainment industry, Simmons hopes that he can get Hollywood excited about Muslim-Jewish dialogue. He believes he can. 

Hollywood would “be very sympathetic to the cause. … There are so many people who are partners and my friends who can help me in furthering this work,” Simmons said. 

“This is a mainstream phenomenon waiting to happen,” he added.

And with Simmons’ help, the notion of bringing Jews and Muslims together will become more chic, more in vogue, according to Schneier.

“He’s the master brander,” the rabbi said. “This man created a whole culture in terms of hip-hop.” 

According to Schneier, the Weekend of Twinning’s boots-on-the-ground work will persist — the organization will continue to facilitate the exchange of pulpits between rabbis and imams and organizing joint community service projects — but “you also need the movers and shakers to say this has to be a priority issue for our respective communities,” he said.

It is the heated, elephant-in-the-room topic when Muslims and Jews are together in any space, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be part of any conversation between the groups, Simmons and Schneier agreed. The trick is that the communities find middle ground, such as that there should be a two-state solution. 

Demonstrative of what he brings to the table, Simmons is currently in pre-production on a hip-hop song that will feature Israeli, Israeli-Arab and Palestinian rappers. He could not say when recording will begin, but he said that legendary Jewish producer Rick Rubin — who has worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and who co-founded Def Jam — and Palestinian record producer DJ Khaled, whose full name is Khaled bin Abdul Khaled, have expressed interest in participating.

“That’s our response to the BDS [movement],” Schneier said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which encourages artists to refuse bringing their work to Israel out of protest of the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians. 

Simmons said he “would never do such a thing” when asked about participating in the boycott movement. Instead, he said, we need “creative aggravation in terms of pushing people toward the center.”

Simmons said that his commitment to building bridges dates back to his early years in hip-hop. This desire drove his role in the recording of Run-D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way,” one of the first rap-rock songs, and his managing of the Beastie Boys, an all-white hip-hop group.

Last July, Simmons took his first trip to Israel to discuss with Israel’s Foreign Ministry the possibility of bringing twinning to the Jewish state. Simmons and Schneier were also guests at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Facing Tomorrow conference in Jerusalem, meeting the politician in person.

Simmons is neither Jewish nor Muslim. And he is not Christian, either. He calls himself a yogi, and says he believes in yogic scripture. But he has had his share of exposure to Judaism through his friendship with Brett Ratner (the “Rush Hour” director got his start shooting music videos for Simmons), who is the only child of Jewish socialite Marcia Presman. Additionally, Simmons said his professional relationship with Lyor Cohen, former CEO of recorded music for Warner Music Group and son of Israeli citizens, has taught him much about the religion.

But his true religion may be “culture.” He said that media can introduce people to ideas that are world-changing. The ideas just need to be delivered in a provocative way.

“People are unconscious in general,” Simmons said. “People do what the crowd does until they are challenged to think about their responses to the world.” 

No, Adam Yauch wasn’t a yeshiva boy, but we can still claim him


As a student at an all-girls day school in Brooklyn, the first thing I learned about the Beastie Boys turned out to be untrue.
According to a yeshiva urban legend, two of the founding members of the Beastie Boys had attended The Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy in upper Manhattan. Some MTA students even claimed to know where the hip-hop pioneers had tagged the school with their handles.

This was before every claim could be verified or disproved with a Google search.

After seeing a photograph of the trio in a music magazine in the mid-1990s, I decided I could believe that the three nerdy-looking, funny white Jewish guys in fact had been nerdy, rebellious yeshiva students.

Of course they never attended an Orthodox educational institution. Still, despite denials from the Beastie Boys, the rumor persisted. Yeshiva students continued to project themselves onto this seminal hip-hop act for years, even after Drake came along and started talking about his bar mitzvah.

When Adam “MCA” Yauch, one of those alleged yeshiva students, died last Friday at 47 following a three-year battle with cancer, there was an outpouring of grief and condolences from fans and some of the biggest names in hip hop.

He and the Beastie Boys helped put hip hop on the map in 1986 with their debut, “Licensed to Ill,” the first rap album to hit the top of Billboard’s album charts.

The album yielded several classic singles such as “Fight for Your Right to Party” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” It also landed the Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone—the magazine had been notoriously unwilling to cover rap, a nascent and increasingly significant art form—with the headline “Three Idiots Make a Masterpiece.”

“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” Rick Rubin, who produced “Licensed to Ill,” said in an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Of course, this sort of attention turned the Jewish bohemians into targets for those who viewed their success through the prism of white privilege and racism. Yet, and this is much to the group’s credit, the criticisms eventually dissipated.

“We don’t hear the word ‘Elvis’ uttered in the same breath as ‘Beastie Boys,’ ” Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback,” wrote in a tribute to Yauch published in Spin. “The integrity of Yauch and his peers had a lot to do with it.”

Yauch and the Beasties came of age, creatively speaking, in the downtown bohemia of Manhattan in the early ’80s where punk rockers (as the Beasties had formerly been) mixed freely with uptown emcees and DJs. The racial lines in this scene and early hip hop were crossed in surprising ways.

The Beastie Boys’ own career reflects that. They were introduced to black audiences by the biggest rap act of the day, Run DMC.

In turn the Beasties, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, helped launch the career of Public Enemy, which opened for the mega-successful Boys on tour.

The Beastie Boys paid homage to their myriad influences in the pages of the now-defunct Grand Royal magazine, which started in the early ’90s and reflected their tastes, from movies to artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, a name familiar to those inside the hip-hop scene as his work is often sampled in tracks.

By exposing a wider audience to these important figures in the culture’s history, the Beasties Boys helped give credit where it was due and properly situated themselves within the hip-hop tradition.

“The Beastie Boys took responsibility for being grown-up white people without boring everyone with long rationalizations about how down they were,” Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop,” wrote nearly a decade ago in “The Hip-Hop Album Guide.”

Except when they actually did apologize for some of their earlier homophobic and misogynist lyrics. This wasn’t a Rush Limbaugh-style mea culpa. They didn’t apologize that women and gays took offense at what they said—the “I’m sorry you took umbrage at that really awful thing I said”—thereby putting the onus on the targets of the hateful comments for even reacting to them.

Rather Yauch and the Beasties expressed true, sincere regret. Yauch famously rapped, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through.” This from a group that had once performed onstage alongside caged female dancers and a hydraulic-powered penis.

And the Boys did more than give lip service to these feminist impulses; they acted on them. The group famously asked Prodigy not to perform the song “Smack My Bitch Up” at the Reading Festival.

When the Beasties were criticized for this seemingly hypocritical stance, Yauch defended the move, saying they had begun changing the words when they performed old songs that had contained misogynistic lyrics. This was just one example of how deeply intertwined the Beastie Boys’ artistic and social progression was.

Yauch created a successful template of how to evolve, not only as an artist but also as a human being.

In addition to directing some of the most visually arresting and retro-inflected Beastie Boys music videos under the alias Nathaniel Hornblower, he also created Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film production and distribution company that cultivated and released several critical hits, including the Oscar-nominated “The Message” and “Exist Through the Gift Shop.” 

A practicing Buddhist, Yauch also founded the Milarepa Foundation, which raised money and awareness through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts.

While this doesn’t exactly sound like the work of your average yeshiva student, I have no problem with future generations of Orthodox boys pretending that the Beastie Boys had been their own.

Yeshiva boys couldn’t do much better than Adam Yauch as a role model.

Dvora Meyers is the author of the ebook “Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess,” a memoir essay collection about Orthodox Judaism and gymnastics.

HaDag Nachash: Atypical Israel band hip-hops to Hollywood


Adam Sandler, a.k.a. Israeli Mossad super-agent Zohan, saunters through the streets of Tel Aviv gyrating his cut-off-jeans-clad hips, delighting Israeli beachgoers with an exaggerated display of hacky-sack skills and putting on a super-human show of strength in a game of tug-of-war as a bikini-clad beauty perches on his shoulders.

The soundtrack playing throughout this opening sequence of “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” is the hip-hop/funk “Ma She Ba Ba” by one of Israel’s top bands, Hadag Nahash.

Later, as Zohan faces his Arab nemesis, The Phantom, the band charges up a fast-paced chase scene with the rapid beat of “Hine Ani Ba.” The catchy track, which translates to “Here I Come,” repeats during the closing credits and is featured prominently in the film’s trailers.

So how did a song released in 2006 by a 12-year-old Israeli band become the theme song of a major Hollywood release?

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MUSIC VIDEO: Hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari Obama video — ‘Stand With Me’


From the YouTube page:

Miri Ben-Ari, a Grammy Award-Winning violinist, originally from Israel, dedicates her rendition of the National Anthem titled Stand With Me, a music video in support of the Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Supported by Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons and fashion designer Marc Eckó, Ben-Ari introduces a new musical approach to capture the spirit of the American people before the 2008 Election Day while hoping to influence fans among the Jewish community.

Ben-Ari states At this time of economic crisis, we need leadership that can bring change to our country while capturing the essence of the American Dream. Coming to America as a new immigrant, poor and without my family helped me to better understand and appreciate the American dream.

Directed by: Kenzo Hakuta & Miri Ben-Ari
Exec. Producer: Howard Mark Offenhutter

 

MUSIC: ‘That Yemenite Kid’ Diwon makes a mix tape — in Yiddish


NEW YORK (JTA) — Courtesy of Diwon, the artist formerly known as DJ Handler and otherwise known as the executive director of Modular Moods and Shemspeed.com, comes this fresh mix of pop, hip-hop, electronica and . . . Yiddish?

We spoke to “That Yemenite Kid” and asked him what’s up with this unusual release.

JTA: As an artist and producer you’ve focused on highlighting Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish music as an alternative to what some see as the Ashkenazic domination of the Jewish cultural scene. With that in mind, what’s a nice Yemenite kid like you doing in a Yiddishe place like this?

Diwon: I’m half-Yemenite. My other side is Ashkenaz. That is the side that came out here. Don’t forget, I started a klezmer punk band in college called Juez. So this really isn’t too far out for me. I think just because of the recent change of my artist name from DJ Handler to Diwon and some of the press around the music, now I’m seen as very Yemenite and the past is sort of washed over. I’m definitely more passionate about the Yemenite music I’m making because I feel that there has already been a big Yiddish and klezmer music revival.

At the same time, I don’t know of any Yiddish mixtapes that have ever been made — you know, Yiddish through the eyes of a street mixtape DJ. It was a challenge to take the source material flip it over my own beats and remixes and then throw in some of my friends who are fusing Yiddish with electronic music and what not. Plus that Andrew sisters “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” is so hot. I DJ it in clubs all the time. That in itself was almost reason enough to create this mixtape.

JTA: I notice you have some Hebrew language stuff in there as well. That’s going to make the Yiddishists angry . . .

Diwon: Ha! I don’t know. I guess some controversy is good.

There is a lot of great classic Yiddish music out there that, beyond revivals from Golem and Socalled, most young Jews today are completely unfamiliar with.


Click for streaming audio

JTA: Do you see any potential for the reinvigoration of Yiddish music as anything more than a novelty for this generation?

Diwon: I could see why people would say that Socalled is a novelty, but you could argue the music isn’t a novelty because he grew up listening to Yiddish records and this is how he makes Yiddish music — as opposed to say, an artist who put one Yiddish thing on their non-Yiddish album, as a novelty.

It’s a tough question to answer since most artists fuse different elements and genres and influences into their compositions. I don’t think that it’s novelty if an artist fuses their tradition into their music if it’s done in a sincere way and not with a smirk.

JTA: But what about for the consumer? So let’s say your doing Yemenite music isn’t a novelty, it’s an expression of your identity, but for the average music consumer, it’s a novelty. Take Matisyahu for example. Did non-Jews buy his album because he’s a great reggae artist, or because he’s an amusement?

