LOS ANGELES (JTA) — FADE IN.
SCENE: A fat, white Jewish boy wearing a backwards baseball cap, pink sunglasses and a snarl, walks down the street to the tune of “Baby’s Got Back,” but instead of saying “I like a big butt and I cannot lie,” he’s rapping these words:
Dawgs, I like matzah balls and i’ll tell you why/
If I don’t get ’em it makes me cry.
When the smell rolls in and I imagine the taste, and around them in your face
You get Tums!
Wanna eat that stuff – cuz one just ain’t enough!
My clothes they keep on tearing, I’m fat but i’m not caring…
It’s “Matzah Ball Rap,” one of the many Passover videos virally spread around YouTube, the premiere medium to get out a message — whatever that message may be. Since the Passover seder is the most attended Jewish ritual of the year, the Jews of YouTube have lots to say about it, with videos — funny, satirical, animated and somewhat educational.
In other words, a perfect medium for today’s younger generation of Jews looking to connect to their heritage.
There are the rap songs, like the animated hip-hop video by Smooth-E (comedian Eric Schwartz) called “Matzah: Hip Hop Fo’ Jews” (I feel like a freak/because every time I pull out something to eat for this week/I can’t do it/because I’m Jewish/and I can’t eat bread/and my rabbi said only/MATZAH!), which was featured on the “Tonight Show.” Then there are the melodic spoofs, such as Michelle Citrin’s “20 Things to Do With Matzah” (Passover’s over and wouldn’t it be neat/if you could use all the matzah you didn’t eat/Catch it like a Frisbee with your friends in the park/ or jump in the water and pretend you’re a shark), which in the last year registered almost half a million hits.
There are the cute ones, like Sam Apple’s “Who Let the Jews Out,” to promote his book “Schlepping Through the Alps” (Ballantine, 2006), and the utterly ridiculous ones, such as the movie preview “I Know What You Did Last Seder” (four Jewish teens are in great danger when a rabbi discovers they have been eating leavened bread during Passover).
Others are more substantive than songs, with modern-day interpretations of the Passover story, such as “Let My People Grow,” an animated sketch — by Stephen and Joel Levinson, based on their seder skits growing up on Dayton, Ohio. This one frames the Jews’ desire to leave Egypt as a breakup. (Jewish Slave Girl: “We think it’s time to move on, you know, get a place of our own.” Egyptian master: “But you can’t leave now! I mean things were going so well! Listen, this pyramid is almost done — just finish it up … ”)
“I think there’s a lot of stuff to be had in the Jewish world: a cynical, modernist retelling of the Bible,” Joel, a full-time YouTube videographer who earns his living winning YouTube contests, said about “God and Co.,” Nextbook’s video series of Bible stories. “God is portrayed in a way that he isn’t usually portrayed.”
Just as the Internet and its blogs have upended traditional media like newspapers and television, YouTube has changed the way many young people think about religion. The Passover videos are just one example of how the Jews of YouTube — usually 20- and 30-something comedians, musicians and writers — are using their culture and creativity to redefine the tradition.
"Being Jewish is a part of me — it’s not the only part of me, but it’s part of my story,” said Smooth-E, a comedian who has made dozens of YouTube videos, including Jewish ones like “Crank That Kosha Boy,” which has generated more than 3 million hits, perhaps because it spoofs SoulJa Boy’s popular hip-hop song “Tell Em (Crank That).”
"As a Jewish artist, I’m telling my story. I kind of have a skewed view — I look at matzah and think that I love the tradition, but matzah stops you up like traffic on the 405 at rush hour,” Smooth-E said, referring to a Los Angeles highway. “It’s not disrespectful, but we can all relate to it.”
There are different reasons behind Jewish videos on YouTube.
Some are inadvertently America’s Funniest Home Videos-style funny, like “Seth’s Bar Mitzvah," which features a family singing karaoke horribly off-key. Others are serious affairs, like castigating the United Nations for its stance on Israel, or explaining Jewish rituals such as the seder.
But the ones that gain the most traction are the scripted, funny videos. Some promote Judaism, but in a more subtle — and timely — way.
Take Citrin’s “I Gotta Love You Rosh Hashanah,” a parody of the “Barack Obama Girl” video (“Yom Kippur leaves me feeling empty inside/Passover reminds of the tears that we cry/but I don’t want to think of our tragic history/cuz I’m comin’ home for Rosh Hashanah”).
