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Rabbi Daniel Brenner

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Is Drake's 'Re-Bar Mitzvah' Video a Mockery of Judaism?

Posted: 04/16/2012 1:12 pm

In the past week, a video of the hip-hop superstar Aubrey Drake Graham has become the most watched bar mitzvah film clip in human history. The video of the song HYFR has garnered more than 1 million viewers on YouTube, and features the 24-year old Drake having a "re-bar mitzvah."

Drake has never been reticent about his Jewish roots. The biracial Canadian rapper was raised primarily in the Jewish community in Toronto, had a bar mitzvah and discussed his Jewish pride with Heeb Magazine. But what does his latest song, "HYFR" (translation: Hell Yeah, F*ing Right), which is ostensibly a song about the downside of making it big as a rap star (complete with references to women as bitches) have to do with bar mitzvah? And how should we react when a video for a song that relates a life of private jets, expensive alcohol, pills and sexually aggressive women is shot in a synagogue?

The president of the synagogue board that allowed their sanctuary to be rented for the film shoot is already distancing himself from the content of the video. But before we take sides in what the Jewish Telegraphic Agency titled a "Profanity-laced" and controversial video, we might ask: What is Drake trying to say as an artist with this "re-bar mitzvah" and how might this video be understood by the thousands of boys who will celebrate bar mitzvah rituals this year?

The video begins with a young Drake dancing in classic VHS footage from his cousin's bar mitzvah. Then we see the current Drake with a group of white friends outside of Temple Israel in Miami. As Drake raps about a former girlfriend, we are led into a beautifully shot segment where Drake chants from the Torah. With an air of dignity, a gabbai (ritual guide) points out the place to read and Drake takes his tzitzit (prayer-shawl fringes), respectfully kisses the Torah and chants.

Then the video turns to the party. Drake is now surrounded by mainly black friends and he steps up to a table with a cake shaped like a Torah that says "Happy Re-Bar Mitzvah." The cake is surrounded by candles and Drake grabs the scrolls of the Torah cake as if he is lifting it in the synagogue ritual of hagbah (lifting the Torah after it is read). He gleefully crashes the scrolls down, destroying the cake. Next comes the dance party, and here his white and black friends freely inter-mix, lifting Drake on a chair for a hora.

What follows in the video is unremarkable. The clichéd Jewish guy holding a bottle of Manischewitz wine is a particular low point. Another cringe-worthy moment comes when the camera pans across table of bagels, lox, whitefish and some randomly placed matzah balls stacked on a plate. (Really? Served on a plate?)

As in most rap videos, there are women who faun over the male singers, and here we see three well-dressed African American women look into the camera enraptured by Drake and his partner, the panda bear-masked Lil' Wayne. Slow-motion effects on the dancing all make it look as if the party might be taking place in a nightclub on the moon.

As this video goes viral, there will be many who watch this video and wonder if there is anything redeeming about a tableau in which Jewish ritual is mixed in with braggadocio regarding testicles. I was not surprised that on YouTube, one of the more than 3,000 commentators said, "this is making a mockery of Judaism." Another one said, "I am disappointed in YOU DRAKE! I would have thought YOU of all musicians had more respect for your religion. This video, placed with this song is COMPLETE BLASPHEMY! I WAS a HUGE Drake fan until I watched this video." This song is, after all, verse about young men who romanticize a world of excess and alcohol and drugs and sex-crazed women -- the very things we hope our young men are mature enough not to romanticize. Drake and Lil' Wayne don't have much to say other than the catchy chorus "HYFR" and the subtext of the song is something akin to "now that I made it, why are you always asking me about my personal life?"