Diwon: I think it depends on the consumer. One who isn’t that familiar with the tradition might buy it as novelty. But someone who knows the music and likes Yiddish or Yemenite music will buy it to expand their collection and for them its not necessarily a novelty purchase.

I know non-Jews who bought Matisyahu’s record because they like reggae. But then there are tons that probably bought it off the hype that was fueled by the novelty of it all. But I don’t think any of that matters. If he had put out one record and then went to making regular, non-Jewish reggae, I think it would be different. People would say “what a fake” and “what kind of marketing stunt is this?” But the fact is this is his true expression. He tours the world playing it and he is onto his third record, making it. It’s obvious that he doesn’t view it as a novelty. And the fact that he is still successful at it shows that it’s definitely more than a novelty. That and maybe the fact that he doesn’t wear a suit and a black hat anymore.

JTA: How’s the Jewish music scene holding up in light of the current economic downturn? Is your label, Modular Moods, surviving, thriving, dying?

Diwon: Well stateside we’re still alright. It’s a bit harder when I tour internationally, but no matter what I’m still going to grind and get as much good music out there as possible. If only to cheer up the people who are down due to the economy.

JTA: Well, giving away free music helps!

Diwon: Yeah, well music is basically free nowadays anyway, so why try and front? I feel like I give 75% of my music out for free and use the other 25% to fund it all and survive.

JTA: So what can we expect from Modular Moods in the coming months?

Diwon: Don’t miss the Sephardic Music Festival this Chanukah in NYC, the Shemspeed 40 Days 40 Nights Tour of college campuses in February, and a slew of new songs and albums unlike anything people have ever heard. We ain’t gonna stop now.

David’s the singer, he’s the rapper


Oded Turgeman, director of the new short film “Song of David,” doesn’t do things the easy way.

As a burgeoning film director, he applied to Jerusalem’s most prestigious film school, with a commander in a combat unit as his only prior life experience. Then he moved to America to attend the American Film Institute — the first Orthodox Jew ever to enroll there — and, because of his Sabbath observance, had to shoot and produce each of his four thesis films in two days, not the usual three.

And when the deadline for AFI’s short-film contest was two weeks away — this was the night before Passover 2006 — and most applicants had worked on their proposals for months, Turgeman was struck with inspiration for the film that would, nearly two years later, become “Song of David.”

“It was accepted by the committee,” Turgeman said, laughing. “It was an impossible thing, but they accepted it.”

He secured a shooting location in Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon near Hancock Park and a star in the rapper Niz (real name: Nosson Zand), who flew to Los Angeles to meet Turgeman. Despite his lack of experience (truly: Zand had never acted before), Turgeman was immediately convinced he was the right Chasid for the part. For Niz, a ba’al teshuvah who had been Orthodox for only a few years, landing the role of David was a coup.

“I tell people that David is a yeshiva bocher who wants to be a rapper, whereas I am a rapper who wants to be a yeshiva bocher,” he said.

As for the film itself, it would be tempting to describe “Song of David” as a straight-up Orthodox hip-hop movie, if such a thing existed. The truth is, it’s much more complicated. The film is a study of its titular character’s struggle: the struggle to be a good Jew and a good artist.

From the start, the movie dwells firmly in iconic imagery. The opening credits fade from black into the striking blue water of a ritual bath, with a man in his early 20s dunking himself beneath the water. From there, the film places Niz in terse, bleak scenes, light on words and heavy with intended meaning, of David being scorned by other yeshiva students, of him standing on the yeshiva rooftop and writing verses.

The paradigm of David’s character — a Chasidic Jew who can find solace only in hip-hop music — is hardly a unique occurrence in today’s real-life Chasidic world, where professional masters of ceremonies like Y-Love and Matisyahu use music as a way of both self-expression and proselytization, and bands that sound like MTV clones play to packed auditoriums of single-sex audiences.

But the clash of hip-hop and Chasidic cultures is still such a striking study in oppositions, especially to non-Orthodox audiences, that the film is almost forced to traffic in these stark, hard-hitting images in order to get through to the audience: the black-and-white clothes, the bearded face nodding in time to rhymes, the traditional wordless niggun hummed over vocal beatboxing. (The film’s soundtrack features Ta-Shma, a hip-hop duo based in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights who contribute both original songs and music from their 2006 album, “Come Listen.”)

To shoot the film, Turgeman had to wait nearly a full year, until Passover 2007 — the only time that the yeshiva was out of session.

“The catering alone was a nightmare,” Turgeman recalled. “Even though 95 percent of the crew was not Jewish, all the food had to be Kehila kosher. And it was a week before Passover. It was really tough. But we withstood it.”

In order to meet with the yeshiva’s demands, all the women on the set had to wear skirts, and married women, even non-Jewish ones, were asked to cover their hair. But those restrictions were easy compared with the ones imposed by the film’s star. After becoming Orthodox and going through the yeshiva system himself, Niz was wary of getting involved in any sort of film, especially one in which he’s first seen underwater and shirtless inside a ritual bath. To film that scene, all female crewmembers were asked to leave the room, including the cinematographer.

“The [bath] shot was one of the more questionable moments that I encountered,” Niz said, although “eventually, the scene gained the approval of a local rabbi whom I both trust and respect.”

With production completed, Turgeman is now taking the film on a festival tour. In March, “David” had its L.A. premiere, as well as a screening at the prestigious AFI Dallas International Film Festival, one of the preliminary screenings that leads to Oscar qualification. Turgeman and his screenwriter are working on a full-length adaptation.

In the meantime, though, Niz is back to his first love, hip-hop. “I don’t know if I’d act in another film,” he said. “I believe as a Jew that many things in this world can be used for both good and bad. I viewed this movie as an opportunity to spiritually elevate the film industry.”

This article originally appeared in The Forward (www.forward.com) and is reprinted with permission.

Israelity Tour teases trips with an Israeli beat


” vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ border = ‘0’ align = ‘right’ alt=”Michelle Citrin”>a decade ago as a student at Rutgers University. Her experience traveling to Israel on one of the first Birthright trips at the start of the second Intifada inspired her to write “Dark Refrain,” a song about looking for a time of peace.

Shai Haddad, a.k.a. SHI 360, was also stirred musically, turning to hip-hop to express his feelings. After making aliyah in 2006, he wrote what has become the Birthright Israel theme song, “Home.”

Haddad now performs the song in front of thousands of people at Birthright’s “Mega Event” concerts.

In a move that echoes this fusion of cultural exposure and music, the Taglit-Birthright Israel Alumni Association, recently rebranded as Birthright Israel Next, has launched the Israelity Tour — a seven-city West Coast concert extravaganza aimed at exposing young American Jews to Israeli culture, promoting the free 10-day educational trips to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds, as well as cultivating the connections alumni of the trip have already made to the Holy Land and one another.

Israelity kicked off in Seattle on Feb. 6 and focuses primarily on major Jewish communities where Birthright trip registration rates are significantly lower when compared with those from East Coast communities. The goal is to make Birthright a household name, said Sydney Henning, the group’s national initiatives director.

Birthright says Los Angeles registration rates for trips are fairly high among West Coast cities. Still the organization considers Los Angeles an important destination to augment its alumni programming. The Los Angeles leg of the tour will play the Avalon in Hollywood on Feb. 16.

Flipping the Birthright model on its head, the Israelity Tour is “Where West Coast Meets Middle East.” Instead of bringing Americans to Israel, the tour brings Israel to America, with music performances by Israeli hip-hop luminary Subliminal a.k.a. Kobi Shimoni and his seven-member crew — the T.A.C.T. Family (Tel Aviv City Team) — funk/hip-hop band Coolooloosh and folk singer Citrin.

“I really believe in what Birthright is doing,” Shimoni said in a telephone interview from Seattle. “I respect their efforts, and I want to help in any way that I can.”

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for the Isreality blog, visit

Theater: Sax on the mic molds music into ‘Clay’


Since the beginning of human history, man has struggled to figure out the meaning of life. This struggle has often been associated with a feeling of pain; a hurt often felt in real life and expressed many times through art. An idea of this magnitude is not lost on writer and solo performer Matt Sax, 23, whose hip-hop musical, “Clay,” doesn’t just explain the notion of pain and struggle, but makes audiences at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City part of the cure.

Sax was born to two Jewish parents in Manhattan, but spent most of his childhood in Westchester County. His interest in the arts prompted him to seize an opportunity to attend the theater program at Northwestern University, which he graduated from in 2006. Sax said he has always had an interest in hip-hop as well as theatre.

“I bought Notorious B.I.G.’s first album, ‘Ready to Die,’ and it completely changed my perspective on hip-hop,” he said. Astounded by the theatricality of the music, he decided at age 20 to write a piece to perform at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. The result was “Clay.” Sax later performed the show back at Northwestern, where he got the attention of the director Eric Rosen, who is responsible for bringing “Clay” to its current home at the Douglas.

The musical follows the life of a Jewish teenager named Clifford as he struggles with the reality of his parents’ divorce, his mother’s eventual suicide and his own incestuous involvement with his stepmother. Cliff’s desire to come to terms with his problems lands him on the doorstep of a smart-mouthed, street-wise rapper named Sir John, who takes the boy under his wing and transforms him into a hip-hop superstar known as “Clay.” All five characters are played successfully by Sax, who incorporates small visual and audio devices to help the audience identify whom he is portraying in each moment. One of these items is a microphone, which he uses to represent a phone, a gun and, most cleverly, a woman’s mouth. Sax raps live to a pre-recorded R&B/soul soundtrack that he also wrote and produced.

The audience at the Douglas on a recent evening was a motley mix of ages and colors, and Sax succeeded in making hip-hop palatable to what was an obviously hip-hop inexperienced audience. Several of the audience members, who seemed astonished during the first act of the play, were riveted by the final scenes, so much so that they were quick to participate in a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion.

Following the run of “Clay” at the Douglas, which ends on Oct. 14, Sax will return to his current home in Brooklyn, where he is writing a separate hip-hop album to be titled “Dreams,” which will chronicle a person from the time he falls asleep to the time he wakes the next morning. And though Sax considers himself a secular Jew, he hopes that through music and theatre he will be able to tap into the universal human struggle and use his microphone in another way altogether, as a mouthpiece for a sense of community among all races.

Trio of performers aiming for bite of pop music pie


Your chances of getting hit by lightning are better than the odds on winning one of roughly 40 state lotteries found in the United States. But people keep buying lottery tickets, presumably with the belief that when the lightning strikes, they’ll be the ones to get fried.

The odds on scoring a hit record are not much better.

Jacob Harris, co-founder of JDub Records, the label that first gave us Matisyahu, notes, “The statistic I’ve heard is that of the 40,000 records released in the United States every year, 85 percent sell less than a thousand copies.”

Of course, almost every musician who makes a record believes that he or she will be one of the lucky few whose record sells 500,000 copies (gold album), a million copies (platinum) or 2 million copies (multiplatinum). Perhaps only the truly mad think they will get a diamond record, given to a recording that sells more than 10 million units. As of this writing, only 101 albums have achieved this exalted level.

Matisyahu is generally believed to be the most successful explicitly Jewish-themed recording artist in American history. Harris estimates that his last two records for JDub, “Live at Stubbs” and “Youth,” each sold in the vicinity of 650,000 copies.

“Those numbers are amazing for any artist, particularly for a live recording,” Harris said, referring to Matisyahu’s “Stubbs.”

For an artist crossing over from a very small niche market — or two niche markets, reggae and Jewish music — that is nothing short of extraordinary. Although Harris would love for one of his label’s artists to duplicate Matisyahu’s success, he thinks that his crossover appeal is the product of a unique set of circumstances.

When asked if it is repeatable, he simply laughs.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “There are hits every year, and it’s a huge business, but there rarely are things like that — a wave that starts at a grass-roots level and achieves this kind of success and does so from a niche market. Even reggae does not sell this well. And from a Jewish perspective, it’s going to be very difficult to duplicate. There isn’t the quality of artists out there yet.”

