I was saddened to hear about the death, just before Shabbat, of MCA (Adam Yauch) from the Beastie Boys, because I've always liked their music (there's a band who matured and deepened dramatically over the years) and because MCA always seemed like a righteous guy.
But his death also prompts a few thoughts about identity. I remember a few years ago there was a news item in the Jerusalem Report about the Beastie Boys' visit to Israel, and how bemused and startled they were when they realized that they had become role models to a generation of Jewish youth.
They were the real deal, but it makes me think about how in every generation young Jews especially Jewish boys look to other cultures for roots and for escape. We look especially, it seems, towards African-American culture.
The Beastie Boys were Jewish pioneers in an African-American milieu (hip-hop). That itself is part of a grand history of partnerships between blacks and Jews in American music in blues, R & B, jazz, and funk before the preeminence of rap. And the Beastie Boys stood out because they weren't poseurs; their music was the real deal: complex, exploratory, creative, humorous, righteous, and fun.
Which is not to say that there should be ghettos of "Jewish music" or that the Beastie Boys didn't have a clear sense of exactly what they were doing. They always seemed to be aware that their work was absolutely authentic and mildly ridiculous at the same time, which is an appealing combination. But all those 80s and 90s Jewish kids in their baggy pants and urban patois didn't generally seem to have the same sense of self-awareness as MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock. I got a sense that urban culture for those kids was an escape from the middle- and upper-middle class conformist identities that they had inherited, including a rather tepid form of Judaism. The Beastie Boys became role models because they were recognizably not from the street, but from those similar sorts of Jewish homes; they were cool and undeniably Jewish at the same time.
If you're like me, you blanch when you have to fill out a biographical form and under "race/ethnic background" your choices are: white/black/Latino/Asian/Aleutian Islander... and you don't know what to check off. Knowing the history of anti-Jewish prejudice, as well as the desire to be something different like all those hip-hop kids, makes it really hard to check off "white." When I'm feeling particularly ornery, I sometimes write in "Jewish" when asked to list my "race." Since when did Jews become "white folks", with all those connotations of bourgeois conformity? (I borrowed the phrase from a study of Jews in America by Karen Brodkin called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.)
I happen to think that authentic Judaism is radical, provocative, intellectually rigorous, and potentially dangerous; a far cry from everything that is connoted by the lame term "white." But those of us in Jewish education are still fighting a battle against the mid-century conformist mindset that the Coen Brothers skewered so knowingly in A Serious Man.
As far as I know, the Beastie Boys never tapped into those Jewish sources to inform their art. Still, there was something very recognizable in their attitude and their music to young Jewish boys, and their desire for something a little... cooler than what they've been handed. The next step, for ourselves and the next generation, is to rediscover that coolness that remains inherent in Judaism.