At first, I was at a loss to explain why Drake would choose the re-bar mitzvah theme for this particular song. The song is not about becoming a man in any way (unless becoming a man means becoming a rapper who is endlessly pestered by reporters), nor does it have any spiritual or religious significance. But as I started to think more about three particular scenes -- Drake's friends watching intently as he reads from the Torah, Drake surrounded by his friends smashing the Torah cake and Drake being lifted on the chair -- I got a sense that this video might be a personal statement about both the act of self-definition of a bi-racial and bi-national Jew and the adult process of forming a community that reflects the diversity of one's inner life.

Drake, in previous interviews, has recalled the difficulties he had growing up biracial in the Jewish community in Toronto. His parents were divorced, and during the year, when he lived with his Jewish mother, he was taunted and called a "schwartze." He felt different, singled out. In the summers, with his father in Memphis, Tenn., he was immersed in a community of black musicians. These identities within him were in conflict and his actual bar mitzvah was not a synagogue celebration but a private event.

So his re-bar mitzvah takes on special meaning. We might ask: Why does he need a re-bar mitzvah in the first place?

I asked one of my sons, who had his bar mitzvah last year, to give me his comments. "He's like looking into his past and telling a story about a relationship that didn't work out, and he's saying that he is proud to be Jewish. I like when he chanted from the Torah." My son saw nothing offensive about the video. "He's Jewish, so he is saying who he really is."

Maybe my son is onto something. The lyrics suggest both a former lover and a reporter attacking him with questions about his private life:

"She asked what have I learned since getting richer"

"interviews are like confessions, get the f* out of my dressing room confusing me with questions"

The lyrics suggest that Drake's central concern is that everyone is wondering about who he "really is." Is his rapper persona real? Is his Jewish identity real? Maybe his re-bar mitzvah is an answer to those questions.

Drake's re-bar mitzvah is not only affirming of his connection to his Jewish roots (especially with the reverent Torah chanting scene) but is an affirmation that he can bring his two worlds, and his two personas, together. In most bar mitzvah scenes that are for film, television or comic videos, parents play a leading role. Here, in the re-bar mitzvah, the focus is on friends. The subtext is that he is finally able to be honest about his past with his current group of friends. Drake does drink wine and flirt with one woman in the video, but he seems happiest when a mixed race group of friends, surrounded by a circle we would imagine to be the women and men in his extended family, dance and lift him up in the chair.

One other scene of this video stands out for me as unusual. Drake, engaged in the candle-lighting ceremony that has become a b'nai mitzvah standard in Reform and many Conservative communities, stands before his Torah-shaped cake. His friends surround him and entertain him playfully. As he raises the cake above his head and then smashes it down, I wondered what this action meant: Was it a simple act of mayhem? Was he celebrating a newfound freedom? Was his smashing an expression of the independence he could now enjoy as he re-defined his community? Watching the video a few times over, I sensed that there was a moment of personal authenticity in this Sinai-infused baked good chaos. While I don't want to read too much into a few seconds of footage, it does seem like there is an act of creative destruction in this scene, a new ritual of sorts that affirms his Jewish identity and hip-hop identity in one swoop. The video ends with two shots that mirror his white friendships and black friendships, his arm first around his friend from Toronto OB (who wears a tallis outside in the video) and then around the dreadlocked Lil' Wayne.

I doubt that this video will have staying power, and the song is likely to shine for a few weeks and then fade away. But having a biracial Jewish hip-hop megastar kiss the Torah in front of millions of fans and affirm the relevance of Jewish ritual is a significant statement. On one level, this video is another superficial and sophomoric party scene, a bar mitzvah bash that emphasizes the bar instead of the mitzvah. But on another level I would argue that Drake's message to bar mitzvah boys is one that has relevance to any teen who feels that he is caught between two competing identities. The subtext here is to be true to what you really are, even the parts of your self that seem to be contradictory. Time will tell if Aubrey Drake Graham has something more to say about Jewish life than this offering, but we should credit him with realizing a vision of bar mitzvah that is about bringing your diverse worlds of friends together to celebrate, and feeling the wonderful uplift that happens when they raise your chair toward the sky.

 
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