Erez Laufer, who heads Modular Moods and is better known by his hip-hop nom de musique, DJ Handler, is more guardedly optimistic. His label is not a specifically Jewish music company, but its stable includes rapper Y-Love and beatboxer Yuri Lane, two strong candidates for carrying a Jewish message to a wider audience.

“I think that there’s more of a chance now,” he said. “Both of them are doing Jewish music, but it’s so rooted in the [hip-hop] genres that it has mass appeal.”

He’s certainly not ambivalent about the possibilities.

“The starving artists thing is romantic for a while,” Laufer said. “But if something like [Matisyahu’s success] happens, it makes it a lot easier.”

The Chasidic reggae singer’s success has bred a whole new kind of dream among Jewish music acts. Even if most of them won’t say it, one suspects that every one of them wants to be “the next Matisyahu.”

There are many talented Jewish bands and individuals chasing that crown, trying to find an audience that goes beyond the Jewish world, without compromising their Jewish values, a difficult balancing feat that Matisyahu has thus far achieved.

Here are three gifted candidates for crossover success:

Y-Love: “Not Your Grandfather’s Orthodox Judaism”

Yitz Jordan — better known as Y-Love — is not the first African American to become a Chasid, and he’s not the first Chasid to be a rapper. But he probably is the first African American Chasidic rapper, for whatever that might be worth in itself. And he’s definitely the first hip-hop artist to rap in Aramaic.

But what is more important is that he’s very, very good, rapping about the things he cares about — God’s plan for the Jews and the world — with precision, imagination and flow.

And while he has respect for Matisyahu, he doesn’t envy him.

“The more I see his name on all these celebrity gossip Web sites, I feel really sad for him,” Y-Love said in a phone conversation during a recording break. “When I see Matisyahu being treated in the media like [actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman] Jared Leto, that makes me sad. But the best message will fall on some deaf ears.”

The Baltimore-born rapper is blunt about what his role is in popular culture.

“I want to carry the message of Judaism to the most people possible,” he said. “If that means I have to be on MTV2, so be it. Fifty percent of American Jews will never receive a Jewish education, so if people are spending more time in front of the TV, put the Jewish education on TV.”

That is an understandable attitude. After all, it was a television program that clued a 6-year-old Jordan to Judaism.

“I was watching the TV and saw a message that said, ‘Happy Passover from Channel 2,'” he recalls. “Pretty soon, I was drawing six-pointed stars on everything.”

He said his mother, who was Catholic, was not religious so “any time I opened a Bible, it was because I wanted to.”

On the other hand, his Puerto Rican grandmother had maintained a lifelong interest in Judaism; when Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, she threw a party.

By the time he was 14, Y-Love was observing many of the mitzvoth, and when he was 22, in 2000, he underwent an Orthodox conversion in Brooklyn. He was totally uninvolved in hip-hop until he began studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, where his chevruta (study partner), David Singer, was an emcee in his spare time. By the time they had returned to Brooklyn, the duo were appearing together as Y-Love and Cels-1. (They parted company amicably in 2003.)

Y-Love doesn’t dismiss speculation about crossover success, but he clearly has something more in mind than platinum records.

Films: Teen gang members take a page from Anne Frank in ‘Freedom Writers’


“Freedom Writers” opens with a montage of scenes from Long Beach two years after the Los Angeles riots. Images of gang life and the neighborhoods where members stage their brutal rites float on a stream of hip-hop sound.

Into this picture steps an eager but overdressed Erin Gruwell, a depiction of the real-life teacher whose blossoming as an activist provided the emotional catalyst for yet another alchemical performance by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.
“Lovely pearls,” says the head of the English department at Woodrow Wilson High School, where Gruwell has taken a job teaching the freshman students nobody else wants in their classroom.

The film’s first 45 minutes chart Gruwell’s initially fruitless efforts to connect with teenagers hardened by violence. Then, when Gruwell intercepts a racist caricature of one of her African American students making the rounds on a typically frustrating day, she makes a discovery that eventually changes the lives of everyone in Room 203 — including hers.

“You all may think your gangs are pretty tough,” Gruwell says as her self-segregated black, Latino and Cambodian charges glower at one another from the turf each group has staked out for itself in Gruwell’s classroom. “But you’re nothing compared to the most famous gang of all. Who can tell me about the Holocaust?”

Stunned by the silence and blank stares she receives in reply, Gruwell — and, later, the team of students, actors and filmmakers who have brought “Freedom Writers” to the big screen — perceives an important opportunity.

“The kids you see in this film are living in a world this country denies exists,” said Richard LaGravenese, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “Freedom Writers.” “They’re children just trying to survive. That’s why the kids connected to Anne Frank.”

When Gruwell introduces her students to Frank’s diary, they discover a youthful voice describing a violent world with similarities to their own. Empathy and the deep fulfillment of self-expression begin to stir in the students as Gruwell encourages them to record the loss and trauma in their own lives.

Gruwell’s visit with her students to the L.A. Museum of Tolerance is also recounted in a scene shot at the museum, including appearances by real-life Holocaust survivors who regularly volunteer there — Elisabeth Mann, Gloria Ungar, Eddie Ilan and Renee Firestone.

“This is not the story of a white person coming to the rescue of non-whites,” LaGravenese said. “All Erin did was listen, and listening transformed her and the kids.”

In an interview, the real-life Gruwell herself likened her talent as a teacher to a peculiar knack her father brings to his work as a baseball scout.

“My dad doesn’t carry a radar gun when he goes to college games — he can tell a ball’s speed just by watching it,” she said. “I’m kind of like that. Sometimes I can see a student’s ability even before it begins to blossom.”

That skill figures into one of the most affecting moments in “Freedom Writers.”

“The scene in the hall with Hilary and Mario” (the single-name singer is another actor in the film) “is verbatim what happened with me and one of my students,” Gruwell said. “He had given himself an F on a personal evaluation, and I told him that was like giving me a big F— you. ‘I see you,’ I told him, ‘and you are not a failure.'”

The exchange is jarring, not least because it’s the only time the word is used in the film.

“Richard’s original script had 27 F-words,” Gruwell said. “For a PG-13 rating you can only have one F-word. Eventually we were unanimous that there should be only one F-word to get a PG-13 and reach as many kids as we can.”

LaGravenese, whose writing credits include “The Horse Whisperer,” “Beloved” and “The Fisher King,” described his work on “Freedom Writers” as one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life. He also admits it has been among the most grueling.

“I wrote 22 drafts,” he said. “It was tough, because I was adapting the script from diaries. I also got to know Erin and the ‘Freedom Writers’ very well, and I didn’t want to invent.”

Having to direct the Holocaust survivors who met Gruwell’s students and who play themselves in the film was also difficult for LaGravenese.

“I thought it was a beautiful idea — I told them, ‘Just tell your stories.’ But then I had to say ‘cut.’ It was really traumatic,” he said.

Still, that day of filming brought storytelling opportunities that LaGravenese hadn’t expected.

“I was too shy to ask Gloria [Ungar] to reveal her number, then she walked up and offered,” LaGravenese said. “Seeing her show her number to the kids in that scene is one of the most powerful moments in the film for me.”

Since the period of her life depicted in Freedom Writers, Gruwell has taught in the College of Education at Cal State Long Beach. Many of the students she met at Woodrow Wilson followed her to CSULB and are beginning teaching careers of their own. Together they’ve established the “Freedom Writers” Foundation to provide training to teachers who want to replicate Gruwell’s success with at-risk students in their own classrooms.

“We see our activism as a movement to spark education reform,” Gruwell said. “An education system can both liberate and oppress. The only way it can liberate is if we change the idea that there’s only one way to teach children.”

“Reel Talk” with Stephen Farber will be screening “Freedom Writers” Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. Wadsworth Theatre, on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., building 226 Los Angeles. $20.

A Night at the Fais Do-Do


There is a burgundy motif at Club Fais Do-Do — burgundy curtains, burgundy tablecloths. The eastern wall is also painted a dark red hue but seems to have other colors
beneath that seep through from the past.

Just south of the 10 Freeway, in a nondescript part of Culver City, three young men test their music equipment on the stage at this hipster café/club that books regular gigs and treats visitors to New Orleans cuisine, including Creole and Cajun dishes like po’boys, jambalaya and even a Ya’Ya Turkey Burger (“good for you, bad for the turkey,” reads its description).

On this night, in addition to these savories, the ” target = “_blank”>N.O.M.A.D.S., short for Notorious Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t. The concert is co-sponsored by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in conjunction with its current exhibition, “Sovereign Threads: The History of Palestinian Embroidery.”

One might wonder if this will be an incendiary evening, given that it features hip-hoppers, artists known for insurrection. But the three men onstage are mild-mannered musicians, three skinny white kids, probably in their 20s, who it turns out are the opening act, New West.

After keeping us waiting for the obligatory hour, the funk-rock band plays a half-dozen songs, during the last few of which members of the crowd begin dancing. It’s an intimate venue, with a high ceiling but only a few tables and booths, so most people stand.

Later, the audience comes out in even greater numbers in anticipation of the Legitimates, another funk-rock outfit. As the Legitimates mount the stage, they wear black hats and black suits, some of a rumpled variety, and bear a resemblance to the Blues Brothers or “a bunch of Chasidic diamond merchants,” to quote Aretha Franklin from the film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
But they are not necessarily Jews, and given how hot it is onstage, the band members, led by front man drummer Donnie Baseball, named in honor of former Yankee star Don Mattingly, begin to discard their jackets. Baseball plays a ferocious set of drums as the band performs several instrumentals.

As midnight approaches, a tall youth with some fuzz above his lip steps before the microphone. Like the Legitimates, the emcee, clean-cut by rapper standards, wears a dark suit and a dark Yankees cap, adhering to the Bronx Bomber theme. He says his name is Ragtop, but it’s a moniker. His real name is Nizar Wattad, and he was, according to the press material, “born on a mountain in Palestine.”

Ragtop says he is 6-foot-5, but because he is so thin, it is hard to judge his height. It is also hard to judge his voice. Despite his Yankee cap and the fact that he was raised in Tennessee, his voice doesn’t seem to come from either New York or the South. He produces a sound that blends in nicely with the band, and he doesn’t show off or become obstreperous like some rappers, but with his dynamic physical gestures and syncopated intonation, he exudes a kind of ghetto authenticity.

Ragtop, along with a cohort with a shaved head, rap of “that long time ago”; they rap about the proletariat, tsunamis and a lack of justice. But they do so cheerfully, respectfully.

After they point out that rapping requires a participatory audience, Ragtop asks, “Who here holds down a 9-to-5 job they hate?” A number of people in the crowd raise their hands.

This is about as subversive as the Philistines get. They look almost wholesome in their suits and clean or trim beards, though their shirts stylishly hang outside their pants. And they occasionally adopt Ragtop’s partial Southern roots, addressing the crowd as “y’all.” Indeed, these Arab street hip-hoppers come across as being almost All-American.

With midnight approaching and bedtime beckoning, my wife and I grab a CD comprised of “23 rounds of heavyweight hip-hop” between the N.O.M.A.D.S. and the Philistines.

Slipping the CD into the car player, we finally hear something approximating Arab music. There is a wind instrument, perhaps a flute, playing in the intro. It wafts in the background, as if through the labyrinthine air of a bazaar. We imagine a swami is calling us, trying to draw us out like a genie, until the gangsta rap pierces the moment.

That is when we return to urban American hip-hop, with all the tropes of the art form — the ubiquitous, nonstop patter; the ingenious rhymes, such as “Iverson” with “Bedford-Stuyvesant”; the word-smithery and prolonged assonance of multisyllabic words beginning with the letter O.

The N.O.M.A.D.S. battle the Philistines to a draw. Both are hailed for drawing attention to the angst of checkpoints, but it is hard to discern all the lyrics, let alone any political content in them, just the occasional reference to Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah or Mexico.

