The hip-hop world lost a great last week. Adam Yauch, known as MCA, was one of the triumvirate known as the Beastie Boys, who knocked down so many walls surrounding rap and hip-hop, it’s impossible to even explain in one small post.
But the Beastie Boys broke down another barrier as well, which I remember very distinctly when they became a part of American culture in the 1980s. The Beastie Boys were Jews. All of them. And from Brooklyn, no less! For many of us urban Jewish kids in the 1980s, the Beastie Boys were the first Jewish celebrities we had for us. Our parents had Woody Allen and Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, and a bunch of old surly men comics who were all products of the Borscht Belt and had changed their names to sound “American.”
The Beastie Boys made the boys in my Hebrew school classes swoon. They wanted to be the Beastie Boys which, in my fuddy-duddy opinion looking back, was not always admirable as they rapped about drinking and trying to score with girls and the like. But fuddy-duddy-ness aside, the Beastie Boys showed a generation of Jewish kids that our time had come to emerge from the shadows of Yiddish-speaking bubbes and zaydes and to step into the light wearing ridiculous Adidas and spouting the culture that embraced us when we had nowhere to run to but here.
Jewish kids today have Jon Stewart and Larry David and even Senator Lieberman and Diane Feinsten and Barbara Boxer and Rahm Emanuel and, yes, The Yeshiva University Maccabeats. But there’s nothing like the trailblazing Beastie Boys to represent the evolution of the Jewish experience in America and the realization that our time had come to really be like everyone else, but with a Jewish chutzpah unseen before.
Adam Yauch will be missed by his family, his daughter, his friends, but also by a very specific generation of Jews who loved seeing faces and noses like ours on CDs–unchanged to look or sound “American.” Because the Beastie Boys, in their raunch and their curses and their rebellion, were the new face of America. And we’ve never been the same since.