“You should do what we do, stack chips like Hebrews.” I’m not sure when I realized what Jadakiss was saying in the unbleeped version of “All About the Benjamins,” but I remember being weirded out. Maybe because at the time I was still pretending not to like shiny-suited materialistic rap; maybe because, as a financial aid student at a fancy New York private school, I keenly felt the irony of the old stereotype about Jews and money.
Either way, I learned to let this kind of backhanded compliment to my people slide as I got deeper into rap. Jay-Z could brag that he “flow[ed] tight like I was born Jewish” on “This Can’t Be Life” – hey, better that than the appalling Holocaust punchline he allowed Sauce Money to get away with a couple years earlier on “Reservoir Dogs.” When I was banging Hell Hath No Fury in 2006, I didn’t spend much time worrying about Malice’s “Mildewish, I heat it, it turns bluish/It cools to a tight wad, the Pyrex is Jewish.” It’s a gripping image, executed as part of a tidy rhyme scheme, and sideways slights from coke rappers are far from the worst insult against American Jewry. (That would be the creepy end-times Christians who want us all to convert for the Rapture. Seriously, fuck those freaks.)
But something quietly changed after a while in the way rappers talk about Jews. Jay-Z might have been the one who initiated the shift, with a couplet I always turned up when listening to “Roc Boys” in 2007: “Rich n*ggas, black bar mitzvahs/Mazel tov, it’s a celebration, bitches!” He’s still using Jewishness as a stand-in for wealth and status, only now the references feel more affectionate, a little more specific to actual Jewish culture. He even throws in a Tevye-esque “L’Chaim!”, as did the Black Eyed Peas on 2009’s biggest smash. But my favorite part of Jay’s verse is the phrase “black bar mitzvahs” – are we supposed to imagine Jigga memorizing a Torah portion? Dancing awkwardly to cheesy house music? Beaming with pride from the bimah? He seems to be fond of this idea, returning to it last year in the most personal song on Watch the Throne: “Black bar mitzvahs, mazel tov, mogul talk.”
Which brings us to Rick Ross, who has never met a new identity he didn’t like. This guy not only named his latest mixtape The Black Bar Mitzvah, he commissioned a cover illustration that shows him draped in fine fur, nestled in the center of a golden Magen David. (Call him Rick Roth.) I’m a little afraid, but mostly excited, to download the mixtape this weekend and find out if he carried out this theme to any of the songs. And I can’t help wondering what Drake – who celebrated a true black bar mitzvah at age 13, as dramatized in his incredible video for “HYFR” – makes of all this.
Update: Here is a true story titled “Jay-Z Borrowed My Menorah.” Really!