They even have a joint song titled, “The Inquisition.” In it, my wife, a better listener than I, detects the phrase, “passing for a Jew.” Whether or not they can pass for Jews, they can certainly pass for rappers as American as Kanye West or Eminem.

Versatile Israeli Violinist Gains ‘Dream’ Hip-Hop Hit


Perusing the hot R & B/Rap Billboard charts, one does not expect to see a red-headed Israeli artist — replete with a classic “Jewfro” mop of curls — represented by the No. 3 song. ” TARGET=”_blank”>Miri Ben-Ari, however, doing the unexpected is standard fodder; so it should come as no surprise that her new single, “Symphony of Brotherhood” (featuring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech weaving in and out of an extended string solo) topped the charts just one month after its radio release.

Given the violin diva’s penchant for multitasking high-profile projects, it also should come as no surprise that topping the charts is just a drop in the bucket for Ben-Ari. Since April, she has been featured on billboards internationally as the poster girl for Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” campaign; in May, she and Israeli hip-hop mogul, Subliminal, recorded a video, “Classit VeParsi” (Classical and Persian) — which topped Israel’s video charts.

Next Ben-Ari went on national tour with the popular hip-hop group, The Roots, even as she was getting ready to release a hip-hop single about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, VH1 announced her as a new artist working with its Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to restore instrumental music education in U.S. public schools.

For many, it’s exhausting just to read Ben-Ari’s list of accomplishments, but the artist is full of energy. She is, after all, on a mission: “I want to bring music back,” she said matter-of-factly. “In an era where everything is music samples, I’m representing a movement that’s turning to live music again.”

Ben-Ari grew up as a classically trained violinist in Israel, and as a child prodigy, she caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Though she bowed to the top of one music competition after another, Ben-Ari was convinced that the classical scene was not for her.

“The whole time, I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical violinist,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument — almost like a sport. But I wasn’t feeling the orchestra thing.”

At 17, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay.

“I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing,” she said. “I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!”

Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and moved to the Big Apple — where she hustled gigs every night. “If I walked into a club, and there was a stage,” she said, “I’d pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I’d still play. At first I’d get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again.”

Persistence and gutsy acts — which Ben-Ari attributes to Israeli chutzpah — got her noticed by jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and the late Betty Carter, as well as by hip-hop moguls like Kanye West and Wycleff Jean. Once the heavyweights got into her act, it was not long before Ben-Ari had played Carnegie Hall, The Apollo, and Jay Z’s Summer Jam — where she received a standing ovation from 20,000 screaming audience members.

“I was a nobody,” Ben-Ari chuckled, “but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliot.”

Since then, Ben-Ari has gone on to record and perform with pop icons like Alicia Keys and Britney Spears, and she won a Grammy in 2004 for her violin chops on Kanye West’s smash-hit single, “Jesus Walks.”

It is heartening to know that someone so openly Jewish and Israeli can receive so much love from the non-Jewish world.

“Wycleff Jean and Jay Z put me on the map,” Ben-Ari said with passion. “They were not Jewish white people. I’ll never forget that. This is also why I relate to [African American] history. I’ve been working with them. I got embraced by the black community, more than any other community — including the Jewish community. They loved me like one of their own.”

The fact that she is Israeli, Ben-Ari continued, actually strengthens her connection to African Americans, whether Jewish or not. “Struggle relates to struggle,” she said. “They appreciate that I’m from Israel, because I’m coming from struggle.”

That mutual struggle, Ben-Ari continued, was in fact the inspiration for her recent hit single: “MLK is the hero for the black American struggle. Of course, if you’re coming from a struggle yourself, you can’t help comparing…. It always crosses my mind — if we had MLK in Nazi Germany, would it have helped?

Would it have affected the outcome of the Jewish Holocaust?”

These kinds of questions are what led Ben-Ari to work on the Holocaust hip-hop single, due to be released in the coming months.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘music is therapy,'” she explained. “It’s a way to deal. There is no other way for me.”

For Musicians, It’s Good to Be Labeled


When Chasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu sold 350,000 units of his new album, “Youth,” in the first weeks after its release, he redrew the rule book for marketing Jewish music.

Or, more accurately, Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris, his now former managers and heads of JDub Records, the singer’s erstwhile label, redrew the rule book.

That had been their intention all along, and Matisyahu’s sudden departure from the JDub fold will have no apparent impact on their plans. Bisman and Harris simply will shift their energies to Balkan Beat Box, SoCalled, the newly signed Golem and other artists in their growing stable of Jewish hip-hop and rock musicians.

“This has all been the result of many years of plotting and planning,” Bisman confided last month in the label’s surprisingly quiet and tidy office in Greenwich Village.

Truth be told, it can’t have been that many years of plotting and planning — Bisman and Harris are only 26.

Their youth is actually one of the advantages they bring to the crowded independent-record label horse race, a race in which they are one of several new players with a distinctly Jewish slant to their choice of artists. Along with other Jewish-oriented labels like the L.A-based Jewish Music Group and the artist owned and driven Modular Moods, JDub is combining an uncanny ear for new sounds with an understanding of new media that makes these small companies big players.

Bisman and Harris grew up together in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Ariz., and music was always at the center of their career choices. After they moved to the East Coast, a third friend, Benjamin Hesse, cut a record, and they began trying to sell it.

“It was quality music, great songs,” Harris says. “It sounded good and we got to thinking…”

“…Who would put this out?” Bisman says, finishing the sentence for his long-time partner. “Wouldn’t it be cool to hear this at the Mercury Lounge?”

Around the same time, they befriended a young singer who was becoming involved with the Lubavitchers — Matisyahu.

“We really believe in high-quality Jewish music, so we began to think actively about what our definition of Jewish music was,” Bisman says. “We looked at what John Zorn was doing with Tzadik, his label. He would give an artist $5,000 and allow them to do what they wanted. Jewish Alternative Music was just closing its doors; their art was awesome, but the marketing was awful.”

With those two benchmarks available at the outset, Bisman and Harris began thinking through what JDub could be.

“We wanted to position our label so that it would have a chance of reaching a real audience,” Bisman says. “So we came up with a few simple guidelines. We wanted bands that would play comfortably in secular spaces, not just the JCCs and synagogues. We wanted artwork — record jackets, posters and so on — that would be appealing. And we wanted to stay away from klezmer at the outset, because that niche was pretty much sewed up and would limit us to an older audience.”

In short, JDub would try to make music that would appeal first to the founders’ cohort, the audience that they knew best and which, frankly, is the most active music-buying public.

More than that, though, JDub wouldn’t just release the records and kick the acts out on the road to fend for themselves.

“I had made some connections, I had been out on the road, frankly a little too much, and I know how to manage an act,” Harris says. “We wanted to be able to do everything for the bands we sign.”

“It’s not just about putting out a record,” Bisman says. “We want to make sure our artists are long-term successes and don’t burn out.”

The marketing plan Harris outlines was simple: “We speak to our peer group and other kids. We realized that if we do more events we would brand ourselves even before we had records to sell. Then you have an audience waiting.”

That strategy tied in nicely with their desire to use Jewish music as a way of bringing the community together, so nicely that the label is now a nonprofit Jewish organization, funded in part by UJA-Federation in New York, with a similar relationship in the offing in Los Angeles.

“We have a mailing list of 5,000-6,000,” Harris says, “They’re young, cool and have quality, and these are people that Jewish organizations need to, want to reach.”

Both Erez Handler, who owns and runs Modular Moods, and David McLees, one of the two heads of the Jewish Music Group, express a little good-natured envy of JDub’s nonprofit hookup.

“They don’t have some of the financial pressures we have,” McLees said in a phone call from Los Angeles. “We have to turn a profit faster than they do. But I think they do fine work. They’re very focused.”

Handler, who records on his own label as DJ Handler, notes that Modular Moods isn’t really “a Jewish label, but a lot of our music that gets attention is Jewish music.”

He points out that only two of the label’s 10 artists are overtly Jewish. But Modular Moods was the force behind last fall’s Sephardic Music Festival in New York City.

“I like doing Jewish music or non-Jewish music, as long as it’s good music,”

Handler, who is an observant Jew, says. “You get to collaborate with more people when you don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed.”

Like Harris and Bisman, Handler is 26 and says that the target audience for Modular’s releases “has always been myself and my friends from college. College-radio style, people who are searching for new music, not just one style but music fans with diverse tastes.”

Modular Moods’ artist list includes Juez, a high-energy jazz-funk band with a klezmer tang; African American Jewish rapper Y-Love, and alt-rockers Bellflur.

Jewish Music Group’s artists include satirical rapper Chutzpah, the Moshav Band, Connie Francis and Don Rickles.

Connie Francis and Don Rickles?

“Richard Foos and I worked together on Rhino Records for 18 years before we began JMG,” McLees explains. “We’re from the mainstream and we’ve got one foot in the mainstream and one in the niche market. That’s what sets us apart from JDub or Modular Moods.”

That and the fact that he and Foos are in the their mid-40s.

“We want to take the Jewish out of marketing Jewish music so that our artists have a chance of crossing over, but we also want to distribute the other way, to reaffirm their Jewish identity,” McLees says. “We have everything from Don Rickles to David Broza and Debbie Friedman, from the Moshav Band to Jackie Mason. We’re tying to hit all the different strata that Jewish music includes, everything from an Orthodox religious group to cultural Jews.”

As a result, unlike JDub and Modular, JMG has made a particular effort to place their records in Judaica stores throughout the country.

Harris characterizes Modular’s vibe as “more DIY than ours,” and JMG’s as more mainstream, but all three labels express admiration for one another and single out artists in their competitors’ stables that they like.

Handler is quick to sing the praises of Balkan Beat Box.

“I think they are the artists that could have a lasting career,” he predicts.

With Balkan Beat Box, the band is actually composed of musicians from different backgrounds playing a mix of a lot of cultures, and I think that is something very strong, as opposed to throwing this one style over this other style.”

“JDub does great stuff,” McLees says. “I think their first priority is to find something Jewish and break it into the mainstream. We should all be grateful for what they did with Matisyahu.”

Does that mean that Balkan Beat Box could be looking at platinum somewhere down the road?

It is impossible to answer that question. After all, that was the one thing that Bisman and Harris hadn’t planned on before.

Balkan Beat Box will be appearing at the Israeli Independence Day Festival at Woodley Park on May 7 at 3 p.m.

JDub Records is on the Web at www.jdubrecords.org; Modular Moods is at www.modularmoods.com ; Jewish Music Group is at www.jewishmusicgroup.com. For more information on the Israeli Festival, visit www.israelfestival.com.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

Cultural Mix Inspires Revenge’s Warfield


Get out a pen and the map to Los Angeles. Now, draw a crooked line from the dense neighborhoods of South Central to the suburb-hubbub of North Hollywood. No, this is not a story about a Metro route but rather one about familial roots. Justin Warfield, the monotone-voiced, seductive lead singer and co-songwriter of the local nouveau and dark-wave group, She Wants Revenge, has roots that stretch across the city, and truth be told, he really doesn’t feel any tinge of revenge these days, because his band’s moody, dance-club-beat debut self-titled album has not only conquered the radio waves nationally, but is about to take on the avid audience at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival this weekend, too.

The music of She Wants Revenge is a mix of light and dark tones, soft and harsh feelings and complicated sexual innuendo. Taking a peek behind the public mask, Warfield is more than ready to get into those complicated feelings.

If one person could embody the diversity of Los Angeles’ cultural mix, it may be Warfield. The product of a Jewish mother with a Russian-Romanian lineage, who lives in North Hollywood, and a Southern, African American father, who lives in South Central, he always felt a little on the fringes as a kid. “When I was growing up, it seemed like I was the only person experiencing such a drastic sharing of cultures. But since then, I’ve talked to a number of people, and because of the liberal and progressive nature of the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood, there are more of us than I thought.” In fact, Warfield developed a friendship with rock star Lenny Kravitz because of their shared backgrounds — Kravitz’s father is a Russian Jew and his mother is a Bahamanian American.

