When hip-hop elevates Jewish Education

photo courtesy Bibleraps.com

By Matt Bar

[As we explore using technology as an alternate way to express ourselves and engage our students, ELI Talks wondered, how do we take our videos beyond just the viewing, but create more conversation and more connections. To launch this project, we asked Matt Bar of Bible Raps to start experimenting with this.]

…Single mom going crazy, working two jobs can’t provide for her baby,

people in Darfur like “who’s gonna save me? Enslave me?”

Members of the government again acting shady,

man on the streets next meal is a ‘maybe,’

it doesn’t even phase me, it’s not that I’m lazy,

my coffee is warm and my bagel is tasty,

so why would it phase me, let alone change me

what that phrase be?

Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

I am a Jewish educator. And like many educators I try to follow the mantra of “starting where the students are.” That starting place could be surfing, animation, manicures, dance or Hip Hop. What I think is often overlooked with this type of pedagogy is that not all starting points are equal. Hip Hop, I contend, with its emphasis on creative expression and critical thinking, makes for a unique cultural octane, able both to ignite interest in Judaism and to do so without compromising tradition by making it shallow or something it is not.

The bible-rap excerpted above, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?,” gives a small taste of how rap can help to make biblical questions salient, timely, and even urgent to the lives our students are living directly and indirectly through media. Am I my brothers keeper? This is in fact the very first question man uttered to G!d in the Bible. It is a question that reverberates through millennia and right into the present. How ought we to treat our fellow men and women? Is care and concern for my brothers and sisters not only my duty as a good person, but also in my very essence as human? Be it bullying or peer pressure, fitting in or embracing one’s uniqueness, the various crises our youth are facing today share a high degree of psychological and ethical overlap with the questions our traditions greatest Rebbi have been wrestling with for millennia.

Needless to say, there are obvious concerns to be raised and conversations to be had when marrying the Bible with Hip­hop about how to address the rampant violence, misogyny, rape, drunkenness, homophobia, and gang wars. Nor is Hip­hop completely free of bad behavior. All joking aside, Judaism and hip-hop share an almost athletic intensity in posing question of identity, community, elder-respect, and tradition more generally. Be it under a highway pass or in the beit midrash, in wisecracking or in musings, these two genres share an uncanny stylistic manner of riffing on the question of all question: ‘who am i’?

The Rabbis point out that it took G!d ten utterances to create the universe, so how many more are needed for mere mortals to create their universe? Hip Hop shares this reverence for reflexivity in regard to the word: “Word up” “word is bond” “word to your mother.” It is thus an exceptional place to begin with students when engaging Judaism’s textual tradition. Not just ‘the word’ but the sheer quantity of words made use of in hip hop helps us see the versatility of this genre in the classroom. We like to think of rap as monosyllabic. Things couldn’t be further from the truth. According to a recent study, it turns out that certain rappers might just have a larger vocabulary, and in fact a much larger vocabulary, than Shakespeare. Rap is speaking volumes to us, doing it quickly, and giving us an enormous amount of materials to deal with.

In my ELI Talk, I compare Judaism’s Oral Tradition with Hip Hop’s Oral Tradition attempt to highlight the number of reasons why using Hip Hop to teach our textual traditional makes complete sense. And in a certain sense is innovative because it is in fact, not much of an innovation at all.

Look for Part 2 of Matt’s thoughts next week on JeducationWorld.com

Matt Bar is founder and Executive Director of Bible Raps, a nonprofit born from Matt’s desire to engage his Hebrew School classes on a deeper and more contemporary level than the way they were being taught at the time. After being turned on to Torah learning while on a Livnot trip to Israel in 2006, Bar launched Bible Raps via his participation in the PresenTense Institute during the summer of 2007. He continued to further his Jewish education during his 2008 year of study at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Since its inception, Bible Raps has reached tens of thousands of young Jews with Torah-rich performances in schools, Hillels, conferences and camps across the US and abroad. Their teaching materials are being used in countless classrooms and teachers are currently being trained to be certified “Bible Raps educators.” In 2011, Bar was also named to The NY Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36″ list, a prestigious list “highlighting the dedicated lay leaders who are reordering our legacy organizations alongside community activists and social justice crusaders whose start-ups are chock-full of innovation.” In addition to this, Bar is currently a featured Joshua Venture Fellow. Bar is also closely supported by his beautiful wife, Rebecca. Check out his new album here.

Watch Matt’s ELI Talk:

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