January 07

Ask a Jew a Question and Get a Y-Love Answer

Peter Bebergal

Listen: Mehadrin Rhymin from Y-Love's forthcoming LP This is Babylon.Download free MP3

“Sing to the Lord a new song... sing to the Lord, all the earth.”
Psalms 96

The question: Why do Jews so often pray with the phrase “Our God and God of our fathers?” The answer: If we come to God only through the traditions of our forefathers and mothers, then our faith will be rigid and dogmatic, without heart. If we come to God only by our own making, then our faith will be without form or foundation, easily shaken. Therefore, we must come to God both through tradition and by our own calling.

But what if our calling is something that seems, at least on the surface, opposed to tradition? What if it is born not from lessons in the synagogue or the yeshiva, but from the street, from the brownstone stoop, from dancing on a blistering hot day in the stolen water from a fire hydrant? What if our faith rises not from the language of the law, but from dirty rhymes and breakbeats? What if our instinct to scribe looks more like graffiti than a Torah scroll? Would this kind of freestyling faith jive with the “God of our fathers?”

According to the hip-hop artist Y-Love the answer to these questions is a singular yes. In fact, Y-Love not only sees hip-hop a response to tradition, but as a parallel way to pray and live religiously. For starters, the Torah of Y-Love teaches that hip-hop has always been a challenge to hierarchy, insisting that everyone must have a voice and everyone can sing: “All one needs is a functioning set of lips to produce a beat, and a mind to create lyrics,” Y-Love says. “It’s a true universal mode of expression – and, I think, a natural fit with Torah.” But what does hip-hop in a natural fit with Torah sound like? The answer to this question begins with the artist's roots.

Y-Love (Yitzchak Moshe Jordan) was born in Baltimore, converting to Orthodox Judaism when he was 22, later joining the chassidic community of the Bostoner Rebbe. Before his conversion, Y-Love – who also goes by the nickname "Yitz" – listened to politically charged punk and hard rock. And while he had had some exposure to rap, it wasn’t until he met his study partner David Singer in yeshiva that Y-Love's real musical education began. Singer was deeply into hip-hop and shared his love with his hevruta. Y-Love recalls: “I learned how to rhyme in yeshiva while learning with my study partner at the time. For me there never could be a contradiction since hip-hop began for me as a form of spiritual expression.” Together they began performing as Y-Love and Cels-1.

Eventually, Yitz began to fuse his Torah and music. Between samples of Aretha Franklin and heavily mixed beats emerged sounds and phrases of Aramaic, the lingua franca of much of the Talmud and the full variety of Jewish legal, mystical, liturgical, and other texts. And while Y-Love does not rhyme about minutiae of the gemara proper, his singing embraces a form of argumentation and dialectic familiar to anyone who has spent time with the sing-song back and forth of talmudic texts. Going a bit deeper with this parallel, as in ideal forms of Jewish study, the singer's (or student's or teacher's) purpose is to get himself – and us – closer to the divine. Y-Love agrees: “Through hip-hop I hope to elevate people and make them more conscious of the divine spark that they have inside of them, as this divine spark exists in every member of humanity to a degree and through this recognition axiomatically comes a reduction in racism and prejudice.”

When we ask why do we pray with the phrase “Our God and the God of our fathers?,” the best answer – in classic Jewish old school style – comes in the form of yet another question: “How do we pray to our God and the God of our fathers?” To this question, Y-Love says:

Rise with the nation/fulfill the words of prophecy Words set the stage/and I don’t think they’re stopping me
Dropping the wisdom through mind and religion/I ask why ask why?
It’s Y-LOVE in your vision
Finding your mission
1,000 trials and missing, on electric wires, sizzling,
hot like fires, wishing dids were didn’ts
sealed into dinim then you fit the description
change your position! realign and unify with His presence!

Y-Love's album This is Babylon is forthcoming from Modular Moods.


Peter Bebergal is Zeek's Music Editor.