Sitting before a group of North American Jewish educators, Israel’s hip-hop patriarch Kobi Shimony (a.k.a Subliminal) told the teachers he is one of them.
“I am a young Jewish educator,” Shimony said. “I just do it my own way.”
Shimony, Israel’s Dr. Dre, has numerous Israeli chart-topping hits to his name and has spawned the careers of several other Israeli artists with his own label, T.A.C.T. He’s got the look of a hip-hop impresario right down to the mohawk, baggy jeans, diamond stars of David and the flat-brimmed baseball cap. If all Jewish educators sported his look and his flair for rhythm and rhyme, Jewish parents would have no trouble rousing their kids out of bed on Sunday mornings for Hebrew school.
“[Kids] can connect with me through my music—but undercover, I can deliver a real message,” Shimony explained to the teachers, who were attending a conference of the North American/Israeli School Twinning Network coordinated by The Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether project.
Unlike American hip-hop, which is often fueled by an authentic anger, Israeli hip-hop—pioneered by Shimony—is driven by national pride. It is a call for solidarity not just among Israelis but among the entire global Jewish family. The central theme of Shimony’s musical poetry is that all Jews have a shared destiny, that Israel personifies Jewish history’s long struggle and ultimate redemption in the homeland. His music promotes Israel as a safe haven and talks about a society built on the Jewish values of compassion and justice.
“I love the sound of American hip-hop, but I don’t love the message,” Shimony said. “Everything that’s bad is good. That’s how you get street cred. Ninety-nine percent of Israeli hip-hop is positive.”
He said the most important requirement for writing and performing hip-hop is that it come from a visceral place. That does not necessarily mean crime and violence, but sometimes anger has its place.
“How do you teach Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Rememberance Day) in school?” Shimony challenged the teachers. “By 8th grade, kids just want to go to the beach. It’s not supposed to be that way.”
Rabbi Shmuel Greene agrees. Greene directs teen programs for The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an initiative of New Jersey’s Jewish Federation of Metrowest. Last summer, prior to Tisha B’Av, Greene gathered a group of teenagers at the New Jersey Y Camps and showed them Subliminal’s music video “Adon Olam Ad Matai” (God almighty, until when?)—a Holocaust remembrance song that Shimony wrote and recorded with noted violinist Miri Ben Ari.
“In the song, [Shimony] goes into a little anger,” Greene said. “There is a little bit of edge. Hip-hop is a headspace once you get into that beat. And if you can channel feelings on the topic at hand, you have a medium through which [young people] can relate.”
For Shimony, this is the essence of Jewish education: it needs to inspire today’s youth to care. And that requires the use of every tool possible. For kids today, Kobi Shimony is the right voice at the right time. And, clearly, he’s up for the task.