The playing of musical instruments during the Omer period is frowned upon.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is looking to increase the number of younger people who cross its threshold.
Why not turn a restriction into an opportunity?
“Hip-hop is the best way to celebrate the counting of the Omer,” exclaims the MC known as Dyalekt, referring to the spiritual practice of counting each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. “Given the sound limitations — well those are the same limitations that hip-hop [in large part a spoken-word genre] was born out of. We want something musical and theatrical? We can do beatbox and freestyling.”
That was Sarah Wolff’s thought when she pondered the dual imperatives that led to the creation of “Hip-Hop Reflections,” which will be presented at the museum on April 25 (7 p.m., 36 Battery Place, www.mjhnyc.org).
Wolff, the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s producer of public programming for the past four years, explains, “I’m very involved in the underground hip-hop scene in New York. The idea came to me a few years ago. I went to a friend of mine who is a beatboxer, Rabbi Darkside, and he brought in an MC [Dyalekt]. We ended up with a very nice array of people involved — MCs, beatboxers, actresses and spoken-word artists — an eclectic crew trying to get in touch with their Jewish side.” (Jessica Fleitman, Grey Matter, Doron Lev, Michelle Slonim and Tranquill join Rabbi Darkside and Dyalekt.)
Beatboxing, if you’re not familiar with the technique, is a form of vocal percussion in which the beatboxer recreates the sounds of drumbeats, a turntablist “scratching,” and all manner of rhythmic and even melodic devices, using only mouth, voice, lips and so on. It’s the perfect accompaniment when you can’t use or don’t have conventional musical instruments.
The same could be said of rapping. Certainly the badkhn, the Yiddish wedding jester who dealt in rhymed couplets lampooning the guests and others, is a Jewish forerunner of the MC.
The counting of the Omer is a practice that, as Darkside says, “Nine of 10 Jews you ask will say, ‘What’s that about?’”
Although his title is an alias, Darkside’s teaching background is the real thing. He has worked in the city school system for over a decade, using his hip-hop skills to work with kids.
“With an ancient practice like counting the Omer, you struggle to keep it relevant to contemporary thought and behavior,” he says. “The passage of time changes its context and affects its meaning. You present a modern interpretation in an abstract way, but we’re trying to make it concrete for the audience.”
Fittingly, he says that the research and collective discussions behind “Hip-Hop Reflections” has been the most enjoyable part of the project so far.
Dyalekt, whose father is Jewish, also has found immersion in sacred text a valuable part of the work.
“I’m a big fan of religious texts from all traditions,” he says. “One of the things that’s the most fun about Jewish texts is that critical analysis is actively encouraged. It’s a lot more fun that way — digging into the text and finding the parallels between when it was written and what’s pertinent now, but without ever losing the roots of these ideas.”
Asked about the appeal of hip-hop to young audiences, both men demur.
“Hip-hop speaks to old and young people alike,” Darkside asserts. “I don’t differentiate.”
“There is a project being done by West Coast freestyle MCs in which they work with Alzheimer’s patients,” Dyalekt notes, “and it’s been very successful.”
But both are aware of the possibilities of the unprecedented collaboration between a major Jewish museum and doyennes of hip-hop culture.
“People grow up to a 4/4 beat,” Rabbi Darkside says. “There’s a huge opportunity to educate through this medium. What happens when the words of the Torah morph into the Talmud is about dialogue and community. That is what we’re doing, too.”