WASHINGTON (JTA) — Thanks to hip-hop superstar Drake’s latest music video, there are now far more eyes focusing on Temple Israel’s bimah than there are even during the High Holidays.
And even though the song’s lyrics are decidedly more profane than sacred, the Reform synagogue’s president said he hoped the video would help Jewish youth connect to Judaism.
The video, parts of which were filmed in the Miami shul’s sanctuary, purports to depict Drake’s “re-bar mitzvah,” showing the Jewish rapper reading from what appears to be a Torah. But the accompanying song, "HYFR" (Hell Yeah F***ing Right), has nothing to do with a bar mitzvah. Rather, it features profanity-filled and sexually explicit lyrics.
“But she was no angel, and we never waited / I took her for sushi, she wanted to f*** / So we took it to go, told them don’t even plate it,” Drake raps.
The video had garnered well over 1 million views by Wednesday, only five days after its release.
At first, Temple Israel’s president, Ben Kuehne, said that the video — lyrics aside — is "an embracing of religious passage." He said, "It’s not a sacrilegious message; it’s not an antireligious message."
But once Kuehne had a chance to review the video and the lyrics more closely, he said, "The complete video is certainly not consistent with Temple Israel’s longstanding history and reputation as a progressive voice in the Jewish Reform movement." He added, "Temple Israel does not adopt, condone, or sponsor any aspect of the Drake video, and was not involved in its production."
Nevertheless, Kuehne said, he hoped "Jewish youth will see the Drake video at least in part as a reminder to ‘re-commit’ themselves to their Jewish religion."
Drake, whose real name is Aubrey Graham, was raised by his Jewish mother in Toronto and attended a Jewish day school. “I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he told Heeb magazine in 2010. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.”
The 25-year-old rapper today is one of the biggest names in hip-hop. He has been very public in embracing his Jewish roots, wearing a Chai pendant on the cover of Vibe magazine.
The video for “HYFR” opens with a clip of Drake as a boy at a bar mitzvah celebration saying “mazel tov” and then cuts to him as an adult wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl as he is shown apparently reading the Torah at Temple Israel’s bimah. A caption at the beginning of the video says the rapper “chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish faith."
The staged footage of the purported ceremony is followed by party and dancing scenes filmed elsewhere. In many ways, it looks like a typical over-the-top bar mitzvah party — only in this case, the bar mitzvah "boy" is a famous musician who is joined by hip-hop producer DJ Khaled and fellow rapper Lil Wayne wearing a panda mask.
The camera pans a food table with bagels and what appears to be gefilte fish and smoked fish. Drake is shown being lifted in a chair and later pounding a cake with its Torah scroll decorations.
Kuehne said that those involved in the filming were "very respectful and used the temple outside and inside as we would have expected anybody to do." He said that the producers of the video paid a standard rental fee for the use of the synagogue’s facilities.
Kuehne also said the synagogue’s Torah scroll was not used and that the scenes where Drake appears to be rapping in the sanctuary were inserted post-production. "None of the song’s lyrics were sung in the Temple Israel Sanctuary," he said.
Yitz Jordan, an Orthodox Jewish rapper who goes by the stage name Y-Love, told JTA he is thrilled to see Drake publicly embracing his Judaism.
"I’ve been saying for years, ‘What’s it gonna take to put Drake in a yarmulke,’" Y-Love said. "I’ve been clamoring for Drake’s Jewish visibility forever."
He dismissed the lyrics, saying he doesn’t listen to Drake for the content.
"You’re not really sitting there trying to learn about the system of wealth distribution in America," Y-Love said. "I’m ecstatic just to see Drake in a yarmulke period." He added, "This is going to help a lot of Jewish kids of color stand up in the hood. Drake’s doing this is really going to help those kids."
The video’s director, Director X, told Vibe magazine that filming the video last month was a “lot of fun.”
“We were very respectful of the religion and all that happens there,” he said. “So everyone took care with thinking about what’s what, but at the same time, it’s Drake, he’s 24 having a re-bar mitzvah. So it does have a comedy element just by the scenario itself.”
The video’s YouTube page has been flooded with comments both praising and blasting Drake.
"What’s the point of committing to a religion, whose principles you are not going to follow…?" one commenter wrote. "This is just making a mockery of Judaism. I do not practice Judaism, and even I am offended."
Another wrote, "We get it, you’re proud, which is great — celebrate it more respectfully."
The video also had its defenders. "Drake is Jewish, his mother is Jewish and he was raised in Jewish religion," one wrote. "In this video he shows his recognition and actually says that’s what I am."
Grantland blogger Rembert Browne sees the video as an expression of Drake’s second coming-of-age.
"Coming to terms with who you really are, publicly, is a sign of adulthood, and with this video it’s apparent that his process of doing this is at the very least under way," Browne wrote. He also said he never had seen Drake "as happy, on-camera, as he is in these party scenes. The look on his face screams, ‘Finally, I can be myself.’"