Several years ago Dan Wolf, a San Francisco-based musician, writer, rapper and performer, discovered that he was the heir to a Vaudeville tune called “Tuedelband,” the signature song of the city of Hamburg. The song is so famous that it starts off the classic 1981 German film “Das Boot,” and is still sung at soccer games. A documentary called “The Return of the Tuedelband” was even made in Germany about Dan Wolf’s return to Germany to learn more about his family, and its cultural legacy.
“The song was written by my great-grand uncle Ludwig Wolf, part of the immensely popular group Gebrueder Wolf [The Wolf Brothers],” he explained. “Originally it was the second verse to a much longer song that he eventually expanded into its own piece. But because it was a song about a Hamburg boy and his strength and pride of being from Hamburg, the entire city embraced its message. By 1938 the song was so popular that the Nazis said it was too German for Jews to sing, and so they were forbidden to sing their own song.”
What Wolf chose to do with this knowledge is revealing: He got together with his friend and long-time creative partner Tommy Shepherd to create a hip-hop theater piece called “Stateless,” which has its world premiere this week at The Jewish Theater of San Francisco.
“Stateless,” which weaves together German song lyrics, beat-boxing, and Wolf and Shepherd’s biographical histories, represents a fascinating model not just of successful creative collaboration, but of the possibilities of engaging young Jews. This is not lost on Wolf, who is also director of The Hub, the youth-oriented cultural arm of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
“Stateless” is full of Jewish references and history, as well as the story of hip-hop and African-American life. But Wolf is categorical when he says, “There is no intrinsic connection between Judaism and hip-hop.” His hip-hop and Jewish identities are utterly separate and equal, despite the creative synthesis that comes out working with both.
Much of post-war American music is a melding of different ethnic styles and approaches. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, visitors are constantly surprised by the sound installation “Jews on Vinyl,” which explores how Jews, Latinos, African-Americans and others tried on and experimented with each other’s music during the past half-century. Records like Irving Field’s Latin-flavored “Bagels and Bongo,” or the soulful rendition of songs from “Fiddler on the Roof” by The Temptations, are prime examples of the American musical melting pot.
In “Stateless,” the connection between German/Jewish folk song and American hip-hop is more uneasy (although no less compelling) than earlier generations of cultural synthesis. In some ways, it conforms to the “salad bowl” descripition of American culture, where the ingredients keep their own flavor and texture, instead of a “melting pot,” in which everything blends together.
Rachel Levin, associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, recently explored this issue from a Jewish institutional angle in her recent essay, “Philanthropy in the iPod Era,” for a Jim Joseph Foundation publication. The essay states that the assumption that “the majority of Jewish youth will go on to see their Jewishness as their dominant and primary identity, that they will associate primarily with other Jews and marry another Jew, is based on a flawed and outdated understanding of what it means to be Jewish in America today.” Acknowledging the reality of “multiple identities” does not mean that “one’s Jewishness is unimportant or needs to be superficial; there is an important opportunity (and need) to help young Jews better understand their connection to their Jewishness.” This discovery, however, “is best understood and explored in connection to their daily and universal lives…”
“Daily and universal” life, in this context, means hip-hop music, as well as the texture of sampling, mixing and matching cultures and identities that it helped pioneer, and that is the prime characteristic of the digital landscape. For young hip (hop) Jews, many of whom are disconnected from the energy of traditional Jewish culture, the storytelling brio and intense cultural questioning that characterizes “Stateless” makes it an invigorating introduction to the landscape of Jewish creative possibility.
“Stateless” begins with a narrator telling the performers, and perhaps the audience as well, that “Your story started long before you were born…” And yet, in today’s culture, young Jews are improvising their stories with the cultural materials at hand, drawing from the street as much as from the shul.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence and director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
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