Whatever the outside world thought about Warfield’s “different” family, inside the walls of his grandparents’ beach house in Malibu the two cultures were completely unified, Warfield remembers. “Every summer we’d have my dad’s side of the family from South Central meet up with my mom’s side of the family from Brooklyn, and we ate together and laughed together, like any other family.” And to this day, Warfield still finds comfort and “a feeling of being with grandma,” when he sees a group of elderly Jewish women eating at a table next to him.

“I grew up around Jews from Coney Island and Brighton Beach who all lived during the Depression. My mother’s father inherited a business from his father, a well-known eatery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called, Sammy’s Romanian, and my grandmother’s father was a cantor and a kosher butcher.” And although Warfield wasn’t bar mitzvahed and never went to temple, his family did celebrate some of the holidays. But Warfield contends that he doesn’t regard Judaism so much as a religion but more as a way of life.

“When people ask about the darkness or sadness expressed in our music, although there is no obvious connection between the lyrics and Judaism, it does make me think of sitting at the dinner table with my family, because if you grew up around the kind of Jews I know, there’s a certain sense of humor that they all have. One moment, you’re laughing while you’re eating, and then, two seconds later, tragedy will creep into the conversation, and then, in no time, you’re all laughing again. Humor, food and tragedy, what could be more Jewish?” Warfield laughs.

The mere fact that someone so seemingly happy as Warfield would end up making minor-chord dance dirges is, in itself, ironic, especially when you find out that he was introduced to hip-hop at an early age because of his father’s job in the rhythm and blues and rap music industries. Even Warfield’s first full-length solo musical output titled, “My Fieldtrip to Planet 9,” was a hip-hop album.

So how did he end up writing songs with DJ Adam 12, (whose real name is Adam Bravin) the other songwriter of She Wants Revenge? Warfield, a self-proclaimed skateboarder, met the slightly older Bravin at a junior high party, where the latter was spinning ’80s new wave music. But it wasn’t until years later — at the suggestion of a mutual friend — that they teamed up to make music and what resulted was She Wants Revenge. Their music is inspired as much by pop-rock royalty, Prince, as by those British goth-fathers of rock, Bauhaus.

The pair will get a chance to bring their music to the masses this weekend at the mega seventh annual Coachella festival near Indio. Warfield is excited about being part of a festival that features the best in new- and old-school alternative bands. Coachella is a great stepping stone for any band with the desire to become a household name — for it, 50,000 people camp out for two days in the blistering desert sun to catch some rays, while tapping their toes to hottest names in rock.

Warfield promises that those coming to see them will be happy with their time slot, which is a highly guarded secret up until the day of the show. He’s also hoping that after this performance, the music of She Wants Revenge will be a secret no longer.

Karla S. Blume is an arts writer living in Los Angeles.

Spectator – A Musical Trek to Israel


For 2,000 years, Jewish music has been a hybrid compounded of elements picked up from our neighbors. Salamone Rossi created Italian Baroque settings of Hebrew texts. Chasidic niggunim drew on Viennese waltz music and Eastern European military marches. Sulzer and Lewandowski wrote like German Protestants. In the Diaspora, Jewish music has always been a hyphenate.

One might expect that the creation of a Jewish state might bring about a change in such affairs, but listening to the excellent new compilation “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” (Rough Guide/World Music Network) one realizes that, for now at least, Israeli music, too, is an amalgam of local and global influences, ranging from the dance-beat driven songs of the late Ofra Haza to the hip-hop of Hadag Nahash.

Of course, Israel itself is a crossroads, situated in the midst of so many different cultures, and a catch basin for all those different sounds, but for obvious reasons, Israel is a particularly fertile ground for a fusion of Jewish musics — Moroccan, Algerian, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Ladino, Yiddish and so on. And Dan Rosenberg, who compiled this CD has made a point of drawing from all of them. The result is both a useful snapshot of Israeli pop today and a highly danceable record in its own right.

The Jewish Moroccan tradition is a particularly rich one musically and is fittingly well-represented here with selections by Shlomo Bar (of Habrera Hativit) and David D’Or, Emil Zrihan and Kol Oud Tof. But there are equally telling contributions from Bustan Abraham — a Turkish classical composition turned into a devastatingly syncopated dance treat — and old folkies Alberstein and Arik Einstein.

There are no real duds here, although the harmonica-driven Tea Packs is a band more redolent of American vaudeville than some will care for, and Ofra Haza’s discofied “Ode-Le-Eli” probably wouldn’t cut it at a traditional Yemenite wedding. But even those two songs are better-than-average representatives for artists whose popularity is too large for them to be ignored in this context.

The best thing about “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” is that it will introduce listeners to the entire range of music coming out of the country. If you can get your parents to put away their Hillel and Aviva records and check out the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra or Idan Raichel’s Project, you’ll be glad you did. (How your parents will feel, that’s not my problem.)

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

The Sabbath Rap


The service begins with “Shalom Aleichem,” but there’s a twist: Injected between the traditional verses are some fast-talking, spoken-word interludes with messages for those entering into the ritual. “So recline, right after you drink this wine/ See this time is a gift from the mind of the Divine.”

Welcome to Hip Hop Shabbat.

Created to help make Shabbat services more appealing to a generation that would rather spend Friday night at a free-styling rap concert, the concept mixes expectations with surprises. It was conceived by a group of friends who grew up in Oakland and call themselves the Original Jewish Gangsters (OJG), a name they took on as a minority group of white Jewish kids attending a largely black public school.

“Hip-hop adds another element to the service — the power of the word — which is a very big thing in Judaism,” said Judah Ritterman, 25, who manages the OJGs, and also sings and raps for them. “Our lyrics add another layer of meaning to the prayer, so that [people] can understand it better.”

For Ritterman, hip-hop is a natural partner to traditional Judaism.

“There is an intimate connection between the Jewish and Black communities in this country, going back to New York where there were a lot of immigrant groups in general, but more specifically in my parents’ generation, when they were all fighting for civil causes,” he said. “But the history of hip-hop/rap has been disproportionately influenced by Jewish people, like the Beastie Boys and the Wu Tang Clan.”

Currently Ritterman and the other OJGs — Elana Jagoda and Jonathan Gutstadt –have been performing their service in Reform congregations, which have been the most accepting of the use of electronic music on Shabbat. But they are starting to get interest from Conservative synagogues as well, and they hope that eventually Hip Hop Shabbat will reach a broad segment of the community.

“Our goal is to create an experience that is as celebratory as possible, because Shabbat is about getting people out of their day-to-day mindset and breaking into a new space for the weekend,” Ritterman said. “We really want to create that.”

Hip Hop Shabbat will performed at the Friday night services of Temple Isaiah at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27; Sinai Temple on Feb. 10; and Stephen S. Wise Temple at 7 p.m. on Feb. 17. For more information, visit

Spectator – It’s Hip to Be Chutzpah


When you think of hip-hop or rap, you don’t generally think of jowl-necked septuagenarians or skinny, psyched-out white guys rapping about the tsuris their mother gives them, but then again, you don’t generally think of Jews either.

Enter Chutzpah, or the new “Jewish Hip-Hop Supergroup,” as they would have it.

People say “that we could perform in front of a black urban audience and they would be into the beat and into the rap,” said Jewdah (a.k.a. David Scharff, Chutzpah’s manager). “Of course, it was a couple of Jewish guys saying that.”

That kind of irreverence makes Chutzpah a hybrid entertainment experience. On the one hand, the raps they sing — like “Chanukah’s Da Bomb” or “Tsuris” — sustain a head-throbbing beat that might hold its own in the innercity. On the other hand, the group, which consists of Master Tav (a.k.a. Tor Hyams), Dr. Dreck (a.k.a. George Segal) and MC Meshugenah (real name unknown) keeps trying to make you laugh and to get you in on the joke.

In “Chutzpah, This Is, The Official Hip-Hop-Umentary,” Chutzpah’s debut DVD, the group explains its origins in a mock-serious “This Is Spinal Tap” fashion. The group officially started when Master Tav called up Dr. Dreck, who was then moonlighting as George Segal, and left a message inviting him to join a Jewish rap group. Dreck wanted to delete the message, but instead pressed a button that called Tav back, and Chutzpah was born.

Dreck, who wears heavy gold chains and looks just a bit too old to be doing the arm-bouncing motions so favored by rappers, was rumored to have invented scratching on a Victrola in 1948. He also claims that Dr. Dre stole his name and dropped the “CK.”

In addition to the DVD, Chutzpah also has a CD “Chutzpah, Eponymous.” The group claims that its music will cross ethnic boundaries, bring Jewish culture to the masses, and make people say, as Tav put it: “I wish I was a cool Jewish rapper.”

For information on Chutzpah, visit

Yo, God!


Let’s be real: I’m not exactly burning to see “J.O.B. The Hip-Hopera,” which is, to be brief, a couple of Jewish guys “updating” the

Bible. As a 50-year-old white high school teacher, I’m well outside the hip-hop demographic. I can’t dance, have increasingly little fashion sense, and can’t pull off the permanent scowl required by the true hip-hoppers.

But here I am, in the packed and noisy Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, wondering if these two Jewish guys got some innate rhythm sense that I don’t. And wondering if I can stand the embarrassing spectacle if it turns out that they don’t.

The scene before me provides no reassurance: The stage is luridly lit, like the inside of a nightclub I haven’t seen since the ’80s, and the DJ scratching records — as pre-show entertainment — looks like the last guy I sent to the office for violating my school’s dress code.

I surreptitiously examine the four black people in the audience, including my companion. Maybe I’m projecting, but they appear apprehensive, while also seeming cautiously open minded about a hip-hop show playing to an audience of predominantly whites and Asians. Mostly, this is a crowd of cheery spectators of hip-hop, not participants and, not uncharacteristically, I brace for the worst.

And then begins the story of Job. Make that “Joe Blow” in this version. And instead of the cranky but much put-upon biblical patriarch, we get the tale of a fallen executive of Hoover Records. The character of company president J. Hoover, whose name echoes Jehovah/Yahweh, is cleverly constructed. But the crotchety Hoover (reminiscent of a geriatric Gilbert Gottfried) is greedy, unloving and, overall, an ill-considered personification of the benevolent (we hope), if sometimes inscrutable, creator of the universe.

As I watch, I try to keep in mind the all-encompassing question: How does mankind reconcile the great theodisic problem of a planet created by an all-loving and omnipotent God who at best condones and at worst is the divine source of the suffering of putative innocents?

I guess I still don’t know — at least no more so than before — even with the help of this parable of a spiritual crisis in corporate America.

But I also begin to realize that eternal philosophical implications are beside the point for the duo of Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion, who created and perform the show. They deliver a brilliant social satire about the nihilism and avariciousness of the American corporate beast, especially one that trivializes and commodifies a prominent aspect of modern black American culture. This sharp-eyed but good-natured show elevates and celebrates hip-hop as energetically as it critiques the exploitation that’s become part and parcel of the genre.

Sable and Batalion are agile, engaging actor/comics who can switch roles and letter-perfect dialects in midsentence without missing a beat (so to speak). It seems like everybody is represented here — blacks, whites, Jews, Middle Easterners, Southern rednecks, clueless office interns. And although the biblical allegory falls short, Sable and Batalion’s script and book, like the Book of Job itself, is a dense but compelling blend of verse, poetry, prose and plenty of attitude to make it all fly — I find myself leaning forward in my chair so as not to miss any words.

Though I’m a dance school dropout, I know superb dancing when I see it, and the corps members of the Hip-Hopera, notably Shawn Beck-Gifford, are both muscular and graceful — they dance their tuchises off. They also do much to frame the whole show, literally and figuratively. And Donna Marquet’s set of rolling metal hangers is spare but conceptually elastic — working desks one moment, clanging prison bars the next. The meticulous staging by director Hassan Christopher, who also performs in the ensemble, is fluid throughout. All in all, an exhilarating evening that captures the best and brightest spirit of hip-hop — well, not that I would know, but it sure seems that way.

