Can Drake Save the Bar Mitzvah?
04/12/2012 - 16:00

When Drake’s new video, “HYFR,” dropped over the weekend—in which the Jewish, biracial hip-hop superstar raps at a bar mitzvah—I was thrilled. Initially.

For years, pop culture references to the Jewish rite of passage have been stuck in the same mode of self-mockery.  Self-criticism is great, and in retrospect I partly appreciate the brutal truth that films like the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” show to us Jews—that this once incredibly powerful, meaningful rite had become totally cauterized, stripped of any real substance.  The bar mitzvah has become just another excuse to get the family together—half of which you may not even like—and torture a poor 13-year-old with a foreign tongue he’s probably less comfortable with than trigonometry.

But the Coen brothers didn’t invent that trope; it’s been around for years.  What felt so refreshing about Drake’s video, and still sort of does, is how it isn’t self-mocking at all.  Here’s a rapper so at ease in the self-conscious, status-driven world of pop star culture, that he can brandish his Jewish identity with little self-pity.  He brings his Jewishness to a world—the hip-hop world, and the millions who love it, myself included—that’s mainly known Jews as a stereotype.   The Jew, in hip-hop, is either the boss behind the scenes or, on the rare occasion (as with the Beastie Boys), the nerdy white kids who are lovingly embraced—but still, let’s be clear, as nerdy white kids.

Drake’s changed all that.  In large part that’s because his Jewishness is not the first fact about him.  Many see him mainly as a black rapper, if a light-skinned one.  And even when he broke onto the scene a few years ago and, when asked, would talk about his upbringing by a white Jewish mother in Canada—who sent him to a Jewish day school, and had him bar-mitzvahed—you didn’t get the sense he was trying to hide it.  But I’m actually less interested in what Drake’s openness about Judaism says about the changing world of hip-hop—and my sense is that, in many ways, it’s far more evolved in terms of black-Jewish relations than much of the country—than what it might say about Jews’ perceptions of themselves.

Which brings me back to what’s great about the Drake’s video. For Jewish kids, it might actually show them that the bar mitzvah is something that can be cool again—and in the teenage world, “cool” means a great deal.  Precisely because Drake shows the bar mitzvah as a place where tough looking rap stars—Birdman, Lil Wayne, even the Muslim rapper DJ Khaled—can approvingly nod their heads to Drake’s Torah portion (it really is quite a sight), it may just be for Jewish self-confidence what Superman and Stan Lee were to American Jews circa 1940.  Better still, it imbues a sense of unencumbered confidence in Jewish teens in what being Jewish is really all about—rituals like the bar-mitzvah, and not the more nettlesome parts of Judaism like the politics of Israel, which inevitably lead to confusion and awkward “teaching moments.”

But self-confidence is only good for so much.  And that’s where my beef with Drake’s video comes in.  The latest news about the video is that the L.A. synagogue where parts of the video were shot now has the shul’s president distancing himself from it.  At first, the synagogue’s president Ben Kuehne said of Drake’s video that he allowed the rapper to film in the sanctuary because he felt the video showed “an embracing of religious passage. …It's not a sacrilegious message; it's not an antireligious message."

But once Kuehne had a chance to watch the video and listen to the lyrics more closely, he told JTA: “The complete video is certainly not consistent with Temple Israel's longstanding history and reputation as a progressive voice in the Jewish Reform movement…Temple Israel does not adopt, condone, or sponsor any aspect of the Drake video, and was not involved in its production.”

As much as I want to stick up for Drake, I think Kuehne is right.  The song and the video still have many of the hallmarks of what’s problematic with hip-hop—mostly, the objectification of women.  Plus, there’s a ton of profanity.  “But she was no angel, and we never waited,” Drake raps at one point. “I took her for sushi, she wanted to f*** / So we took it to go, told them don’t even plate it.” 

The song’s title, “HYFR,” stands for “Hell Yeah F***ing Right.”

To be fair, Drake is not a misogynist, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with aggressive profanity.  I’m no culture conservative when it comes to hip-hop, and I think a little Rebalaisian titillation, machismo and bravado—or to use the current hip-hop term, “swag”—is a good thing.  It’s what has made hip-hop so intoxicating and uplifting for millions, both within and without the United States. 

But there’s also an ethical strain in hip-hop—often pejoratively called “backpaper” hip-hop (read: white-boy rap)—found in acts like A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and Mos Def. They’ve shown that rap can still be tough, without being immoral.  Drake, and quite a bit of mainstream hip-hop, no longer fits into either of these categories.  But if his “HYFR” video isn’t totally debased, it’s not exactly wholesome either. 

Which makes Kuehne’s discomfort understandable.  Even if Drake has done one important thing right—make the bar-mitvzah cool again—he hasn’t shown Jews why it can be cool.  It’s not because you can rap and get your friends drunk at the after-party (what the video shows; though you can also introduce them to bagels and lox, as it shows too).  It’s because you’ve taken the time to learn something essential about your religion—Torah, the text from which it all sprang—and earned the responsibility to be a conscientious Jew.  Once someone finds a way to make that cool, they should take home a Grammy.  I only wish it might one day be Drake.

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My 12-year-old son has started a grassroots campaign to bring the surviving members of the Beastie Boys to Israel to attend his Bar Mitzvah this October. To entice them we re-shot scene for scene their classic video "Fight for your right to Party." Please take a look and share.

If you like hip-hop, you might like my blog, Rhymes and Reasons. It’s a series of interviews with hip-hop heads who discuss their lives and a few songs that matter to them. Pretty powerful stuff. Check’em out here:

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