My Hip-Hop Jewishness By Adam Klein

At 12 years old I was balancing several identities. I dipped in and out of so many different worlds because that’s all that made sense to me.

  • I was a young hip-hop freestyle rapper stealing cassettes and rap magazines and hanging pictures on my wall
  • I was a student finishing up my time at a tiny Jewish private school that my grandfather in Ft. Lauderdale had been paying for me to attend 
  • And I was the firstborn son and the go-to interpreter for my parents, a deaf couple who utilized their responsible kid to help them get by in a hearing world.

I had three very distinct modes I was living in and I reveled in being that kid that was living this unique life. But it was tough. And it was confusing at times.

I didn’t know anyone else going through this type of situation. Whenever my folks and I were in public, people would stare when my parents signed with me or spoke with affected deaf speech. I went with them to the bank, Home Owner association meetings and any other event they needed to have a voice at. I felt like an adult in a kid’s body. It was no fun being in this role but I knew nothing else. Often I wished I had someone that could help me with this and the only person I could rely on was my Grandpa—who was 3000 miles away.

My grandfather AKA Papa Ben, was the adult I looked up to the most. Most of my idols were rappers who bragged about going from rags to riches and helping their crew, and Papa Ben had that same story, coming from the slums of Krakow and making it in the boogie down Bronx—and because of his hard work, I was able to get a Jewish education and learn my culture and history.

I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. To me it wasn’t about coming of age, I kind of felt I had already had gone through a few tests that made me feel like I had made it past boyhood. What I really dug about the Bar Mitzvah were two specific things:

1. The idea of going through a Jewish ceremony. This was a cultural event ceremony I could invite friends to, and show them what my people were all about. Where I lived, no one knew what a Jew was. Where I grew up I had a neighbor that would borrow our Menorah after Hanukah and use it for a Kinara for Kwanzaa.

2. There was another reason I was looking forward to this though, and that was I would get to see Papa Ben and show him how that education he got me had paid off.

I had a ton of excitement in what I was going into. I knew how to read Hebrew so there was no worry about ace-ing my haftorah and maftir. To put it in today’s terms, I was walking into this with some serious swag. I’d go to my lessons twice a week, get a cassette recording with the part I got to practice and come back next week like “I’m set, what’s next”!

With the big day approaching I was ready to go. I walked in to synagogue a day before Shabbat finalizing everything with the rabbi and he asked me about my haftorah. I told him which portion I was doing and he looked at me kind of seriously and said. That’s not the right one; you’ve been studying the wrong portion…

I’m not going to lie I freaked out a little bit. My granddad would be watching and all of a sudden all my studying meant nothing. I didn’t have time to memorize a whole new portion. I was sure my grandfather would know and I’d disappoint him and myself. But like the great rapper I felt I was, I knew I had no choice but to freestyle my way through this and win the crowd over.

The event proved to be a success on all levels bringing together all three of elements of my life. My reception was made up of a combination of the neighborhood kids, my Jewish family, and my parents’ deaf friends. The event is a good example of how I’ve had to live my life balancing everything put on my plate and finding the elements that will make me stronger. Over time, I’ve managed to move to a better neighborhood and toned down the hip-hop persona, but I still utilize all the values I took from that part of my life and use them in my continual hustle through adulthood.

The experiences that all these facets of life provided shaped me into the man I am today. I have used my hip-hop hustle to produce several shows and my experience in the deaf community to reach out whenever I see a hearing impaired person trying to communicate with a person who doesn’t know sign language.

But it is in the Jewish element that I’ve found the biggest connection lately. I started attending Atid events here at Sinai last August with the hopes of reintegrating into a Jewish community. I’ve enjoyed all the experiences I’ve had here, but this one; being asked to speak is the one that I’ve looked forward to the most. This is the one that makes me feel like I’m finding a place here and I hope to keep with it for years to come.

Adam Klein is a television & documentary producer currently working on several television series. He is also record collector/ music writer/ and DJ spinning around various venues in the Los Angeles area. Every once in a while he still volunteers as an American Sign Language interpreter (upon his parents request).