But just to doublecheck my impressions, I turn to my companion for the evening, a woman who practically makes a living writing about black culture and has no patience with white and/or Jewish appropriations that pass for homage. When the lights come up she is smiling broadly and actually swaying to the lingering effects of the music. (Someday, I, too, will master this swaying thing.) She is, at least for the moment, as enthralled by the possibilities of hip-hop as me, as put forward by this show. Like me, she’s started out a total Hip-Hopera skeptic and wound up a convert.

“That was fabulous!” she exclaims. “Smart, literate, crazy. And fun. It totally went for it. And the dancing was great. Those guys didn’t pretend to be anything they weren’t, but they did the job.”

Indeed Batalion and Sable did do the job, if not quite the Job.

“J.O.B., the Hip-Hopera” plays through Nov. 27 at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. (Fridays- Sundays) 3 p.m. (Sundays). $20-$30. For tickets, call (323) 960-4420.

Alan Kaplan teaches social studies at Hamilton High School and recently dropped out of tap dancing class.

 

The King of Israeli Hip-Hop


With angry lyrics that court controversy, two multiplatinum albums and a third on the way, his own clothing line, record label, legions of fans and glittering religious jewelry, Subliminal could easily be mistaken for a Jewish P.Diddy.

The lyrics are mostly in Hebrew (although he’s now branched into English, French and Arabic), the record label has spawned a plethora of new artists, the clothing line has a Star of David on every item and his fame (or notoriety) is bringing him to U.S. shores next week.

At 25, Subliminal (né Kobi Shimoni) is the king of Israeli hip-hop. And right now, it appears he can do no wrong. On March 2, Subliminal, along with his sidekick The Shadow (Yoav Eliasi), and 12 members off his record label TACT (Tel Aviv CityTeam) under the banner of Architects of Israeli Hip Hop, will kick off their seven-state American and Canadian tour at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.

And with the recent launch of his third album — TACT All-Stars — Subliminal is recording with the industry’s cream of the crop, including Killah Priest and Remedy of Wu-Tang Clan, Ashanti, Wyclef Jean and Israel’s own hip-hop violinist Miri Ben Ari, who just won a Grammy for her work with Kanye West.

So it’s hard to believe that less than eight months ago Subliminal was officially uninvited to the Prospect Park bash in Brooklyn, N.Y., by JDub Records, a nonprofit Jewish record label. Deemed too right-wing for the event, Subliminal apparently didn’t fall under the concert’s banner of “openness and peace.”

Certainly, Subliminal’s lyrics did much to raise eyebrows even within Israel, where there has always been room for political dissension. He managed to capture the frustrations and fears of Israeli youth at the height of the Intifada. His lyrics included such gems as:

To think that an olive branch symbolizes peace, sorry it doesn’t live here anymore; it’s been kidnapped or murdered….”

And perhaps his most controversial lyric is the one that states, “The country’s still dangling like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.”

It’s this kind of in-your-face, pull-no-punches attitude that sets Subliminal apart from other emerging hip-hop artists, including Mookee and Hadag Nachash, all of whom are enjoying success in the field. But neither has aroused the controversy that Subliminal has.

Now he’s mulling over the strange twists and turns that have come with his fame and, yes, fortune. On the brink of his U.S. tour, he cannot help but reflect on the fact that it’s due to the backing provided by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and the prime minister himself.

“It’s great,” he said. “For the first time, the Israeli government is pushing us and supporting us. We’re being sent as ambassadors for Israel. And even though that’s what we’re trying to be on a daily basis, to get official support from the government, that’s a huge recognition and we’re really grateful for that.”

In the wake of Arafat’s death (no more dangling cigarettes), the upcoming Gaza pullout and the steps Mahmoud Abbas is making, Subliminal said, “I’m very, very happy that there’s this first chance finally for peace, for the Palestinians, they’re making a real effort and they have a chance to become a democracy.”

He also spoke about his first two albums “The Light From Zion” and “Light and Shadow” — released at the height of the Intifada — which include songs that state, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

“It’s militant,” he conceded. “We’re saying we have to have peace but first we have to live, we have to survive, to remain in one piece.”

Now, he said, his third album is much more hopeful, with softer lyrics and a stronger message of hope with one of the songs titled “Peace in the Middle East,” which is sung in both Hebrew and English.

“It’s more of a prayer,” he said. “We want people all over the world to understand that even the strongest soldiers have peace as the prayer in their heart all the time.”

Yet while Subliminal has raised both eyebrows and consciences, it has much to do with the fact that he’s coming from a deeply personal place.

“My father is from Tunisia, my mother from Iran. They both escaped persecution,” he said. “I was brought up in a world where I have my own country. But I understand Arabic, my parents speak fluent Arabic; we would hear Arafat’s speeches about driving the Jews into the sea.”

And it’s this that makes Subliminal’s messages so strident. A recent trip to France opened his eyes to the amount of hate outsiders have toward Israel.

“The strongest hip-hop artists in France are immigrants from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, and most of them preach hate toward the Jewish people and Israel,” he said.

In his own controversial style, Subliminal actually challenged Sniper, the biggest French anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rapper, to an onstage “battle” where the artists respond to each other’s raps.

“He chickened out,” Subliminal said, “and we even invited him to Tel Aviv just so that he could see what it is he hates so much about Israel.”And that, he said, is the biggest challenge of this tour: “To deliver the important message to those who are radical and fanatic and extreme. To open their eyes and let them know that there is still hope for peace, that there can be no better solution than peace and that we’re willing to open up a debate. Through hip hop we can do that.”

Subliminal performs March 2, 8 p.m., at The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. For more info, call (310) 273-2824 or visit

Hip-Hop’s Jew Crew Takes Center Stage


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Jews have been part of hip-hop since its beginning,” said Josh Noreck of the Hip Hop Hoodios, a Latino Jewish rap group based out of Los Angeles and New York. “Rick Rubin founded Def Jam records. Lyor Cohen started working for it right after. The Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass were huge old-school rappers. Way before Eminem, pretty much the only white rappers were Jewish. When I was growing up, I was conscious of that.”

And yet, hip-hop video producer Jeremy Goldscheider said, “Nobody realizes there is a Jewish hip-hop scene spread out in different parts of the world.” Eager to educate hip-hop fans about international Jewish rappers, Goldscheider recently joined forces with local Jewish singer, songwriter and music producer Craig Taubman, co-producing a new album, “Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the Globe” — the latest in Taubman’s “Celebrate” series.

From Israeli MC Sagol 59 to American MC Remedy, and from British group Antithesis to Russian group iSQUAD, the CD brings together mainstream and underground artists with diverse approaches to hip-hop. Canadian group Solomon & Socalled rap in Yiddish to a classic sthetl groove; Israeli artist Mook E raps in Jamaican-style dancehall; and American group Blood of Abraham raps in classic inner-city style.

Despite these marked differences, Goldscheider said, there are several factors uniting all the songs: “Every song on [the album] has a very strong point of view and a lot of heart, whether addressing political or personal topics. There were a number of artists I didn’t put on here because they had typical rap songs about women, partying, bling-bling. To me, they didn’t have anything unique to say about a Jewish experience. Every song on here has something Jewish about it, something positive, something that has some meaning.”

Goldscheider’s ultimate goal is to provide youth a new avenue for expressing Jewish identity: “I’m interested in how young people connect to Judaism. I don’t think there are a lot of interesting, unique, cool ways of doing it. I wanted to create a product that would help make young people proud of being Jewish…[This CD] is about being part of a larger hip-hop community, being proud of a Jewish voice in it. I felt this music would create new interest for a 15-year-old Jewish kid who doesn’t care about Judaism.”

“I think Jewish hip-hop is really important to Jewish identity today,” said Noreck, whose group is on the album singing “Ocho Kandelikas” — a rock/salsa/rap version of the traditional Ladino Chanukah song (see box). “Music like klezmer is for an older generation. You have to bring Jewish music up to date, and the most youth-driven genre today is hip-hop. To me, it makes perfect sense that someone does a compilation like this…. I think [it’s] long overdue.”

For some, however, hip-hop and Jewish music seem as far removed from each other as can be: Shortly after Goldscheider approached Taubman with the idea for this album, Taubman saw a “Jewish hip-hop” posting on the Jewish music listserv to which he subscribes. “One hundred people responded to the posting,” Taubman recalled, “saying that [Jewish hip-hop] is a joke, that if it does exist it shouldn’t.” That reaction made up Taubman’s mind to go ahead with the project. “I e-mailed back,” Taubman said. “I never e-mail in response to postings, but I was so incensed that I wrote and said I’m doing a compilation CD of Jewish hip-hop music.”

“The opposition is only within the Jewish community,” said L.A. rapper Etan G., whose song, “South Side of the Synagogue,” appears on the compilation. “With the exception of the Beastie Boys, there has never been a prominent Jewish hip-hop act that wasn’t about bagels and lox and dreidels and shmaltz and gelt and every other idiotic Yiddish word you can throw into a song…. Jews have no respect for Jewish hip-hop. They all listen to mainstream hip-hop, but when you come out as a Jewish rapper, they are not as into it, because it’s generally not as good. There is seemingly nothing authentic in Jewish rap; nothing that captures anything.”

“A lot of Jewish rap up to now has been about parody,” Noreck said. “I can’t stand it. If Jewish rap music wants a place of its own and wants to be taken seriously, it can’t be parody all the time.”

Goldscheider steered clear of such acts in this compilation CD. “First and foremost,” he said, “I tried to choose artists that were serious about their music…. I stayed away from Jewish hip-hop artists that do a shtick. I chose music that had something to say — musically or lyrically.”

Through songs like “Remember Ben” by Israeli rappers Sagol 59 and A7, the album does come through in addressing significant and timely topics: “I’ve seen many rappers come and go/I’ve seen many DJs with inflated egos/But I’ve never seen anyone quite like you/One hand on the turntables/One hand flipping through the Torah/You didn’t care if it was in a small club in front of three people/Or if in a huge festival in front of three thousand/You played Cube and Snoop, Common and Cyprus/I remember you always said, ‘I don’t spin on Shabbos’/But now you’re not here/You’ve fallen victim to the stupid war of small-minded people.”

“DJ Benny the B was an Orthodox Jewish guy from Pennsylvania,” said Sagol 59, who raps in Hebrew. “He came to study Torah in Jerusalem. He was a hip-hop DJ by night, with his kippah and tzitzit and four earrings in each ear, spinning Snoop Doggy Dog. The day before he was supposed to go back to America, he went to say goodbye to some friends at Hebrew University. He actually had the plane ticket in his pocket when he was blown up by a suicide bomber in the school cafeteria. He was one of nine people killed…. It was really difficult to record this song, and I still get choked up when I perform it.”

A7 freestyled his part of the song in English, taking his opening line from the words on a poster in the recording studio, “Eternal reflections: All things are destined to go back to the creator.” Growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, immersed in East Coast hip-hop, A7 began freestyling in first grade — going on to rap with Baltimore’s local group Triad and local crew Testament. At 21, however, he left his fellow musicians, family and friends, in pursuit of a new spiritual path — Judaism. “I started to read the Torah,” he said, “and it spoke to me…. I decided these are my beliefs, and I’m really serious about it. So there was only one place for me to be: here in Israel.”

Israeli hip-hop artists, A7 asserts, have something to teach hip-hop artists in America: “Because hip-hop is so international right now, rappers need to pay attention to the messages they are putting out there. As black rappers in America, we can get rich making albums about killing white people. For this reason, American rappers are not cognizant of the image we portray globally. But it’s more than our block now, more than our neighborhood, our side of town, our state, America. It goes around the world. So we have to be cognizant not to look like fools.

