If the death this weekend of Adam Yauch, 47—the Beastie Boys founder, nicknamed MCA—was not enough, today came another blow: the death of Maurice Sendak, at 83. Both were Jewish artists, pioneers in their respective genres, and both were Brooklyn-born. That they were born some 35 years apart, and came from worlds quite different—Sendak, the child of European immigrants, lost many close relatives in the Holocaust; Yauch was the child of postwar, happy, assimilationist Jews—might seem like they have nothing in common. But in fact the opposite seems truer.
Both Yauch and Sendak were early non-conformist, unsettling whatever expectations there were in their respective genres. In childrens’ books, Sendak was one of the first to inject a melancholy, contumacious spirit into a genre that was littered with sunny, happy, proto-Prozacian uplift. As Sendak—author of perhaps the most successful children’s books of all time, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963)—made clear in one of his last interviews, conducted last year: “I refuse to lie to children," he told The Guardian, in revealing interview that dealt with everything from his homosexuality and his parents’ loss of their relatives in the Holocuast. "I refuse to cater to the bulls--t of innocence."
On the surface, Yauch reveled in that innocence. He and his crew were consummate pranksters—or at least fronted as ones—self-consciously joking in their songs that three middle-class Jewish kids from Brooklyn had suddenly become, in the 1980s, stars in a movement—rap—that was born in hard-scrabble black neighborhoods. That Yauch and the Beastie Boys were never treated entirely as a joke, however—and, over time, became serious artists leaving as indelible a mark on hip-hop as Tupac or Biggie—says something about their talent.
To be sure, there are important questions to be raised about how race, and the novelty of three white Jewish kids doing black music, made their success possible. (The story of so much of black music, and it’s early popularity among white—see: jazz, Benny Goodman.) But today, you will not find any serious hip-hop artist, black or increasingly white, who doesn’t give Yauch credit for evolving into a true hip-hop icon.
Which brings us back to those connections between Yauch and Sendak: both artistic icons, in the truest sense, and both ones who were decidedly non-conformist. There is something deeply Jewish, and modern, about that archetype. And many worlds will miss them, both Jewish and non.
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