February 17, 2020

The Power of Cool

Screenshot from Twitter

It’s been a surreal couple of weeks. Nearly every day there’s been jaw-dropping news — from the Harvard Undergraduate Council’s decision to fund “Israeli Apartheid Week” to the New York City Council’s decision to remove Councilman Kalman Yeger from an immigration committee because he tweeted a fact: “Palestine does not exist.”

However much we may know intellectually, that the rise of anti-Semitism on the left is superficial — part of a status-obsessed trend to virtue signal “progressive” cool-kid politics — we can easily be forgiven for feeling depressed, since we know what such trends have led to throughout Jewish history.

With a somewhat heavy heart on the Shabbat morning of April 6, I took my 9-year-old son, Alexander, to see rap artist Young Gravy — aka Noah Shufutinsky — who was performing at our temple, Park Avenue Synagogue. Shufutinsky, 19, a sophomore at George Washington University, where he’s majoring in Judaic Studies, has become the face of Jewish rap with his song “Diaspora.” After the song was released in January, I sent the program directors of Park Avenue’s congregational school a link to its video (shot in Israel). They immediately contacted the rapper and invited him to perform. 

Before Young Gravy’s visit, Alexander and I listened to “Diaspora” over and over again.

I’m a proud part of the diaspora

In my heart I hold Jerusalem and Africa

Kicked us out of our land and started gassin us

‘Til we put our foot down cuz we had enough

Check out the flag that I’m waving

Two blue stripes and a huge Star of David

Check out the flag that I’m waving 

Keep shooting rockets but you never gon’ take it

Young Gravy had performed for the synagogue’s teens the evening before; his show this Shabbat morning was for the younger kids. He rapped two songs before “Diaspora”: “American Dream,” which tears apart the victim narrative of identity politics; and “Never Again,” which entwines Jewish and black historical persecution in a way that would give Linda Sarsour palpitations. 

Never again, will I let you be my slaver

Never again, will we end up in gas chambers

I was just a kid when I saw my first skinhead

With a SS jacket and some Nazi tattoos

Blaming all his problems on Black thugs and dirty Jews

“Young Gravy should be performing at synagogues, community centers and college campuses around the world.”

With their black Sephardic mother and Soviet Ashkenazi father, Shufutinsky and his older brother, Dmitri Shufutinsky — who recently earned a master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution and blogs for The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel — undercut intersectionality’s erasure of black-Jewish relations.

“Be proud of who you are,” Young Gravy told the young crowd at our synagogue, “no matter what anyone says.”

I introduced Alexander to Young Gravy before the performance. He was excited to meet his first “celebrity” — a young black man with a chai necklace who rapped about gas chambers, swastikas and slavery — but he had his chill veneer firmly in place. Young Gravy broke through that attitude immediately. Although his lyrics are hard-hitting, he is sweet, warm and engaging.

Throughout Alexander’s 9 years, I have tried to make the Maccabees cool. Young Gravy did it in an hour. He reinterpreted Jewish history and made being Jewish a source of pride.

The next day at the park, Alexander pointed out to me all of the kippahs and tzitzit; we talked about what it meant to hold Jerusalem in our hearts. We also talked about leaders and followers, individualism and conformity. Doing or saying what everyone else is doing is never cool — I’ve told Alexander variations of this since he was old enough to understand. For the first time, after hearing Young Gravy, the embodiment of cool, convey that lesson, I think Alexander truly understood it.

We’re riding a very dark wave right now, and leftist rabbis, writers and most especially groups like IfNotNow are pushing that wave to feed their self-esteem — what Young Gravy calls “twitter politicians” retweeting lies and “keepin us at odds occupied by colorism, not acknowledging that this is how they got us to begin with.”

Young Gravy should be performing at synagogues, community centers and college campuses around the world, so that he can teach and inspire through the power of art, the power of cool. Jewish groups: Young Gravy is literally our future. Let’s make it happen.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.