“One thing that the rest of the world has an understanding of, which American musicians don’t, is that what you say affects other people. In America, people can say anything they want, and whatever happens so be it. Here in Israel, you have to be cognizant of the words coming out of your mouth, because they can incite something negative. And you don’t want to do that in a place like this, where things are extremely sensitive and tense. As a Jew, I can’t make an album talking about killing Palestinians. If I’m a Palestinian, I can’t make an album talking about killing Jews. Only one message needs to come out in Israel — and that is peace.”

Peace is the message on Remedy’s track with RZA and Cliva Ringz, “Muslim and a Jew” — which encourages Jews and Arabs to remember that we come from the same blood line; and it also is the message in Antithesis’s track, “Just Peace,” chronicling the struggles of Israel since 1948. Goldscheider hopes these and other songs will get Jews talking — even more than usual: “There is discussion to be had from the songs, whether formally or informally, backstage among artists, or among listeners in classrooms and camps,” he said. “There are opportunities for discussion about Israel and about being Jewish and about working or playing in the secular world and also being very proud of your Jewishness.”

Among other topics, Goldscheider hopes this album will spur conversations about Jewish diversity: “Another intention of the record, from an educational point of view, is to make people understand there are Jews in Mexico, that there are Jewish rappers who sing in Russian. That’s an important thing to know about Jewish music and the scene: It’s global.”

Featuring rappers who are white and people of color, from Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, the album definitely takes a step towards representing the global Jewish experience. Nonetheless, with no female rappers, and none of the prominent hip-hop artists from Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jewish communities, the album falls short of offering a complete Jewish hip-hop experience.

The artists who are on this album nonetheless make a strong case for Jewish hip-hop, and open the door for additional exploration of the scene’s thriving diversity. Whether the album’s message will make into the mainstream market, however, remains to be seen. A few factors are in favor of this possibility: As part of the popular Wu Tang clan, MC Remedy already has enjoyed mainstream success, with his single, “Never Again,” — about his family’s experience in the Holocaust — selling 250,000 copies since its release two years ago. In addition, the Hip Hop Hoodios have a strong cross-over appeal in the Latino market — as evidenced by the appearance of their videos on MTV Espanol.

As album sales get under way, Taubman is actively targeting the mainstream market, promoting it at Walgreens, Costco, and Ralphs, as well as at Jewish organizations — an endeavor made possible by the fact that there is very little cursing on the album. “It’s a very clean record, a family record,” Goldscheider said. Despite opening up numerous markets, there were some drawbacks in making the CD family friendly: “That caused limitations — some artists couldn’t get on, because the intention was to make it something palatable to schools and camps,” Goldscheider said. But the trade-off, he concludes, was ultimately worth it: “I want it to get into those places. I want it used by Jewish organizations, youth organizations, Hillels on college campuses…. It’s just edgy enough but clean enough. The intention was to find that balance.”

Taubman reports that Jewish high schools already have begun ordering copies of the CD, and that a curriculum program will be available to schools in early January. Meanwhile, Goldscheider is hoping to embark on an additional complementary project — creating a college campus tour and music documentary that follows artists on the album as they tour around the world. “What I hope the record does is create more interest in the music,” Goldscheider said, “and I want to document this interest.”

“Celebrate Hip Hop” is available at (800) 627-2448 or ” target=”_blank”>amazon.com or Ameoba Records in Hollywood.

“Celebrate Chanukah,” featuring the release party for “Celebrate Hip Hop” and MC Hyim, Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m. at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 463-0204. www.knittingfactory.com. $10.

Loolwa Khazzoom is a freelance writer, editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” and author of “Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape.” Visit her on the Web site at

“Ocho Kandelikas”


“Eight Little Candles”

Milken Dances Into Bid for Nationals


Jews can dance a mean hora, but when it comes to hip-hop, they aren’t known to hold their own — until now. The Milken Community High School Dance Team swept the open regional Dance Team Competition in Las Vegas and earned a bid to the 2004 National Dance Team Competition of the High School.

When the Milken team qualified to compete in just one category at last year’s nationals, they were the first private Jewish school to earn such an honor. By sweeping last month’s regionals in the hip-hop, lyrical, medium dance, jazz and officers categories, Milken enters this year’s nationals as one of the teams to beat.

“People don’t expect a bunch of Jewish girls to be good dancers,” said co-captain Tannis Mann.

With hard work, determination and talent, these Jewish dancers have defied expectations.

“When we started out five years ago, no one in the dance community had even heard of Milken. Now everyone knows Milken,” dance team coach and choreographer Ralinda Clayborn said.

Clayborn began teaching dance at Milken in 1999 and the team sprang from her desire to continue working with a core group of students.

“Milken had a dance squad, but the girls didn’t have a coach, and weren’t dancing at a competitive level,” Clayborn said. She approached the school’s athletic director and together they restructured the dance team.

Today, the Milken dancers take pride in their success, but also in their friendships.

“We are a close-knit group of Jewish teenage girls who share a love of dance,” 10th-grader Rachel Ward said. “We’re from different grades, and have different friends, but we bond during rehearsals and games and sleepovers. It’s great that we have so much fun, because we spend so much time together.”

The Milken dance season begins each May with weeklong dance team tryouts. Current squad members reaudition alongside approximately 40 hopefuls, all competing for the 11 highly coveted spots. Over the summer, the team members attend two in-school dance camps led by Clayborn, a weeklong dance camp held at UC Santa Barbara and spend the last two weeks of August rehearsing for eight hours a day.

During the school year, the girls practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30-6:30 p.m., perform at men’s and women’s basketball games, school open houses, town meetings and special events. The team, which dances to music ranging from Portishead to Missy Elliot to Outkast, has even performed at local bar mitzvahs. Team members must excel at academics as well as dance and maintain a 2.5 GPA.

“This is an amazing group of girls,” Clayborn said. “They are extremely tight-knit, talented and dedicated. And these girls can really dance.”

Last summer at UC Santa Barbara, the squad consistently won team dance and spirit competitions and, as a result, were asked to perform in this February’s NFL Pro Bowl half-time show in Hawaii.

As a sport, high school dance is highly competitive and pressure-filled.

“You can even feel the tension between dance teams from different schools at basketball games,” 11th-grader Mann said. “Nationals will be really intense, especially when some teams practice eight, not just seven, days a week,” she said, noting that the Milken team doesn’t practice on Shabbat.

The All-Star Nationals, to be held March 26-28 at the Anaheim Convention Center, will bring together more than 100 dance teams from schools across the country. Most of the competing schools are public, many are nonreligious private institutions, and a few are religious-affiliated private schools. Milken will be the only Jewish high school in competition.

“Camps and competitions give us a chance to be in the secular world,” said Warner, who will also compete at Nationals in the soloist category. “We get to spend time with girls who aren’t Jewish but love to dance as much as we do.”

“It’s a little intimidating, because we aren’t just representing Milken,” Mann said. “People look at us as representing all Jewish schools. But representing Jewish schools gives us a real sense of pride.”

For more information on the event, visit rclayborn@mchschool.org .

Building Bridges in Brooklyn


Two year ago, when Jeremy Kagan met Yudi Simon, a Chasid, and T.J. Moses, an African American, the young men lived just four blocks from each other in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

"But it may as well have been 50 miles," he said.

Their tenuous relationship is the focus of Kagan’s new Showtime movie, "Crown Heights," set around the riots that rocked that mixed neighborhood in August 1991. The fictionalized film will be accompanied by a short documentary, "Increase the Peace," Kagan made about the events and the real life Moses and Simon.

The youths, then around 15, didn’t know each other that hot Monday night when a station wagon in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade struck and killed an African American child, Gavin Cato. But both were traumatized as black gangs subsequently went on a four-day rampage, throwing rocks and bottles, shouting anti-Semitic slogans and killing an Australian yeshiva student, Yankel Rosenbaum.

In the painful aftermath, Moses and Simon met in a black-Chasidic youth forum, Project CURE; when they discovered their mutual obsession for hip-hop, they formed a Project CURE band with community activists (played by Howie Mandel and Mario Van Peebles in the movie).

But their relationship — in life and in the film — wasn’t always smooth sailing, according to Kagan.

"It allowed me to show the potential for conflict resolution and to make the point that such relationships are hard work," he said.

It’s what one might expect of the 58-year-old director, who views his films as an extension of the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world). He learned the mandate from his father, a Reform rabbi descended from the Vilna Gaon, who knew Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the first clergy to register black voters in the South in the 1960s.

In person, Kagan is also reminiscent of a rabbi, with his long beard, spectacles and his manner of quoting Jewish sources with his brows furrowed and eyes closed. He said he approached "Crown Heights" with the philosophy, espoused in the biblical Exodus, about "knowing the heart of the stranger.

"I wanted to explore how one can get past the biases and fears that keep one suspicious of others," he said.

To do so, Kagan packed up his digital video camera and flew to Crown Heights in 2001. It was his first trip back since researching his 1981 film, "The Chosen," based on Chaim Potok’s novel about the relationship between two Jewish boys who also lived blocks away and worlds apart.

In a hotel room he interviewed Norman Rosenbaum, who had flown in from Australia when a federal appeals court ordered new trials for the men who had stabbed his brother. At a community center, he spoke with Cato’s father, Carmel, who haltingly told him that when you lose a child, "It’s like your whole life is over."

As Kagan’s camera rolled, Simon stood in front of his family’s ramshackle, three-story home and pointed out the spot where his father had been stabbed — albeit not fatally — during the riots. In the ensuing weeks, he said, he carried a screwdriver in his pocket for protection.

Moses, meanwhile, described being humiliated by the police and by media coverage that made it look like "blacks were [always] in the wrong, and Jews were in the right." Nevertheless, he regarded Lubavitchers not as his enemies but as "ghosts, spirits… like they weren’t human."

That changed when he met Simon: "I was surprised that white boy could dance," Moses said. "He could dance better than me."

The film offers a more straightforward depiction of the 1991 events than a controversial play now in New York, also titled "Crown Heights," by Dan Friedman and Fred Newman; the production portrays Rosenbaum’s murder as a "tragic accident in a fight in which Jews threw the first punch" and is connected to an activist who has been accused of anti-Semitism, The Forward said.

Kagan’s version offers a model for community bridge-building, according to Mandel.

"The key is to get the youth talking, because they’re flexible," Mandel, a Conservative Jew, said. "The elders are more set in their ways."

For Kagan, the on-again, off-again friendship between Moses and Simon also provides a caveat for bridge builders: "Peace is a long-term investment," he said.

"Crown Heights" airs on Showtime Feb. 16.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

This evening, the American Cinematheque screens “Hello, Dolly!” in all its grand, flashy musical glory. Introducing the film will be the musical’s celebrated composer, Jerry Herman, also responsible for shows like “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles.” First, say “Hello, Jerry!” as Herman signs copies of his new book, “Jerry Herman: The Lyrics,” then prepare for a spectacle of a film starring (appropriately) Barbra Streisand. Herman will also participate in a discussion after the movie.

4 p.m. (signing), 5 p.m. (screening). $9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

Sunday

“Bach, Bluegrass and Bugs” may seem like an unlikely trio, but it also might be just a little bit genius. This first in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s family concert series begins with an interactive insect and instrument petting zoo, offering the creepy-crawly, touchy-feelie stuff kids love. A concert of classical music follows, peppered with the modern sounds of bluegrass, jazz and rock, and featuring banjo great Béla Fleck and celebrated double bassist Edgar Meyer. In short, it’s an educational afternoon sneakily disguised in fun clothing for your young offspring.

2 p.m. $7.50-$12.50. The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

Monday

Sweet, young Antithesis. The self-described Zionist
rapper is smart enough to attend Cambridge, and to understand the irony of his
chosen musical outlet (hence the name). His first EP, “The Israel Question,”
contains four songs about Israel, ranging from a personal Zionist anthem, to a
story song about victims of terror, to pleas for peace and for the return of the
country’s kidnapped soldiers. Four instrumental versions are also included, with
all the profits received from the disc going to the campaign to secure
information regarding the return of Israel’s Missing in Action Soldiers and the
UJIA Terror Victims Support Fund. $14.99.

