By Erin Kopelow
Through the combination of business, creative and educational exposure at the PresenTense Institute for Creative Judaism and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, Matt Bar's Bible Rap Project has the potential to become an educational enterprise in Hebrew school classrooms around the world.
“I ain't heard a sound from your side just silence / my hands are the paw of a bear or a lions who is this you send for to face my violence /how you gonna send a boy to do a man's job with a sling and some stones like I'm nothing but a dog.”
These are words from King David: “I am Goliath!” -- one piece of Matt Bar’s rap collection in a venture entitled The Bible Rap Project. What started as a personal strategy for Bar to engage his Hebrew School students has developed into a potential educational enterprise that has grabbed the attention of not only present and soon-to-be educators, but entrepreneur agencies and music producers alike.
The Bible Rap Project is Bar’s personal approach to selected biblical narratives presented through contemporary vernacular coupled with direct biblical quotes and set to a modern beat. Although Bar began his musical career as a folk singer, he has developed quite a repertoire in the rap world and naturally turned to the genre as the creative forum when first setting his biblical narrative to music. Though he confesses, “the creative process is always very difficult to articulate, because it involves a bit of the Chaos Theory,” Bar explains rap was a natural choice largely because of its popular appeal among his students.
When analyzing the story of David and Goliath, for example, Bar exclaims, “Goliath is essentially a battle rapper. He’s like the 50 Cent of the biblical narrative. All he’s doing for 40 days is talking smack. Now you have the paradigm and you just fill it in.” Bar breaks into some lines: “How you gonna send a boy to do a man’s job, with a sling and some stones like I’m nothing but a dog. Those lines are straight-up from Tanakh. So for a kid, who knows rap as people talking smack, it’s immediately in their ballpark. They have a frame of reference. But what’s at stake though?”
Bar’s last question moves the Bible Rap Project out of the entertainment field into the educational, for the ultimate goal of all of his raps is to expose his listeners to the larger themes presented through the biblical text. “You can’t put everything into [the song],” Bar explains. “What you have to do with these types of things is make it a vignette, you have to find some drive by window to the essence of it.”
For example, Bar delves into his rap on Cain and Abel, explaining enthusiastically that Abel’s question to G-d, which in Hebrew is Anochi, cannot be translated simply as, “who am I?” but rather, “who am I in essence, in the depth and the places I don’t even know about.” Bar goes on to explain this particular phrase is only found in a few specific locations throughout the whole of the Tanakh, a textual reality that has elevated the theological significance of the phrase.
His ability to recognize and draw on these themes has been influenced by his exposure through Pardes, the Institute for Jewish Studies, located in Jerusalem. “Before Pardes I couldn’t throw in that anecdote about what Anochi means, or [the names of] Cain and Avel, one meaning from the earth and one meaning ethereal, [making them] not only two names but two concepts having relationships.” Pardes has also expanded Bar's ability to approach the text directly through his developing knowledge of Hebrew. “If you know Hebrew this is a whole different world.”
Bar chose to come to Pardes after spending part of his summer at the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionsim (PICZ) as a Fellow. Bar was brought together with seventeen other selected individuals from various “portfolios of initiation” to develop his own project as well as to add his creative input, skill, and experience to the developing initiatives of the other PICZ Fellows. Organizing itself around the Israeli high tech incubator model, PICZ works to bring individuals together from an array of backgrounds for a six-week intensive program in Israel in order to develop their own personal projects and tone, "team-focused leadership skills...through a process of experiential learning mixed with expert sessions." (PICZ website) Through his exposure at PICZ, Bar has been able to get the Bible Rap Project financially off the ground as well as connect with Doogree Records and Producer Ori Salzberg, another PICZ participant Fellow.
Bar felt the need to deepen his understanding of Jewish text and Hebrew, prompting his decision to apply to Pardes made possible through the financial assistance of Masa, "I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Masa," Bar states as a matter of fact.
In addition to deepening his understanding and grasp of Jewish text, Pardes has turned into a creative incubator of its own for developing the Bible Rap Project as a true educational tool. Bar divulges that students in Pardes’ Educators Programs (those in a 2 year program to get their Masters Degree in Jewish Education) are helping formulate the Bible Rap as a functional education tool able to be worked into a viable educational curriculum.
Additionally, Bar has been awarded the opportunity to work with some of Pardes' educational staff, particularly Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, affectionately known as DLK by his students, whom Bar is presently collaborating with on the creation of source sheet (an educational tool used when studying Hebrew texts linking various related traditional material) to go with his rap on Cain and Abel. “Pardes is helping me with delivering it, learning a bunch to make it more rich, and giving me opportunities to teach with brilliant teachers. Like DLK, everybody loves him! And I’m going to co-teach with him though Bible Raps. What kind of opportunity is that!"
Matt Bar was selected to be part of Masa's Building Future Leadership (BFL) Seminar Series, a professional and unique leadership seminar that enables participants to develop a personal educational-social project for implementation here in Israel or back in their communities of origin.