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November 16, 2011 By:
'Rapping' His Way Through the Bible
Matt Bar would like you to know that he's not white -- just Jewish.
At least, that's the tongue-in-cheek response-turned-song that the Center City resident came up with years ago to explain how he eased into an otherwise all-black rap group.
Today, the 32-year-old has built a veritable Jewish educational nonprofit around his rapping talent, and the philanthropic world is taking notice. His Bible Raps project (www.bibleraps.com) was recently featured, for the second year in a row, in an annual list of 50 "inspirational organizations in Jewish life in North America" released by Slingshot, a funding clearinghouse for such ventures. Earlier this year, he was named to the Jewish Week's "36 under 36" list of young leaders to watch.
Bar considers himself equal parts Jewish educator and rapper, but the former notion never even entered his mind growing up in Iowa City.
"I always had a fairly intimate relationship with the mystery of it all," Bar said, but synagogue "never really resonated for me."
His obsession with rap, on the other hand, began percolating as a child when he heard Tupac Shakur's "Brenda's Got a Baby."
"I didn't know nothing from nothing but the fact that he was telling this story that was so deep and he looked so cool," Bar remembered. "It was amazing. I just had this fascination with the words and the culture."
It wasn't unusual for him to break into raps (something he demonstrated multiple times during interviews for this story). Then again, Bar noted, that was kind of a zeitgeist of the "hip hop generation." Back in the day, he said, people would whistle to themselves. "Now they beat box to themselves."
After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, he returned to Iowa to help out his dad, who has multiple sclerosis, and worked as a teaching assistant at the local alternative high school. In the evenings, he kept his tongue sharp with a rap group called Renaissance. Whenever it was his turn to take the mic at performances, Bar said, he could sense the audience bracing themselves for "the white guy."
"The spotlight was very hot," he said.
Those years of touring allowed him to grow from a songwriter who can rap to a legitimate rapper, Bar said.
He moved to New York to pursue his dream of breaking into the music scene, teaching sixth graders at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn., on the side. There, he discovered that his music could also serve as an academic motivator: If the kids were good, he'd rap for the last few minutes of class.
"All of a sudden, I was, like, the best Hebrew school teacher," Bar remembered.
It didn't take long before he ran out of clean lyrics and the kids complained that they'd heard all his songs already. So one day, he prepared a rhyme to go along with the lesson plan.
Fueled by the kids' reactions, he found himself doing more raps about Jewish texts instead of the usual "heading to the club" fodder. Piecing together raps about the Bible turned out to be a surprisingly "intense poetic writing experience," he said. Sure, the material has been around for thousands of years, Bar said, but "what people learned when they were 6, I'm learning now with a fully developed mind that can maybe inject some new life into these things that seem old hat."
In 2007, he brought the beginnings of his project to the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism in Jerusalem, which helps innovative young entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses.
There, he met Ori Salzberg, an Orthodox musician and producer who became his associate director, and secured their first $5,000 investment. They built up a repertoire as Bar dove into religious study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
During more than two and a half years in Israel, the duo made frequent trips to the United States to present their project at synagogues and summer camps. Eventually, they were traveling so much that they decided to embark on a year-long U.S. tour, Bar said. In between gigs, Bar stayed with Salzberg in Atlanta or with his girlfriend in Philadelphia. He officially moved here in February.
"For modern, hip Jews, he's essentially our Rashi," said Cody Greenes, an attorney who became friends with Bar through Moishe House, where Jewish residents run programming for each other and their peers. Greenes lives there along with three other young professionals.
Greenes later saw Bar perform at Limmud Philly in March and invited him to present at a "Topics on Tap" educational event.
By putting "massive amounts of content and historical anecdotes" into song, Greenes said, Bar brings Judaism to a modern, "pop culture level." Aside from the fact that his music blends in with top-quality secular rap, Greenes said, Bar truly connects with his live audiences to get them interested in the subject matter -- adults, kids, even people who aren't Jewish.
"He's made me more interested in Judaism and learning," said Greenes, 28, recounting several late-night conversations that digressed into religious realms. "I bought a chumash only because I was hanging out with him."
The way Bar sees it, the holy, meaningful substance of Judaism has already been recorded; his contribution is reshaping it in a way that will catch attention.
"Hip hop provides a space that you can talk about mature subjects, which is why it's an advantage pedagogically," he said.
Plus, he said, you can fit a lot more words in a rap than a typical song.
The concept is intended to go far beyond Hebrew school, to create "new time and space for Jewish education and culture," so that being Jewish isn't something that you do just when you're in Hebrew school or services, Bar said.
To date, Bar estimates that he's written roughly 150 songs, about 40 of those related to the Bible. His first "Bible Raps" album was released in 2009; a second is slated to come out around January.
More important than recordings, he said, are the 115 workshops he and Salzberg have hosted with school-age children around the country. During those sessions, they challenge the kids to come up with their own Bible raps, which they film and post on: www.biblerapsnation.com.
Using grant funding, Bar also hired a consultant to help them create a curriculum around 18 of the raps. They offered the material free to teachers who wrote to say how they would use it. Since the beginning of the year, they've sent packets to 140 classes in six countries.
Concurrent with the curriculum, the team offered teacher training on how to use it. Eventually, Bar said, he'd like to train up to "four cats" with an interest in Jewish rapping to help him spread workshops and teacher training sessions around English-speaking communities.
In the meantime, he's working on other projects, such as a book of hip hop lullabies -- "Shel Silverstein meets Lil Wayne, or whoever."
He'll make his next appearance here at Taste of Limmud at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Dec. 10. Rather than rapping, he'll be delving into another facet of his studies at Pardes with a discussion on "Nietzsche in the Beit Midrash."