Where It’s Hip to Be Yiddish


Hip-Hop music might be cool, funky and ghetto, but DJ Socalled thinks that an infusion of an Yiddish could make it even better.

“Hip-hop is all based on breaks, and the Yiddish theater records have amazing breaks in them, and they are original breaks,” said Montreal-based Socalled, who is known as Josh Dolgen when he isn’t working the sound sampler. “You never hear anyone do them — everyone has sampled James Brown breaks, but nobody has sampled these records.”

Socalled is going to be bringing his Yiddish-hip-hop-funk-jazz-dance music collage to Los Angeles on Dec. 18, where he will sample the night away at an early Khanike (Yiddish for Chanukah) concert for a new group called Avada.

Avada is the young and hip offshoot of the Yiddish language and culture promoting organization Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. It aims to make the Eastern European shtetl language chic with the 35-and-under crowd. Tali Pressman, 23, who started Avada with the help of a grant from the Righteous Person’s Foundation, launched it with a spooky splash in August. The first event was a screening of the 1937 Yiddish film, “The Dybbuk,” in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. More than 700 people attended the screening, and Avada, which comes from the Yiddish word avade, meaning of course, was in business.

“It was actually a revolutionary idea, programming Yiddish events in non-Jewish venues,” Pressman said. “And it’s appealing to me and my generation on their own terms — you can connect with your Jewish identity and that fringe identity in a room with people your age and in a way that speaks to you. There are a lot of young Jews who don’t feel comfortable in the institutional Jewish world, and that are reaching out but … don’t know where to reach out to. We are trying to create that kind of alternative space.”

Pressman became interested in Yiddish culture after studying Jewish and Holocaust studies in college and interning at Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, but she noticed that she was the youngest person by about 30 years at all the Yiddish events she went to.

“That was a little bit discouraging,” she said. “I was going to these events and listening to the music realizing that there is a [Yiddish] contemporary art scene, right now mostly in New York and Montreal, and it just has to be presented to young people in a way that they can appreciate it and in a way that it can be relevant to their lives.”

Pressman is planning four major Avada events every year, including an alternative Passover seder with a Yiddish-saturated haggadah that will take place in a space like the Knitting Factory, featuring celebrity play readings and film screenings. She hopes these events will not only support and nurture the local Yiddish art scene, but that young people will be able to connect to a Yiddish identity and preserve the Yiddish language, which, with the advent of modern Hebrew, many Jews see as largely irrelevant.

“We are constantly trying to reinvent people’s concept of what Yiddish is,” said Aaron Paley, who is the founder and board chair of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. “I’d say, ‘I’m doing a Yiddish festival,’ and people would say, ‘Great — I’m going to bring my grandmother,’ and I’d say, ‘No — bring your kids.’ I think that Yiddish doesn’t belong solely to the generation of our grandparents, but it belongs to all of us.”

Convincing Generation X and beyond that Yiddish is more than just a shtetl language spoken by grandparents and frockcoat-wearing Jews with long beards and payes is a task that requires originality, artistic credibility and great graphics, which is why the promotional materials that Avada creates could be used to advertise any nightclub or dance venue in the city, and the events themselves have the maximum cool quotient possible.

At the Dec. 18 event, for example, Socalled plans on showing the crowd that you can dance to Yiddish, and you don’t have to put the language in “a museum.”

“The sounds that I use in the beats are often sampled from old Yiddish recordings, cantorial records, Yiddish art songs — which are a genre of Yiddish songs that are more for concert halls, klezmer, basically whatever little isolated funky sounds I could find in Jewish music,” Socalled said. “The root of the music is dance music, so this is new dance music based on old dance music.”

Socalled thinks that Jews need to stand up and reclaim their culture.

“Black music is ubiquitous in America — you hear jazz and blues and you see photographs of great jazz musicians, but because of assimilation and the Holocaust … Jews didn’t want to be Jewish, or be seen as Jewish. They wanted to disappear into America,” he said. “But they had such an incredibly rich culture. I want people to hear how funky we are, and we have to rediscover how funky we were, because we forgot. It’s complicated.”

DJ Socalled will be performing at the Extreme Khanike
Party at The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, on Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. For more
information, call (323) 692-8151, or visit www.avadaproject.org .

Musician Finds Salvation in Hip-Hop


Oakland-based singer/songwriter Hyim has a Middle East peace proposal he’d like to float: Send 10,000 kids to the region, have a heart-to-heart with their Arab and Israeli counterparts and then get ’em all singing.

“Kumbaya”-flavored pie in the sky? Hyim doesn’t think so, and the musician/self-styled peace educator lives life accordingly. It’s all a bit incongruous: a young Jewish man, hailing from a family of doctors and teachers, who found his artistic (and personal) salvation in music, especially hip-hop.

And he’s no white hip-hop wannabe, cruising the suburbs in daddy’s Beemer.

Hyim — born Hyim Jacob Ross 30 years ago — is the real deal, a product of the tough Oakland public schools and an eyewitness to the pain and thuggery of the streets.

His father, Robert Norman Ross, a Potrero Hill Health Center physician, was gunned down in a murder-suicide committed by the crazed husband of a former patient. Hyim was just a boy at the time.

Today, the former angry young man is a mature recording artist and official spreader of joy.

That’s the underlying message of his CD, “Let Out a Little Peace,” newly re-released on his own independent label, Family Productions. Hyim wrote, produced and arranged the CD’s 11 songs, and he played guitar and piano, as well.

Hyim’s music is tough to classify. He calls it “urban world beat,” a nice way of saying he doesn’t exactly fit with the cookie-cutter music industry.

Which is exactly how he likes it.

His lyrics tend to zero in on themes of love and reconciliation, occasionally with a subtle Jewish flair. In “Let Out a Little Peace,” Hyim sings: “We will create this peace/One by one/Accept our grief without vengeance/And let this cycle cease.”

Is he talking about Israel? Or about a boy, enraged that his father died so senselessly? He won’t say.

What he does say is that music remains an engine for social change, and he plans to stoke it as much as possible.

“Hip-hop is the poetry of a generation that’s had materialism shoved down its throat,” he says. “It’s about finding power when you’re feeling powerless.”

Hyim says delving deeply into hip-hop helped him overcome his father’s murder, as did making his own music. It took him years to work through it, but he did so in a way that helped him embrace life, rather than leave him embittered.

He attended Oakland’s Skyline High School, befriending kids of every ethnicity. At the same time, Hyim never forgot he was Jewish, becoming bar mitzvah at the East Bay’s Kehilla Community Synagogue.

“It’s part of what I am,” he says. “When you become conscious of cultural awareness, you have to find your own harmony and seek your roots.”

Hyim is eager to take his musical message to the streets. But whether success comes quickly or not, Hyim is following age-old advice: Enjoy the ride. “When God gives you a skill, it’s a non-mitzvah to disregard it.”

Hyim’s CD “Let Out a Little Peace” is available through
his Web site,

Masi’s Grays


The Borscht Belt has gone way downtown as a crop of young hip-hoppers redefines the shape of Jewish comedy.

Welcome to the next generation of Jewish humor, where beats become borscht in the hip-hop Cuisinart.Young Jews have found rap’s limitless vocabulary ideal for taking a fresh look at old stereotypes.The patriarchs of Jewish hip hop, of course, are the Beastie Boys, three guys from New York City who retooled their band from punk to hip hop and became one of the most popular rap groups ever. Their 1986 album “Licensed to Ill” set a standard of hip-hop as comedy.

Since then, other Jewish rappers such as Staten Island songwriter Remedy (Ross Filler), the groups Blood of Abraham and NonFiction and performance artist Danny Hoch became more sensitive to the hip-hop hardcore, where “Blackness” lies at the center of the aesthetic. They got more Jewish – Remedy eulogized victims of the Holocaust on “Never Again” and Blood of Abraham tackled race relations on “Niggaz & Jewz” – but they also got more serious, for instance:

MC Paul Barman, the Woody Allen of the hip-hop nation. “My sex life is pathetic. That’s why I fantasize on four out of my five songs,” Barman intones in the introduction of his debut EP “It’s Very Stimulating” (Wordsound). Like Allen at his best, Barman, 25, offsets his tales of intricately rhymed sexual misadventure with his intellectual prowess.

Concetta Kirschner, aka Princess Superstar, a downtown diva for the trendy and ambitious, is celebrating the release of her third CD, “Last of the Great 20th Century Composers,” and the first on her self-owned independent label Corrupt Conglomerate. The new meticulously produced disc is spare with beats but overripe with libido.

L.A.-based duo MOT (Members of the Tribe) expertly ape hip-hop tropes.Proudly derivative, MOT views rap music and culture through a Borscht Belt lens. On tunes such as “Havana Nagilla” and “Kosher Nostra,” MOT achieves a hilarious, almost perfect synthesis of Jewish and gangsta stereotypes.

“The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hit Off-Broadway musical, drew rave reviews and rabid audiences. The five talented actors, Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory Qaiyum, Erik Weiner and DJ Jeffrey Qaiyum, fresh out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, created an exceedingly clever 90-minute romp through Shake-spearean ribaldry and hip-hop history. Only in New York would a modernized version of “A Comedy of Errors” rhyme “crowbar” with “shofar.”

This article appears courtesy of The Jewish Week. A longer version is available at thejewishweek.com

Jewish Humor’s New New Rap


The Borscht Belt has gone way downtown as a crop of young hip-hoppers redefines the shape of Jewish comedy.

Welcome to the next generation of Jewish humor, where beats become borscht in the hip-hop Cuisinart. Young Jews have found rap’s limitless vocabulary ideal for taking a fresh look at old stereotypes.The patriarchs of Jewish hip hop, of course, are the Beastie Boys, three guys from New York City who retooled their band from punk to hip hop and became one of the most popular rap groups ever. Their 1986 album “Licensed to Ill” set a standard of hip-hop as comedy.

Since then, other Jewish rappers such as Staten Island songwriter Remedy (Ross Filler), the groups Blood of Abraham and NonFiction and performance artist Danny Hoch became more sensitive to the hip-hop hardcore, where “Blackness” lies at the center of the aesthetic. They got more Jewish – Remedy eulogized victims of the Holocaust on “Never Again” and Blood of Abraham tackled race relations on “Niggaz & Jewz” – but they also got more serious, for instance:

  • MC Paul Barman, the Woody Allen of the hip-hop nation. “My sex life is pathetic. That’s why I fantasize on four out of my five songs,” Barman intones in the introduction of his debut EP “It’s Very Stimulating” (Wordsound). Like Allen at his best, Barman, 25, offsets his tales of intricately rhymed sexual misadventure with his intellectual prowess.

  • Concetta Kirschner, aka Princess Superstar, a downtown diva for the trendy and ambitious, is celebrating the release of her third CD, “Last of the Great 20th Century Composers,” and the first on her self-owned independent label Corrupt Conglomerate. The new meticulously produced disc is spare with beats but overripe with libido.

  • L.A.-based duo MOT (Members of the Tribe) expertly ape hip-hop tropes.Proudly derivative, MOT views rap music and culture through a Borscht Belt lens. On tunes such as “Havana Nagilla” and “Kosher Nostra,” MOT achieves a hilarious, almost perfect synthesis of Jewish and gangsta stereotypes.

  • “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hit Off-Broadway musical, drew rave reviews and rabid audiences. The five talented actors, Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory Qaiyum, Erik Weiner and DJ Jeffrey Qaiyum, fresh out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, created an exceedingly clever 90-minute romp through Shake-spearean ribaldry and hip-hop history. Only in New York would a modernized version of “A Comedy of Errors” rhyme “crowbar” with “shofar.”

This article appears courtesy of The Jewish Week. A longer version is available at thejewishweek.com

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