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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Rebbe, the Beastie Boys, and Cultish Dysfunction

Contemporary Jewish rappers like DeScribe are influenced by the groundbreaking work of The Beastie Boys in crossover musical styles. DeScribe's music video "Ani Maamin" ("I Believe") by DeScribe is an example of using rap for religious outreach. The lyrics are a Jewish prayer expressing faith in ultimate redemption.

Part I. Stepping Outside The Bubble: White Suburban Jewish Kids Encounter African-American Culture

"YOU GOTTA FIGHT, for your right, to PAR-TAY!"

On May 4, 2012, a piece of my youth died with the untimely passing of the Beastie Boys' founder Adam Yauch. He had the guts, as an American Jewish kid, to cross over into a completely different culture and musical style - African-American urban "rap."

Yauch had the guts to break out of the mold and admit that yes, we could learn something from the "outside." And we went crazy for that music! Not just rapping but "breakdancing" and the "moonwalk" too.

The Beastie Boys' music was a milestone for me. It pushed me to think critically about the things I took for granted. There was no single way to do music, but many ways. It was OK to step outside the bubble, learn from others and create your own identity.

Other personal examples of me growing up influenced by African-American thinkers, culture and values in particular:
  • I have vivid memories of watching the early Oprah shows. Oprah had soul. Phil Donahue didn't - he was compassionate, but also somewhat academic and cold. His time on screen was immediately limited once Oprah appeared.
  • Learning feminism through bell hooks. Who understood the layered nature of racism, sexism, and homophobia (though she is heterosexual). She wrote: "Being oppressed means the absence of choices." It was rare to find that depth of thinking about womens' condition. That ability to go beyond the superficial. Defending the right of others not like yourself to have choices - defending their right to not be like you - is the gift hooks brings to her work: "hooks is not a lesbian, but her words speak to those of us wanting to bring our whole selves--not only intellectualism--into the struggle for justice. She also has some unique perspectives on the confluence of oppressions, as a black woman who came from rural Kentucky and encountered an Anglo-centric feminism in the academy." - MyOutSpirit.org
bell hooks especially influenced me because of the depth of her experience. Only someone whose identity has crossed cultural subgroups, and who has rebelled against their hold on her/him, can think that deeply.

Part II. Stepping Back In: Understanding The Closed World of Hasidic Jewry

Which brings me to back to the Rebbe. Not the person - because there is no one Rebbe. Rather, the term refers to the different spiritual leaders of a number of different Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) subgroups. They all embody the concept of following someone throughout your whole life, never leaving the path they've set for you.

I come from Hasidic lineage. And never understood the fanatical devotion to the Rebbe that Hasidim feel until I saw the 1997 documentary A Life Apart.

I was fascinated to watch the ordinariness and openness of Hasidim in the film who stated that they do whatever the Rebbe says. Because it was the Rebbe who brought them here after the Holocaust ended, the Rebbe who made sure they had apartments and jobs and even people to marry. And the Rebbe who served as a conduit to Heaven - who made sure they did not go "off the path."

Honestly I could understand what they were saying very well. I can't even imagine the terror of coming from Europe to the U.S. penniless, having been tortured and having seen one's family members murdered and raped and robbed right before one's eyes. According to the movie, 80% of the Hasidic community was slaughtered in the Holocaust. I think that would make me want to follow pretty blindly.

Part III. The Inescapable Challenge: Unconditional Acceptance Versus The Personal Rewards of Thinking

But it seems to me that what has happened over time, as the original post-Holocaust Rebbes have departed this Earth, and new generations inevitably encountered American culture, it has become impossible to keep that wall up and stop the children from thinking about what they see.

It has become necessary for the ultra-Orthodox to confront the thing they were afraid of - leaving the bubble of safety to grapple with the allure of the secular world. And in response there has been a lot of extremism. (The other day I read that blue shoes were banned in a certain school. Why? Who knows.)

At the end of the day we are all scared to walk this earth alone. It is easier, in a way, to have the certainty of being bound up in a community of "unconditional love" - except that the one condition of being in that community is that you give up your right to think.

Is that really acceptable?

My thing is, I'd rather face the world as it is, without blinders. It is uncomfortable at times - no, make that all the time. But at least it is the truth.

I don't want anyone else to think for me.

Here's to appreciating ourselves, and the cultures we come from, and the cultures that others can bring to us.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!