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Rough Draft: Beyond Sammy

Here’s a rough draft of a cultural criticism essay assignment for one of my writing classes.

No one talks about what Sammy Davis Jr. contributed to Jewish culture. Nor do they talk about what the newly converted Isla Fisher, star of the “Confessions of a Shopaholic” film and baby mama to Sacha Baron Cohen, is bringing to the fold. Perhaps, this is because their contributions are seen as adding to general popular culture, but not specifically Jewish culture. Or is it because neither wears, or wore in Sammy’s case, their Judaism on their sleeve?

Enter Y-Love, aka Yitz Jordan, an Orthodox Jewish rapper who describes his style as “global hip hop.” No article written about Jordan fails to mention that his conversion. His Wikipedia entry reminds us first and foremost that he left the Baltimore Baptist church of his youth for the Hasidic world of Brooklyn in adulthood. Adding to this the penguin-esque colors he wears and his black velvet kippahs (sometimes under a gray newsboy cap), Jordan falls easily into the role of your typical New York Modern Orthodox frummie. Or does he?

With lyrics in English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, Jordan is clearly as serious about his Judaism as he is about his music. He’s serious enough even to win the 2006 Jewish Music Awards for Best Hip Hop. To snatch this prize, Jordan dethroned a Jew-by-birth Mattisyahu via internet voting, despite the Forward’s claim that the latter was “the best known Orthodox musician.”

No one questions whether or not Jordan is adding to Jewish culture. Even his album title, This is Babylon, proclaims Jordan as a Jewish artist in exile. XXL magazine argues that Jordan has made hip hop “kosher.” It helps that he raps not just about every day life but also Torah. 4024 MySpace friends and 998 friends on Facebook, which include a self-described rap hater like me, attest to Jordan’s popularity. But all this perhaps only highlights that Jordan is atypical. Like the new song he collaborates on with Crown Heights soul rapper DeScribe, Jordan’s music is hot because it brings “change,” a new perspective, to an Orthodox community that has thrived before on its insularity from the modern world.

Years earlier in the memoir of his conversion to Judaism, an African-American writer named Julius Lester wrote, “Who has ever heard of a black Jew? Few seem to take Sammy Davis, Jr., seriously as a Jew.” But no one seems to have trouble taking Yitz Jordan seriously or for that matter, Julius Lester himself. His memoir Lovesong is a lyrical, impassioned portrayal of a man’s long winding, titillating journey to Judaism. It is rich with insight into African-American and Jewish relations, relations that as Lester portrays have run the gamut from smooth to fractious.

As a recent Forward article on the inauguration of President Barack Obama shows, Lester has become a voice for both African-Americans and Jews. He explained the African-American perspective to his Jewish audience: “At long last, a majority of people believe that blacks have a place in our common humanity.” He also gave readers his singularly Jewish perspective: “I listened to the inaugural address not only as a black person, however, but also as a Jew. I felt excluded by the Christian tenor of the prayers. What a profound affirmation of our common humanity it would have been if Obama had invited a rabbi and an imam to deliver the invocation and benediction.” In one piece, Lester was able to represent two communities in an article that was as layered as his identity.

Was Lester’s perspective unique as a Jew of color? Probably not. More likely, his perspective is unique because of his conversion. As he relates in Lovesong, his decision to become Jewish led to exclusion from parts of the African-American community who saw his decision as a rejection. But it was not a rejection, being African-American and now Jewish, Lester became a hybrid. He is not just the grandchild of a former slave in America but also the grandchild of the Jewish slaves in the Passover narrative. He is of two worlds and through his memoir, Lester’s experiences hint at the idea that perhaps a convert is someone who can look at both his worlds with unparalleled depth, capable of both profound subjectivity and unique objectivity.

Comedian Yisrael Campbell is another convert who earns his daily bread because of his distinct outlook on the Jewish world. Though born an Irish-Italian Catholic, most of Campbell’s jokes are about Jews and they hinge on his perspective as a convert. The audience laughs hysterically as Campbell jokes that Israeli airport security always looks at his passport, which reads Christopher Campbell, and wonders “Where’s the bomb?” During his first run-ins with airport security, Campbell says he gave the officers a detailed explanation of why he converted but after learning more about Israeli culture, he’s changed his tune. “Now, I tell them I did it for the women,” he says. In one simple joke, Campbell offers witty cultural commentary. Sure, he understands Israelis but he knows that as a convert, he’s generally misunderstood. And that’s part of what makes his shtick so comical.

Campbell’s audience always knows that he’s not just laughing with his Jewish audience, he’s laughing at them. He mocks the little things no one talks about. He rails on why Jews light a specific candle the second night of Chanukah. So as not to hurt the other candle’s feelings, he says. “If this is people, a culture, a religion, that cares so much about the feelings of a candle, how must they treat people?” he asks in his routine. “Not so well, I find out,” he responds. “Not all the time. I’m sure we’ve all had our days, I now I have where I’ve thought, I wish I were a Chanukah candle.” Campbell chuckles. The audience bursts into easy laughter. They’re laughing at themselves right along with him.

Maybe converts do more than just add to Jewish culture and the cultures they have brought with them. Converts force Jews-by-birth to dance, cry and laugh with them in a newly Jewish way that couldn’t have been done before. Perhaps, this is because converts force Jews-by-birth to reexamine their own culture from a wholly new original perspective –through music, the written word and yes, even stand-up.

2 thoughts on “Rough Draft: Beyond Sammy

  1. OK, I’ll bite. What does Isla Fisher “bring to the fold”? IMHO, she’s a B actress and former pin-up girl who has a career because she hooked up with a high profile Jewish entertainer after being dumped by record producer Anthony de Rothschild, a descendent of THE Rothschilds. I see what she’s getting. What’s she giving? Sammy had talent and an established career before his conversion. He seemed to have a sincere interest in the faith that had nothing to do with his choice of sex partners. Where’s the comparison?


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