Assimilation and its Discontents

During the last two years writing my first book, Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, I’ve found that, over the past three decades, white people have used hip-hop as a safe, virtual space to tackle … Read More

By / July 17, 2007

During the last two years writing my first book, Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, I’ve found that, over the past three decades, white people have used hip-hop as a safe, virtual space to tackle or elude the complicated legacy (and present) of race in our country. Every time we buy a Ying-Yang Twins CD or bust a backspin or attempt to use Ebonics, we are telling ourselves a story—about America, about race, and about ourselves. So what story are Jews, specifically, telling ourselves? What draws so many of us to keep it (Is)real? (Full disclosure: that joke was stolen from respected Jewish hip-hop blogger Dan Charnas. See? We're everywhere!) My fascination with hip-hop has always intrigued and amused my third-generation Italian wife, Denise, who grew up in the more ethnically explicit suburbs of Long Island and always wondered what could possibly link my laid-back, West Coast, manicured-lawn childhood with the drive-by ghettoes of Compton.

But after that fascination impacted the trajectory of our lives—the book deal led me to leave work to sit in my pajamas and play "Criminal Minded" over and over again—she felt it was time to get to the bottom of it. Not long ago, we sat down for a conversation, one in which my beloved wife called me a wimp with an attraction for black men: Denise: OK, honey, don't get me wrong. I love hip-hop, too. My paisans were breakdancing back in elementary school, and referring to themselves as "posses," and all that nonsense. But you Jews take it to another level. I understand the fascination with Chinese food, but come on: What is the freaking deal with Jews and hip-hop? Jason: Well, I think the answer is obvious. Denise: So do I. Jason: Hip-hop is the music of struggle, and we, because of our history of oppression, are naturally drawn to narratives of resistance and civil rights. Denise: Oh, that’s funny. I was going to say, “because you’re all who need to identify with big, tough black guys in order to feel less insecure.” Jason: (silence) Denise: You go first.
Jason: Let’s start with history. Jews have always held a unique tie to black music, from Al Jolson to the Chess brothers — whose label launched Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley—to the great blues songwriters Leiber and Stoller. I’m pulling this from John Leland’s “Hip: The History,” in which he writes: “Barred from the high avenues of culture and finance, which looked askance at ethnicity, the two groups [i.e., blacks and Jews] established black culture as an engine of identity and profit, and the civil rights movement as the nation’s moral conscience.” Denise: "Profit," indeed. Weren't Jews responsible for many of those exploitative recording deals that left those black innovators with nothing? Jason: Guilty as charged. But I think, from the perspective of Jewish rap fans, emotional history may be even more important than economic or cultural history. I remember learning about the Holocaust as a Reform Jew growing up in the not-very-Jewish city of Tacoma, Washington. It was extremely difficult to reconcile such severe, pure suffering with the relatively assimilated and secularized life I was living. I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, but if you’d asked, I would have identified myself as “white” rather than “Jewish.” My greatest spiritual quandary was how many colleges I should apply to. I knew that Jews had a history of being oppressed and despised, but I sure didn’t feel it, and that made me feel separated from, forgive the expression, “my people,” and also left me with the impression that I was living a sheltered, gilded life. Denise: Is this what led so many of your fellow Tacomans to become more serious about their Judaism? Jason: I haven't asked them about this specifically, but I'd imagine so. As you know, a couple of my close family friends—some of the laxest Reform Jews I've ever met—grew up to make their religion a central organizing principle of their lives. I don't think it's a coincidence that one of them became much more invested in his religion after studying with Elie Wiesel at Boston University. How can you not feel disgustingly coddled and inauthentic after a couple of conversations with that cat?
I never studied with Wiesel. Instead, I found Public Enemy. You have to remember, this was the late 1980s, and hip-hop sounded much more dangerous and angry than it does today. Nobody represented that like Public Enemy, who rapped about prison breaks and shutting down corporations like Nike if they didn’t invest more of their profits in the black community. Meanwhile, hardcore groups like N.W.A. presented a horrorscape of urban neglect that (I thought) sounded like the kind of fate the Jews might have faced if we hadn’t been so good at assimilating. Denise: But that's what assimilation is for! So you don't have to live through something like that! Don't you think it's a bit patronizing to go chasing after mass-marketed reproductions of the very crime and poverty your ancestors proudly escaped? Jason: Patronizing? Sure. But that's another classic element of the way that Jewish guilt intersects with race. Think back to the 1960s, when Jews helped to lead the Civil Rights movement, then were shocked when they felt they were met with widespread anti-Semitism. As a friend of mine once put it, it wasn't the assistance that pissed people off, but the paternalistic, we-know-best way in which it was delivered.