“The crazy part was the response I got from people — ‘You make me proud to be a Jew’ and ‘You’re so cool,’” Citrin said, noting that she heard from children, grandmothers, even a Holocaust survivor. Hebrew school teachers told her they use it in their curriculum, and people still stop her on the streets.
“People really connect to it,” said the 28-year-old folk singer from Brooklyn.
Others use YouTube videos to promote a specific cause, such as Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep,” which encouraged young Jews to urge their grandparents to vote for Obama — and grabbed more than 3 million views.
“Talk to your audience where they hang out,” said Matt Dorf, of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, who worked with the people behind “The Great Schlep” campaign, and Birthright Israel, a Jewish organization that makes good use of YouTube.
Birthright has hired artists like Citrin to make videos and holds video contests for program alums.
“It’s where their people are,” Dorf said of the18- to 26-year-olds eligible for Birthright’s first-time free trips to Israel. “You’re not going to speak to them with a full-page ad in The New York Times.”
Where do people hang out?
On Web sites like JDate, which like Birthright recently hired Brandon Walker — the songwriter of the 1.6 million-viewed video “Chinese Food on Christmas." For Birthright, he wrote a Passover one, “Get Down Moses," and for Jdate he wrote “February’s Here” (“Never thought I’d be the type to use a dating site online/but February’s here and I don’t have a Valentine …”).
“People come still come up to me and say, ‘Oh my cousin from Argentina got it from his uncle in Israel who sent to his doctor in California,’ these bizarre stories,” said Walker, 26, who teaches music at a Jewish day school in Baltimore in addition to writing music. (“Chinese Food on Christmas” was originally a college class assignment to write a Christmas song that he first posted on the Web in 2003).
Walker wasn’t surprised by the popularity of his YouTube videos.
“Jews love to have a voice in pop culture," he said. "We’re a minority and been through so much, but we’re so vocal and prevalent — I think that’s why we love stuff like this.”
With YouTube, Walker said, Jews get “to make our presence known in a positive, lighthearted way, which is not always the case.”
What is the line between lighthearted parody and wicked satire? Between being "good for the Jews" and "bad for the Jews"?
Rob Kutner of "The Daily Show" doesn’t think he crosses the line with Jewish spoofs — “Meshuganeh Men” (Miss Holowitz, what would you say if I told you I had a cozy room reserved for you in the Catskills this weekend and we could curl up together and watch the Eichmann trial?) and “Jewno” (I thought it would be worse — getting under 1200 under the SATs, donating money to the Jewish Bush presidential library, stopping a diet!”) — all written to promote the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca’s annual Purim shpiels.
“I think these are generally positive stereotypes,” Kutner said, although he does receive some negative feedback as well. “I figure words can never hurt me.”
Some YouTube Jews don’t care much about whether it’s good for the Jews or not. Consider “Miriam and Shoshana,” or as they are known on YouTube, “Hardcore Jewish Girls." Dressed in buttoned-up white shirts and knee-covering dark pleated skirts, they play Orthodox yeshiva high school girls rapping — “School starts at 7:45 a.m./before that we get some ‘Schevitz in/’82 ‘yo, study Torah/we’d read some to ya/but we’d bore ya” — as they chase boys and dream of being like Amy Winehouse.
Videos such as “Hardcore Jewish Girls” and “Modern-Day Jesus,” both produced by filmmaker Oren Kaplan, 29, are not out to promote a holiday or a cause or Judaism — just the artists themselves.
Kaplan noted that Comedy Central has optioned his “Modern-Day Jesus,” which he hopes will be a serious satire about religion and secularism.
“We get broader exposure on YouTube than through the film festival route and working our way up through Hollywood,” he said. “It allows us to throw stuff out there and see what people like and don’t like, and it allows us to entertain."
It also caused a “conversation” on YouTube, where a rabbi made a video “banning” the "Hardcore Jewish Girls" video (“Hashem Yirachem [may God have Mercy] on all those involved and all those who have seen it,”) and another person “unbanned” it ("I think Hashem will be very proud and give them a lot of brachas”).
Ultimately, though, Reb Moshe of Safed left it up there because the video had so many hits, it ended up getting him hired for other work, including a promotional video for the city of Las Vegas.
What about people who don’t get the joke?
“A lot of those involved with kiruv [religious outreach] seem to me overly concerned with how others think of the Jews,” said Kaplan, whose day job is a videographer for Disney.
“I have been socialized in a much more secular world. I don’t really see a need to be extremely careful what I put out there,” he said. “I know it bothers a lot of people, but then [I say] don’t watch it and don’t talk about it.”