If there is one type of music that your rabbi is almost certainly not listening to in his car, it's probably rap music. It's difficult to classify a whole genre of music as "unJewish" but given the lifestyles led by most of today's rappers and the values espoused in many of their songs, rap is seen by some as the musical equivalent of a cheeseburger: simply not kosher.
Jewish comedian and rapper Eric Schwartz would probably disagree. He has been DJing and rapping since he purchased record turntables with his Bar Mitzvah money when he was 13, and now combines the two in a stand up comedy act.
He first achieved widespread notoriety in 2004 when a rap song parody that he composed – Chanukah Hey Ya, based on Outkast's song Hey Ya created an email forwarding frenzy. Unbeknownst to him, an Asian student named Jason Kwan designed a flash animation to accompany Schwartz's song as a school project, and the rest is cyber-history.
Building on the success of Chanukah Hey Ya, Schwartz, or "Smooth E" as he is known to some, came out with a rap song in honor of Passover called "Matzah." He sent the song to humor website JibJab and they agreed to develop accompanying animation. The result was featured on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno leading to another internet success.
All of the exposure confirmed Schwartz's hypothesis that the hip-hop and Jewish cultures have more in common than meets the eye. After all, "In hip hop," Schwartz says, "we say ‘Yo,' but because we read from right to left in Hebrew, that's ‘Oy.' See -- same thing!"
Schwartz grew up in Sherman Oaks California and used to accompany his father on trips to weekend swap meets where his father, who was in the "shmata business," would sell his wares, while young Eric would spend his hard earned money on music, much of it of the "hip hop" variety. Fusing entrepreneurship and his passion for music, Eric opened his own DJ business.
While in college studying towards a degree in journalism, Schwartz got an internship at a local radio station and started writing some comedy bits. This is where he started putting his love of both music and comedy together.
"I represent a big portion of young Jews who are into hip-hop. There are a lot of Jews out there who just can't get down to the horah."
With people comparing him to comedians like Weird Al Yankovic and Adam Sandler, Eric Schwartz appears to have found a niche. "I represent a big portion of young Jews who are into hip-hop," Schwartz explains. "There are a lot of Jews out there who just can't get down to the horah. Those people appreciate what I am doing -- that I can make them laugh and dance at the same time."
Schwartz's newest release is an entire album dedicated to music parodies with a Jewish twist. Entitled Kosher Kuts: Hungry for More, the album has tracks like: Crazy Jew, Latkes in Herre, Matzah and Lose the Gelt. In one song called "So Kosher," Schwartz discusses keeping kosher in a way that your rabbi could probably never dream of:
"So kosher for me, make it so kosher for me. It's like I live by rules of the psalm / Cuz I'm a Jew and I'm strong, without tattoos on my arm / All the meals we eat are Kosher, and to abide by the law / You can't eat pig or clams or crabs or even lobsters or prawns / Milk can't even be on the same plate that them spare ribs was on / You must've heardabout them meals I prepared in my home / All these dishes are delicious and resistance is wrong / But only bagels and knishes all my choices is gone."
As silly as the lyrics sounds, when examined more closely they appear to have a deeper message -- that keeping kosher can be "cool," and even in today's society Jews should be proud to stand up for their ancestral traditions.
But many would argue that there should be limits placed on attempts to make Judaism look "cool." Does our religion really need "rebranding"? And how far do you go?
Schwartz argues, as far as it takes to make a connection with young Jews. "Hip hop culture is everywhere these days, and everyone is affected by it, even Jewish kids. Hip hop is just ‘hopping on to something hip' -- taking something old and looking at it in a new light. You can do that with anything, even Judaism."
Even though he advocates showing Jewish culture in a new light, he still champions an old message. "Being funny is part of Jewish culture, and that's a great thing that you are allowed to joke. There are a lot of religions out there, where humor is not part of their traditions and I think that would be really boring. That's one of the reasons I love being Jewish. I think that God somehow has a good sense of humor, and likes to see that we do too."
To visit Eric's website click here (www.suburbanhomeboy.com)