Words Are Key in Hip Hop Bible Retreat

Participants from last year’s retreat recorded original raps and filmed music videos. | Photos provided

Words have cosmic meanings, whether you’re flipping through the Torah or memorizing lyrics to Tupac.

(Anyone else notice “yo” spelled backward is “oy”?)

The connections between Judaism and rap culture go far deeper than that, though, which Matt Bar will express during the Bible Raps Hip Hop and Education Retreat, a project born out of Moishe House’s Retreatology program.

The second annual retreat starts this weekend for Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds in their 20s and 30s who are interested in rap and Jewish education.

The weekend includes a guided tour of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, rap workshops, Jewish learning, a studio session at Lil’ DrummaBoy Recordings on South Street, original music videos and, of course, Shabbat and Havdalah with hip hop niggunim.

Matt Bar — the OG Bible Rapper, who creates his own raps and videos on educational Jewish themes — will facilitate workshops alongside co-leader Anat Hochberg and Ali Richardson.

The first retreat centered around the National Museum of American Jewish History, but Bar wanted to expand the diversity of the event this year, considering hip hop’s origins are rooted in African-American culture.

“We’ll have a lot of eggshell-ridden conversations about identity and black people’s history in America versus white people’s, and Jews’ history in America, and where we are in America right now,” he explained. He hopes these talks challenge others to advance the conversation while developing a network of people “who wouldn’t be together otherwise.”

“Hopefully it will lead to things that will [create] new friendships and new, better songs than were being created before,” said Bar, who lives in Drexel Hill.

While at the African American Museum, Bar hopes to shoot some of the music video on the third level of the building, which has an art exhibit with “a beautiful textured background” for filming.

Retreat-goers will be joined by special guests like Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum of Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, N.J., who is African-American, and Rabba Yaffa Epstein, director of education for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, who will judge the raps and videos in a contest.

“It’s not competing against Lil Wayne,” Bar laughed. “It’s competing against Hebrew school teachers.”

Bar has been running Bible Raps for about a decade, which uses hip hop and rap to promote text-based learning. With the rise in popularity of Broadway’s Hamilton and its ubiquitous nature used in classrooms to teach children about American history, Bar uses a similar method so people grasp a more thorough exploration of the content.

“Coming out of this, they’ll be more equipped in their classrooms, or as rappers, they’ll be equipped if they want to take a part-time Hebrew school job or substitute teacher,” Bar noted of attendees.

Discussions include topics like “Torah learning — chavruta in rabbinic literature” and “anti-racism and intersections of racism and anti-Semitism.”

One workshop in particular, on “hip hop and Judaism: a comparison of oral traditions,” analyzes the rabbinic reverence for words.

“Words have cosmic power. God created the universe with 10 utterances — he said ‘light’ and there was light. He said ‘earth’ and there was earth,” Bar explained. “And in rap and hip hop culture, you can just tell by the slang … how word is an essential item.”

The intensity of Jewish prayer and davening parallels the speed of double-time rap, he added. It’s “this idea of getting so many words in so quickly because there’s so much to be said and finding rhythmic ways to make that palatable.”

Bar looks up to the rap styles of Lil Wayne — “he had the genius that hit Bob Dylan for five years,” he said — Nas, Bizzy Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album for the blockbuster hit Black Panther.

Those influences are sure to swell the recording studio, where about 16 participants will record original raps in small groups.

“There are opportunities to explore new spaces to beautify these [Shabbat] rituals with things from hip hop and rap that are just cool things that were figured out in rap that might have a place creatively in the niggunim or in the prayer space,” he said.

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