Happy Holidays

12.07.12

Yo, Yo, Yo, It’s Chanukah: Hip-Hop Lights the Menorah

‘Bubala Please’ is the latest hip-hop Chanukah schtick. But can thugs kvetch with the pros? Eli Lake reports.

As Chanukah—a holiday celebrating the exploits of a Jewish guerilla army against the Seleucid Empire—approaches, now is a good time to reflect on how much has changed for Jewish relations with great powers in the last 2,200 years. Whereas the outlaw Maccabees fought to impose religious law on those Hebrews who had assimilated to the Hellenism of the time, in 2012, Jews in America embrace all elements of the modern civil society. American adherents of the world’s first monotheistic faith have found careers in medicine, law, politics, fashion, the military—even hip-hop.

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That said, there aren’t many Jews represented in the competitive field of urban narcotrafficking. This might be changing. At least that is the conceit of a new Web show, Bubala Please. The show features Luis and Jaquann, two apparent gangbangers who intersperse the profane patois of L.A.’s streets with Yiddish words like “schlep” and “tuchus.” In the first episode, the pair teach viewers how to make latkes, the traditional Chanukah potato pancake: “We gonna kibbutz, we gonna kvetch, and we damn shit gonna gamble,” says Jaquann, who then dons a “Kiss my tuchus” apron. “One thing you gotta have for Chanukah is some latke, pendejos,” says Luis.

In the latest episode, they instruct on how to pimp a Chanukah bush with bling. At the end of the episode, Luis beat-boxes and Jaquann raps the traditional Chanukah blessing in Hebrew. 

“The conceit is that they are thugs and gangsters who act like Jewish Boca Raton retirees,” says Jacob Salamon, who, along with his University of Texas classmate Jared Bauer, produced the videos. Bauer and Salamon formed their production company at first to try to make movies, they said in an interview, but found that producing TV-quality Web videos would take far less time than making a single movie. In the meantime, they say the Web videos are a good way to build a loyal fan base for larger projects down the road.

To date, Bubala Please won’t be buying the creators any new McMansions. The first video got more than 230,000 page views on YouTube, but the two say they get about a dollar per 1,000 views. Surprisingly, the audience is largely in the 45- to 60-year-old age range. “This is not something I anticipated,” Salamon says.

One reason younger audiences have not yet embraced the videos may be that the shtick feels stale. While Jews have contributed to rap music for decades (Rick Rubin produced the first Run-DMC records; the Beastie Boys were all Ashkenazi Americans), rap music has embraced Jewish themes directly in the last year.

In the video for his song, “HYFR (Hell Ya Fuckin’ Right),” Drake, a half-Jewish rapper from Toronto, performs at a bar mitzvah ceremony at an actual synagogue. As Drake wears a traditional yarmulkah, co-rapper Lil' Wayne sings the chorus asking whether the listener is high, nervous, or single and whether he trusts his associates.

In January, Noreaga, a lyricist named for the deposed Panamanian dictator, recorded “Mazel Tov,” the Hebrew phrase for congratulations. And then in October, rap mogul Rick Ross released the Black Bar Mitzvah mixtape.

“The conceit is that they are thugs and gangsters who act like Jewish Boca Raton retirees.”

Both Salamon and Bauer said they were unaware of this Yiddish invasion of hip-hop. As for rap music, they say they are Kanye West fans, but are also familiar with the work of Matisyahu, a former Hassidic Jew who is now a popular reggae musician and rapper.

Salamon says one of his goals is to blend what he calls the “honkiness” of Jewish stereotypes with the more negative stereotypes of black and Latino gangster culture. “The whole idea of positive stereotyping is ridiculous to us,” he said. “The whole idea is that you are marginalizing them. Jews are honkey or domestic or reserved. It’s equally offensive to marginalize Latinos or African-Americans. In juxtaposing these hyperbolic stereotypes we are trying to show the ridiculousness of it.”

Other observers are less amused. Prominent Jew in the media and Atlantic senior writer Jeffrey Goldberg said the performance had a minstrel quality: “It’s a bit of minstrel show. Hey, look at the black guy say ‘schlep.’ Was this sort of thing ever funny?”

A truly original approach might be to portray the second-century B.C. Maccabees speaking like rappers. But then again, the Assyrians of that era probably didn’t consider the Jews to be honkeys.