Denise: But anti-Semitism still exists, even thrives. Why couldn't that motivate you? Jason: I knew in an abstract way that there were still anti-Semites out there, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like to live through the Holocaust, or to be the recipient of such direct, virulent hatred. Listening to rap, I thought, helped me identify with a despised and angry people. In a weird way, it helped me to feel more Jewish. Denise: Isn't that what Sunday school is for? Jason: Yeah, well, it didn't work. All I got there was "never again." And yet there was race-based suffering and violence breaking out all around us. But because it was happening to black people and not to Jews, it wasn't seen as our moral responsibility. Instead, we got all hot and bothered about the nativity scene the fundies wanted to erect in front of town hall. Denise: You know what I think of when you talk about how pure and angry hip-hop used to be? I think about that scene in Annie Hall where Alvy and his wife are at a cocktail party, and he churlishly runs off to a bedroom to watch the Knicks. When his wife asks him just what the hell he’s doing, he says, “It’s physical. It’s one thing about intellectuals; they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea of what’s going on.” Jason: Maybe he’s right.
Denise: Maybe, but he’s also equating blackness with anti-intellectualism, physicality, and a weird kind of “purity.” I’d suggest that’s at least a tiny bit racist. There’s a long history of that, too, going back to Norman “Also Jewish” Mailer’s famous “White Negro” essay. Ahem: “[T]he Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body,” and so on and so on. Jason: Reading that, it's no surprise that Mailer was an in-your-face macho brawler who once stabbed his wife. Denise: Right! There's that whole, weird "tough Jew" thing. That Philip Roth, Meyer Lansky, Saul Bellow deal. Buffed-up bald guys with lots of back hair taking a shvitz. Getting ringside tickets to the Ali fight. Where does that come from? Jason: I think that's the way some folks react to operating around the margins of society. You get those same stereotypes in the Irish community as well, right? Shit, some of your Sicilian relatives are like that. Denise: But you're not one of those guys. You're a wimp. Jason: Right. Well, I never operated around the margins of society. I'm no Leon Trotsky. I'm more like the rabbi in the old joke who is asked when life begins. The priest says "At the moment of conception" and the rabbi says "When the kid graduates from medical school." Education and access to a bourgeois lifestyle were always assumed. I was raised to think that I was inheriting this mantle of outsider-ness, but nothing has ever been off-limits to me. Indeed, I've always expected that I'd be able to do pretty much whatever I've wanted. I never had to scream to be heard. I never had to prove my manhood in that way.
Denise: So instead of being a tough guy, you surround yourself with this music that's filled with violence and profanity and rough sex. It's this way of unleashing your dirty-Jewish-boy id without upsetting your nice-Jewish-boy superego. Jason: Hmm. I think it's relevant that some of the most hardcore music out there was published by Jews. Jerry Heller managed NWA, and Rick Rubin reportedly championed Public Enemy despite Russell Simmons's disinterest. Denise: Are you equating NWA's ultraviolence with Public Enemy's politics? Jason: Well, from the standpoint of a Jew looking for some direct, physical, emotionally relevant conflict, there may not be much of a difference. Look, you're right, I feel like a weenie, but it's not just because I read a lot and have no jump shot and weigh 140 pounds soaking wet. I feel like a weenie because I also have no barriers to fight against. Hip-hop provides me with both: an outlet for my repressed id, and also a cause that I can align myself with. Denise: I'm not sure that, psychologically speaking, those aren't fundamentally the same thing. Jason: No, me neither.

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