Bible rapper infuses Jewish education with his rhymes
Matt Bar was a fledgling musician in New York supplementing his income as a Hebrew school teacher when he hit on the idea of inventing Bible raps. Now, he's spearheading a movement based on his raps to fuse popular music with Jewish education. A 'folk rapper' by profession, he was trying to keep a group of middle school kids interested in Bible, Hebrew, and yet another lesson on Jewish tradition one Sunday morning when he decided to rap for them as a kind of "carrot" to keep them well-behaved.
"The disposition of the class turned around 180 degrees and I realized I was on to something," he recalls. But then Bar ran out of "clean" material and so last year, he began composing new raps with Biblical themes for his pint-sized groupies with themes that ranged from Noah's flood to the ten plagues. "The very idea that Hebrew school can be exciting is a very big deal," he said in a recent interview. "Soon, I realized I was looking forward to my Sunday shows more than my Thursday shows. I'm used to a performance when you have 45 minutes and then you're off the stage. Here, I would talk afterwards and engage the students. It combined everything I enjoyed: learning about Judaism, teaching about Judaism, and music."
Bar - who now lives in Jerusalem-is trying to harness that energy to create a Bible rap movement that he says is entirely disconnected from previous attempts at Jewish rap. He says Jewish rap - with names like Fifty Shekel or Jew Tang Clan and lines like "You can see me in the shul because davening is cool"-is very often kitschy.
"My rap isn't kitchy," he insists. "I am a rapper and I see it as a means of organizing language, just like iambic pentameter or a haiku. Through iambic pentameter, Shakespeare reached depths and through rap, I also believed that you can reach the real spirit of things."
Rap, he says, is just another use of innovation "to capture tradition." Bar, 28, was born and raised in Iowa to a Reform family. He's taught at Reform and Conservative Hebrew schools, but at this point in his life, he says he's reluctant to identify with any particular movement. "A movement doesn't grab me the way that Judaism grabs me," he explains.
Bar is idealistic and he's obviously excited about his newest project. He rapped several of his newest songs and not so quietly either during a recent interview at a crowded Jerusalem cafe. But throughout, he seemed oblivious to the curious stares from other diners. So far, his career highlights include opening for OutKast, a hip hop group, and having a song he wrote and performed be featured on MTV's Real World. He defines his own personal style as "folk rap," which he explains sounds something like "Eminem meets Bob Dylan" but says he got his start in the pure rap world.
"I realized I couldn't be this white guy who was putting rhymes together," he said of his early career. "There were times when I was the only white guy on stage and so I had to know how to rap, because I sure couldn't dance."
While he was developing his Bible raps idea in New York, Bar applied to the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism (PICZ), a grassroots think tank in Jerusalem this past summer that brought young Jewish activists from Israel and the Diaspora for six weeks of intensive work. He had been to Israel once before on a birthright trip in 2004 and after PICZ, he decided to enroll in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem - a move, he said, that has allowed him to deepen his understanding of Jewish texts as he develops his lyrics. Bar's raps, some of which are available on his site www.bibleraps.com, touch on Biblical stories from Cain and Abel and the binding of Isaac to Moses and the battle of David and Goliath. The five books of Moses, he says, are chock-full of drama and lend itself well to a "marriage" with rap. So far, he's written about a dozen Bible raps. "I can take you through all of Tanakh," he said several times throughout the interview.
Through rap, Bar sees a pedagogic tool that can be used for education in Jewish day schools and Sunday schools. At Pardes, he studies Biblical texts, as well as commentators like Rashi, while writing his lyrics. He's now also working on creating a source sheet that will accompany each rap.
Bar says his lyrics - both in style and content - also aim to make tradition and biblical stories more relevant, like one rap about Noah's flood.
"The flood gates opened like the heavens had a leak/
and the waters come a gushin from the fountains of the deep/
and I'm rising on the tide 'til the mountains at me feet/
seasick, believe it, I'm bumpin' into beasts/
yeah I'm bumping to the beat to the beat of the sea/
to the beat of the shrieks and the pleas and the screams/
and the gasping and scratching from the people underneath/
and I know that they are murderers I know that they are thiefs/
but their cries are so bad it makes a madman out of me/
my plight is so sad but the lord won't set me free/
for 40 days and 40 nights the rain is slashin' and smashing/
with no light there are no days I just imagine them passin'"
Bar's next album-his fifth, but the first to deal exclusively with biblical themes-is due out this summer, and much of it has been underwritten by Kehillot B'Yachad, an organization that encourages Conservative and Reform congregations abroad to support non-Orthodox congregations in Israel. He's also heading to the U.S. for a summer tour of Jewish camps and says hardly a day goes by when a Hebrew school in North America doesn't contact him.
In rapping, he says he's continuing Jewish tradition. "Tanakh is to be grappled with," he said, "and each generation grapples differently."
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