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Sex, Hebrew, Hip-hop And Protest

Inspired by the Jewish literary creativity of an Israeli music group

An Israeli friend of mine whose English is flawless tells me that she learned some of it as a child by listening to the Beatles. I sharpen my Hebrew by listening to Hadag Nahash, the Israeli musical phenom. I love the band’s fuel injected use of coarse and elevated Hebrew, its explosive rhythms and melodies, and its refusal to mindlessly navigate the ship of rock and hip-hop onto the shallows of shallow house party culture. Most of all, I enjoy lead singer/songwriter Shaanan Street’s creative betrayal of traditional Jewish texts that redefines their meanings in secular, politically sophisticated ways.

An excellent example of this Jewish literary creativity can be found on the band’s new album, Ze-Man Le-Hitorer, (“Time To Wake Up!”), whose potent combination of contemporary Mizrachi and hip-hop music, spoken word poetry and rap firmly shapes its harsh messages of political polemic and social protest. The album’s title song loudly admonishes Israelis to wake up in protest at the crumbling house that is Israeli society and leadership. The photographs accompanying almost all of the lyrics in the album’s song booklet underscore the urgency of this wake-up call by dressing the models, all of whom are in active, daytime poses, in sleep masks. Only one song, Nogaat, (“You Touch Me”) has a photo of the sleep masks suggestively discarded along with two people’s clothing near a bed. Nogaat repeatedly switches between lyrics about the ordinary citizen (“the worm feeding off the social foundations you built”) feeling screwed by implacable political forces, and the refrain which he sings to his lover:

Aval ba-rega ha-katan
She-bo aht nogaat bi
Lo yishletu, lo yishletu…

Ve-et eish ha-ahavah shelanu
Et ha-tikvah shelanu
Lo yish’beru

But in that tiny moment
When you touch me
They won’t rule, they won’t rule…

And the fire of our love,
Our hope,
They won’t break.

Rather than portray sexual intimacy as a blind, purely physical distraction from one’s overwhelming sense of powerlessness, Street extols it as the truest unmasking – repudiation – of the deceit and repression that dehumanize us. As he writes in the song, “They can’t damage my pride as a thinking, feeling man.”

Street then reworks two traditional Jewish religious phrases, in order to reemphasize the power of intimate, erotic relationship to protect us from being crushed by society:

Sof-sof ba-bayit
Aharei she-halakh od yom
Shel etgarim bein adam le-adam
U-vein adam la-Makom…

Teikhef nit-habber hibbur
Omeid v’yatziv
Hibbur shel emet
She-le-olam eino machziv

Finally at home
After finishing up another day
Of challenges between man and man
And between man and God…

Right away we’ll make a
“Firmly standing” connection,
An honest “coming together”
With no disappointing deception.

My colloquial translation does little justice to the fine word play in these stanzas. The Hebrew phrases, bein adam le-adam (“between man and man”) and bein adam la-Makom (“between man and God”) derive from ancient rabbinic references to the ethical and ritual commandments of Judaism. In the context of the song, categories of religious obligations that prescribe behavioral ideals are turned on their heads by becoming descriptions of the individual’s daily struggles with societal and divine oppression. Ha-Makom, a classic Talmudic euphemism for God, literally means “the place,” which adds another layer of meaning to the line: the average person comes home daily after battling with other people, as well as with the entire country or land in which he or she lives. Only by retreating daily from these struggles into the security of the home, particularly into sexual intimacy, does one resume being fully, honestly human.

Street euphemistically describes sexual union by using phrases compounded from the Hebrew verb, le-habber, “to join, connect, befriend.” He then executes a somewhat ribald reference, omeid ve-yatziv, which I translated as “firmly standing,” a not-too-veiled allusion to male sexual endurance and a couple’s erotic fulfillment. Omeid ve-yatziv cleverly puns the phrase, emet ve-yatziv, “absolutely true” in modern Hebrew, which is derived from the liturgy of Shacharit, the traditional Jewish morning prayer service. In the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, the phrase refers to the truth of God’s word as revealed in the Torah, particularly the words of the Shma Yisrael. In the song, truth is revealed in a secular manner through the unmasking of lovers’ bodies and their stripping away of the falsehoods of the outside world which stand apart from their most intimate moments of desire and vulnerability.

These word plays are so nuanced that they are likely lost on many Hebrew speakers. Nonetheless, they are what literary endeavor is all about. Poets play obsessively with words and the beauties of language. They also recognize that, over time, language can clarify a culture’s aspirations and give expression to its agitation for change. Jewish poets like Shaanan Street take our people’s greatest lore, literature, and language and allow them to speak in radically new and innovative ways to those willing to listen closely. They ferment the new wine of modern protest in the old bottles of classic Jewish wisdom, creating a loving intimacy with the past that anchors us and deepens the meaning of our fight for a better future.

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.