Hip-Hop Bar Mitzvah: Jewish Rappers Talk Coming of Age
Judaism and hip-hop have gone hand-in-hand for at least as far back as 1983, when the Beastie Boys (each of whom has at least one Jewish parent) released their first rap song, “Cooky Puss.” But these days — with proud Jew Drake holding down rap stardom while folks like Matisyahu and Mac Miller sell out shows across the country — seem like a particularly special time for the Chosen People in rap music. And what better way to celebrate the influx than to round up some wonderful hip-hop bar mitzvah stories? (Note: If not otherwise noted, interviews were conducted by Grantland.)
“My Rabbi was Les Bronstein. He’s a good guy. Spiritual, authentic searcher, wise and humble man. I don’t remember the Torah portion, what happened, nor can I read it now. I do know that I didn’t learn the whole thing and had to do only half. That summer in camp when I was supposed to be learning my haftorah I was learning more about female anatomy. I remember the smell of the teacher’s room where I was learning the melody and how it defines to me, to this day, the definition of boring.
“At the time [what the bar mitzvah meant to me was] a party, some cash (which ended up going to my neighbor after I missed the squirrel and shot out their window with my wrist rocket), and the chance to show off my dance skills. I don’t think I was truly bar mitzvah’d in the sense of becoming a man until much later. Maybe 16, the first time I ate LSD; or maybe 17, when I spent Thanksgiving in rehab; or maybe 21, the first time I put on T’fillan. Or maybe a month ago when I shaved my beard.”
Xaphoon Jones of Chiddy Bang
“My family belonged to a small reconstructionist synagogue in Philly. We weren’t crazy religious, but how my parents explained it to me at the time is that it’s mostly to make your grandparents happy. Old-world logic. I have a million Polish uncles with gold teeth and broken noses, and it’s just how it is. And if it’s a win for them, no problem.
“I remember the first line [from the Torah portion] was ‘bayhom hashlishi.’ It means that on the third day, some shit’s about to go down. I can’t remember exactly what was going down, but it was on the third day.
“I didn’t get a party, but I didn’t really want one. I was super-groovy, 13 years old, and all I wanted was to get high with my friends and listen to music. Basically what happened was, the house was mine and I got to have as many friends over as possible. We got all the leftover food from the bar mitzvah and we just stayed up for 48 hours playing video games and eating bagels and walking around the neighborhood.
“The bar mitzvah is the turning point where your family starts getting you drunk. They’re all arguing around the dinner table, and your grandpa is like, ‘Give him the whiskey,’ and your grandma is like, ‘Oh, he’s such a little boy,’ and your grandpa’s like, ‘Oh, he’s been bar mitzvah’d, he’s a man, he drinks.'”
MC Serch, 3rd Bass
Via Guilt & Pleasure: “During those years I wasn’t a practicing Jew — I was a practicing Muslim. I had pretty much denounced Judaism, because of something ignorant and out of line my rabbi said to me at a very, very crucial time in my upbringing. As a youngster, I wanted to be a cantor, and possibly a rabbi — my course in Judaism was to be involved and enveloped in my religion. I was one of these kids who, even after my bar mitzvah, continued in Hebrew school. I loved reading the Torah, I loved learning about the Torah, but I had my boys, and we were listening to early hip-hop.
“Rabbi Spielman, who was the rabbi at my congregation in Bayswater, New York, had seen me in the park, listening to hip-hop. He looked at me with such concern — I’ll never forget it — and he said, ‘I don’t understand, I have so much promise for you, why you want to be a shvartzer so bad?’
“I was like, ‘What the fuck did you just say to me?’ And he was like, ‘Watch your language in my office.’ And I was like, ‘Watch my language? What the fuck did you just say to me? Are you kidding me? We’re here to educate and teach, we’re supposed to be teachers, and you’re trying to teach me hatred? Are you saying you have hatred for black people because they have a culture I appreciate and that because I’m interested in it, that takes away from my growth as a Jew? This is what you’re trying to teach me Judaism is about?’ He was like ‘No,’ but I was like, ‘Fuck you and fuck this.’ And I blazed out and told my parents I was never going back.”
Peter Rosenberg, Hot 97 DJ
“I was Bar Mitzvah’d in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on October 31, 1992. It was like 200 people, maybe? I don’t know. I was only concerned with the kids list. I had about 35 kids there, and I felt pretty cool. All I remember was that I spun my speech into a pro-Clinton rally, as the general election was three days after my bar mitzvah.
“Rabbi Fishman is the man. I don’t go to the synagogue much anymore, but he’s super cool. He loves the Celtics as much as I do and he’s one of those men of the cloth who’s handsome and cool. He’s not the super-old stereotypical rabbi you picture.
“The party was at the Holiday Inn on Wisconsin Ave. A nice Holiday Inn, FYI! I remember a lot about the party The Mario Lemieux Jersey I was wearing over my suit, the ice cream buffet, but the most memorable thing was my brother rapping about me over the beat to ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ by Grand Puba. It was very touching. I cried in front of everyone.
“For me the slow Boyz II Men songs were key ’cause I wanted to slow dance with the girls. They dressed all sexy. I remember my old relatives feeling awkward by how hot these 13-year-old girls looked. Now, being older — I would probably feel the exact same way.”
Via the Jewish Chronicle: “I’ve grown up Jewish. I went to Emma Kaufmann Camp, I had a bar mitzvah. [The bar mitzvah era] is such an awkward stage in your growth as a person. Looking at the pictures, I’m like ‘Man, look at me back then, what a weird looking dude.’ I’ve never had a fear of performing, obviously, but the preparation of people saying it’s your big day — well, you don’t really understand until you get older.”
“If I am correct, there was a synagogue across the street from the Glenwood Projects where I lived at the time in Brooklyn, but it’s hard to remember, it was so long ago. It wasn’t too big. I think it was some fam. The synagogue was filled, though.
“I had [the Torah portion] down perfect and killed it. I remember everyone sweating me and [being] on the dick about it. My teacher was a guy named Velvel. He was a real weird dude. Dude had to have been a 40-year-old virgin. But he was allocated as my teacher, so I learned the ritual. Mom dukes was religious, so there was no playing around with that.
“My brother’s [bar mitzvah] was a huge event. He had all these superhero characters made, out of, like, tin foil, and mad people came. His was def more memorable party-wise then mine. I guess mom dukes had money at the time, and by the time mine came there wasn’t much loot in the fam [laughs].”
Via Rap Radar/Shade 45: Shade 45: “Mr. Dreidel man, DJ Drama! You recently revealed that you have Jewish heritage.”
Drama: “Well, I mean basically I’m Jewish. By Jewish tradition, Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish. Therefore I’m part of the Jewish family.”
Shade 45: “There you go! DJ Drama. The dreidel man. Mr. Thanksgiving is Mr. Bar Mitzvah.”
Drama: “Mr. Bar Mitzvah! Yo, that’s the only thing I lack, though, I never had a bar mitzvah.”
Shade 45: “Hopefully you have another — I don’t want to get too personal — another important element of being really a Jew?”
DJ Drama: “Ohh yeah, I’m in. I’m in.”
Via Peter Rosenberg: “First of all, I live in an all Jewish area [of Toronto], Forest Hill. I went to a predominantly Jewish school. I definitely had a bar mitzvah in an Italian restaurant, mind you. The song of the night was Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way.’ I was in synagogue, I had my yarmulke on [but I didn’t do a Torah portion]. I cheated, I just collected the money.”