When Two Live Jews penned their hip-hop hit “Oy, It’s So Humid!” in 1990, tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, their humorous, Jewish-themed lyrics were meant as a response to the controversial — and, at the time, inescapably popular — rap songs of Two Live Crew. A decade and a half later, call them Heeb Hoppers, Heebsters or harbingers of Jewish hipsterism, London youngsters are picking up where Two Live Jews left off, intent on questioning tradition and creating dialogue about what it is to be a Jew.
A recent article in Metro, the free daily paper distributed in London’s subway and train stations, heralded the rise of hip-hop artists promoting themselves with their Jewishness, including Chasidic New York-based beatboxer Matisyahu, whose latest album debuted on the American charts at No. 4.
More surprisingly, though, Britain’s youth is getting in on “Heeb Hop” more and more, as homegrown Jewish klezmer/hip hop acts like Emunah and Ghettoplotz are cropping up and winning awards.
Even London’s hip-hop parody television personality, Ali G, whose real name is Sasha Baron Cohen, began his career rapping about Jewish life.
Antithesis, a Cambridge-based university student and Zionist hip-hop artist, thinks the trend will continue.
“It’s great to hear someone standing up, not being aggressive or anti-British but proud of their Jewishness,” Antithesis told Metro.
Performances from Emunah and Ghettoplotz, rapping and remixing Hava Nagila, had attendees at a recent Punk Purim “radical Judaism” event in London dancing wildly — and in the small, windowless, sweaty, jam-packed venue, oy, was it humid!
The location of the party in a run-down East End squat was intentional, both for the location’s anti-establishment politics and for the reminder it provided of the neighborhood’s past as the heart of both renegade and mainstream Jewish culture in London.
Punk Purim was a joint presentation by a nine-month-old, London-based organization called Jewdas and New York’s Heeb Magazine.
Similarly styled Heeb events have been popular in New York’s Jewish hipster culture for years, but Jewdas says this is the first event of its kind in Britain — mostly because, as the group sees it, traditional Anglo-Jewry is “increasingly suburban, conservative and dull.”
“We’re trying to start a new movement in British Judaism,” Jewdas co-founder Joseph Finlay told JTA.
Jewdas’ statement of purpose includes “whipping up Talmud, satire, heresy and cream cheese into a chicken soup of underground Diaspora culture.”
Apparently their recipe for Jewish penicillin went down easy. Finlay, 25, estimates some 600 people turned out for the event, which also featured live Jewish graffiti, “radical” Torah study and experimental Jewish film screenings.
Because of their fledgling status, Jewdas organizers want to make sure they don’t put off potential newcomers — not for the wrong reasons anyway.
Referring to the event’s donation-based pricing structure, which undoubtedly is attractive to struggling artists in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Finlay said: “One of the things we’re against is the perceived materialism of mainstream Jewish culture. We will never turn anyone away for lack of funds. We want to keep it accessible to people of all incomes.”
Accessibility and openness seemed to be key themes throughout the evening at Punk Purim. Rowena Budd, 31, a non-Jewish New Zealander who now lives in London, came to the event with friends.
“The whole party was really electric” and appeared “to be quite a diverse range of young people — all obviously mixing happily,” she told JTA. “It heartens me that this is occurring in our generation of future leaders.”
Adam Bernstein, 26, of London, agreed.
“I’m proud to be Jewish but I don’t feel like it would mean more to me as a Jew to be here than it would to anyone else at the event,” he said. “It was just a good event.”
The organizers are all London Jews roughly in their mid-20s, but Finlay doesn’t want Jewdas to be defined as a youth organization, and said he was delighted to see several generations represented at the event. One party-goer named Ben, costumed like the organizers in faux Chasidic attire, attended the event with his mother.
While some may see Jewish hip-hop as the new voice of renegade Jewish culture, Finlay believes it’s just one piece of a larger radical Jewish youth movement happening in Britain, one that includes artists, filmmakers and poets.
“We want to make a new space for people who feel excluded by the Jewish mainstream,” he said.
With such a massive turnout at Jewdas’ first official event, it looks like there are more than a few people who have already found that space.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.