Hip-Hop Shabbat updates Jewish tradition with hip-hop service
“Shabbat Shalom! We’re the OJGs: Original Jewish Gangsters!”
From the small stage inside the Chapman neighborhood’s Subud hall, Oakland rappers Jonathan Gutstadt and Judah Ritterman introduced themselves to the Friday evening crowd seated.
“I thought that was Meyer Lansky,” my brother Scott whispered in my ear, half-jokingly, referring to the notorious late underworld gangster. Unlike Lansky, for whom murder and ruthlessness was the name of the game, Gutstadt and Ritterman see themselves as “gangsters of love like Steve Miller,” as they put it on their Web site.
Gutstadt (AKA Doctor J Money) and Ritterman—the OJGs—are the co-creators of Hip-Hop Shabbat, a modernized, energy-charged version of the Jewish Shabbat service which melds the traditional Friday night prayers with rapping and dancing backed up by pre-recorded hip-hop, reggae and electronica beats.
The Hip-Hop Shabbat service at Subud last Friday (Sept. 23) began with the traditional candle lighting (Gutstadt: “It smells like Chanukkah up here!") and then diverged into an intense and infectious rap:
BimBam BimBam My song when the time comes
It’s the seventh night, son, Grab the mic with the minyan
Bringing in the Sabbath with an ancient niggun
Remembering my tribe when I vibe a Hassidic tune…
Love all men and women, that is my religion
A free will decision to increase my vision
We’ve risen from the prison of time/ space-ism
With Shabbat Shalom as the home of our wisdom…
Ritterman encouraged everyone to start dancing along with them. A boy, about 9 years old, in an orange T-shirt, didn’t hesitate to come forward and start dancing near the front of the stage. More kids, and then adults, joined in, and pretty soon most of the people in the room, everyone from the tiny to the white-haired elderly, along with Dr. J Money and Ritterman, were rapping and dancing the Shabbat service, mouthing the words in Hebrew of familiar prayers at the right time. One spry woman of about 60 at the back of the room was seriously getting into it, dancing for much of the evening with a tireless, joyous intensity.
“Another night, another beautiful night to celebrate together,” Gutstadt mused at one point. “Chico, end of the week, yo!” and “Shabbat Shalom, y’all!” he called out throughout the Shabbat service.
Gutstadt and Ritterman’s performance/ service, throughout the night, flowed in and out of the edginess of rap and a loving vibe of thoughtful spirituality, and always seemed to keep the crowd interested and involved.
Challah at a playa’ with the dough home made
Hit the soft layer of the three-part braid
Remember in the days of the ghetto, we weren’t paid
But now we see we up in the meadow, you can’t fade…
Challah at these Jewish ballers, OJGs with the recipe for
Tasty pastries, we lace these doughs with the flows of Moses…
Challah, boi kallah, OJGs with recipe from Prussia to Russia,
With a crust so sweet, fresh wheat to the beat…
The breaking of the bread, the challah, late in the service, was a time to make sure that everyone was involved, even those who may not have been singing and dancing throughout the night, though there weren’t many of those. As Gutstadt and Ritterman rapped, the challah was passed around to each person in the room to take and eat a piece of it. The handing out of the challah was so thorough that my brother and I were handed it twice to eat from, to make sure that we got some. The sense of community at this point in the service was strong.
“Community building,” Ritterman would tell me several days later by phone from Oakland, “is one of the biggest challenges in today’s life.” And community building is one of the biggest goals of Hip-Hop Shabbat.
“The Shabbat is a time of celebration. We’re trying to make the service enjoyable for everybody,” Ritterman explained. “The Shabbat service has been going on for hundreds of years. Now we’re putting the kind of spin on it that makes it meaningful for everybody.
“We had a really, really good time connecting with the people up in Chico,” Ritterman continued enthusiastically. “What went on in Chico is part of our broader vision of what we’d like to achieve.” Ritterman peppers his discussion with the words “community,” “meaningful,” “exaltation,” “jubilation” and “ecstatic song and prayer.”
“We were raised in Oakland,” Ritterman reflected, “where the dominant culture was not Jewish, but hip-hop culture.” So it made perfect sense that he and Gutstadt started, last Chanukkah, Hip-Hop Shabbat. Popular at Hillels, synagogues and Jewish community centers around the East Bay, San Francisco and the Peninsula, Ritterman and Gutstadt are branching out, with upcoming performances in L.A., and Eugene and Portland, Ore.
“We’re starting a sense of a national [Jewish] hip-hop community that brings in young people and non-Jewish people and people interested in being part of the movement. A lot of people who come to us come from more of a musical background and want to make [their] hip-hop or reggae more spiritual. We’re starting to get our music [Dr. J Money & the OJGs’ CD, Hip Hop Shabbat, is available at www.hiphopshabbat.com] out to the East Coast by word-of-mouth. We definitely want to build a kind of national presence.”
When asked if he feels that he is on a mission, Ritterman responds, “Very much so, very much so. It’s not just about Hip-Hop Shabbat. It’s the music, it’s the Judaism and it’s the sense of spirituality. It’s making Judaism meaningful for the next generation. My personal feeling about all this is if it can do something for me, making me be more in touch with myself, it seems like something that other people are going through also. There’s a sense of, ‘How in the world do we keep this Shabbat thing alive, but also make it fun and interesting and spiritual and communal?’ When the weekend comes, what should we be doing? Here’s an answer: Hip-Hop Shabbat, where you’re accepted.”
Silona Reyman, president and “main cheerleader” for Chico Havurah, the local “creative, inclusive” alternative Jewish community organization that brought Hip-Hop Shabbat to town, praised Gutstadt and Ritterman’s ability to provide a joyous Shabbat experience for everyone in the room that Friday evening.
“I loved Hip-Hop Shabbat,” she said, “because Jonathan and Judah were able to create a soulful, joyful expression of Judaism through their unique musical approach which seemed to appeal to the crowd we had Friday night—a mix of ages and backgrounds.”
Non-Jewish attendee Emily Williams told me after the service how much she enjoyed Hip-Hop Shabbat, adding, “I’m a Unitarian. I get to go wherever I want, and I like the vibe here. I come [to Havurah services] about four times a year. … Did you notice how they make sure that the sharing of the bread is to everybody? They have more rituals in their ritual…”
Reyman hopes to bring Hip-Hop Shabbat to Chico Havurah once a year.
All are welcome to regular Friday night services at 7 p.m. at Bethel AME Church, 821 Linden. Havurah’s membership includes “intermarried (Jewish-non Jewish) couples, the elderly, Jews by Choice (converts), gays and lesbians and Jews of color,” according to Reyman. “Our services are more traditional than Hip-Hop Shabbat but we are open to different experiences!” Look for SF’s Traveling Jewish Theatre at the Chico Women’s Club, Jan. 28.