Featured Post

Hip Hop, Hebrew, And Heritage

From rappers rocking scripture to Talmud lessons in the Knesset, Israeli culture draws from the wells of Judaism

One of the hallmarks of great Jewish literature is its writers’ ability to engage in intertextuality: taking an earlier text of Jewish tradition and weaving it into what you are writing in a creative and meaningful way.  An excellent example of this is the protest song, Shir Nechama, (The Consolation Song) by the hip-hop band Hadag Nahash on its 2010 album, 6. One critical source for this song is the biblical narrative about Isaac, Rebecca, and their warring sons, Jacob and Esau. One day, Esau the hunter comes in from the fields, famished, while Jacob the homebody is cooking a red lentil stew.

Genesis 25:30 tells us that “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please feed me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished.’” Hal’iteini is the Hebrew command form of the verb for feeding someone in gulps, and it paints this scene for us beautifully: Esau is portrayed as an animal who is so hungry he wants his brother to feed him as if he were gulping down his food from a bucket or a trough without thought for his behavior or demeanor. This accentuates how devious and manipulative young Jacob truly is. He knows his brother very well and he later easily wrestles Esau’s legal birthright as the older child from him by offering him food in exchange for it. Esau, not one to think too far into the future and convinced that he’ll die an early death anyway, gulps down the food along with Jacob’s shrewd offer. The later rabbis of the Mishnah (oral tradition) use this verb, l’hal’it, in a purely legal context – laws concerning feeding animals on Shabbat – to convey once again what the Torah was conveying: human beings eat in a civilized way; animals are fed, gulping, by their masters.

Hadag Nahash takes this rare biblical word, hal’iteini, “let me gulp down some food,” and subtly reworks it to make a strong polemical point:

Sovevuni bash’qalim      Surround me with Sheqels.

Hal’ituni ba’kzavim         Let me gulp down lies.

Va ani k’seh tamim         I am like an innocent lamb.

Odeini maamin.               And I still believe.

The group echoes biblical sources and even the philosopher, Maimonides, to protest what it sees is the average Israeli citizen’s manipulation by the people in power. Sovevuni, “surround me,” echoes the psalmist who speaks about being surrounded by his enemies who swarm him like bees, yet who he fights off with God’s help. Here, however, the “almighty sheqel”, symbol of rampant materialism, is the implacable enemy that even God seems unable to fight off.

The seh tamim, or innocent lamb, calls forth two images: in the story of the binding of Isaac, suspecting that he is the sacrificial lamb, Isaac asks Abraham, “Ayeh ha seh l’olah?” “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  The word tamim, meaning unblemished or more figuratively, innocent, often refers in the book of Leviticus to sacrificial animal offerings. We get the image of a person being led like a lamb to the slaughter in a predatory culture.

The phrase odeini maamin, echoes Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, each of which begins with the statement, Ani maamin be’emunah shleimah, “I believe with perfect faith…” Hadag Nahash turns these phrases of faith on their heads, asserting, “Go on, keep taking me for a ride. Like an innocent lamb, I’ll just keep on believing whatever you tell me.”

Finally, we have the phrase hal’ituni ba’kzavim, “make me gulp down lies.” Here, Hadag Nahash out-does itself with intertextual creativity. It uses hal’iteini in its plural verb form  to reinforce not only the feeling of  being deceived by society, but of being deceived like the biblical Esau or like an animal having food shoved down its throat as it gulps insatiably with no sense of anything other than eating.

As an American Jew, I am in no position to judge the accuracy of Hadag Nahash’es critique. For me a song like Shir Nechama is important because it signifies that even in their most secular political forms, Israeli culture, language and literature drink naturally from the wells of Judaism in ways that the rest of the Jewish people can’t.

I assume that there are plenty of Israelis who do not catch Hadag Nahash’es biblical and Maimonidean references. Nonetheless I am always impressed that these Jewish cultural artifacts can create meaningful frameworks within which at least part of the Jewish state lives, loves, fights, and hopes for a better world. That is why Yesh Atid Knesset member Ruth Calderon’s recent famous Knesset speech about all of Israel (and really the entire Jewish people) reclaiming the best of Jewish heritage is so urgent. She wrote: “The Torah is not the property of one movement or another…Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to re-appropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.”

Mazal tov to Dr. Calderon upon her election to the Knesset and good luck to people like her engaged in such vital work. The Jews and all of humanity depend upon it.

Many thanks to Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel of Rutgers University for his review of Hadag Nahash’es album, 6, and their use of intertextuality, in The Jewish Review of Books.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.