While I was waiting in the carpool line this morning to drop my 7-year-old daughter off at ballet, we were enjoying the breeze coming in through the open windows and listening to our favorite rap CD (yes, really). When the ballet assistant came to get my little ballerina, she wrinkled her nose, had a quick little internal debate with herself about whether to say something, and then remarked with a sour sort of look, “I’m not sure I think you should be listening to that kind of music with little children around.” (Let’s be honest. She was pretty sure what she thought about it.)
I was reminded of a comment by the Rambam in the Jewish text, Pirkei Avot. You see, the holy men of his time would eschew listening to songs in Arabic and would raise something of a stink if they were at a party or wedding and someone began to start a number in Arabic—even when the song was a devotional in praise to God. Yet these selfsame holy men would allow themselves to enjoy songs in Hebrew whose lyrics were somewhat unsavory. Does the language really matter more than the lesson? The Rambam was describing the inescapable human quandary, pervasive then as now, of our habit of judging something by its outward appearance, as opposed to its essence.
It seems that even back in the day, music was particularly susceptible to this kind of misperception. Nowadays we are all familiar with catchy songs that pervade our cultural radars and get stuck in our heads. One of my daughter’s favorite stuffed animals is a hamster with a hoodie who’s “got moves like Jagger.” How easily do we all fall into the trap of latching on to a popular tune without considering the words that are sinking into our impressionable young children’s minds? How often are we oblivious to the notion that, like a good pie, it’s what’s on the inside that matters? No matter how much we intellectually know that a job applicant, a lecturer, or a date should be judged on his or her internal merit, we are all affected by appearances and other external factors, even as we recognize that these are ancillary, unreliable, and ultimately fleeting.
So let’s get back to the story of my daughter and the rap CD. What I was listening to was in fact an album by my new favorite band, The Living Wells, who perform rap songs that are absolutely bursting with deep ideas and life lessons drawn from Jewish sources. I find the songs moving, motivating, and inspiring—in fact, on my daily expedition to shacharit (morning prayer) I regularly listen to track No. 3 (“Wake Up The Dawn”), a funky paean to the potential of the new day that is based on advice and insights from the Shulchan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) and other heavyweight Jewish tomes. Yet these compositions unmistakably boast a hip-hop beat, and there’s no question that people—myself included—will balk at first when hearing it until, hopefully, they consider the message being pushed.
The ballet assistant, by contrast, happened to be wearing a sticker of Elsa and Anna (whether out of her own fanship or an attempt to be more relatable to her students, I don’t know), who, while perhaps appear more kid-friendly, come with messages that are in fact not so kid-friendly (as discussed at length elsewhere in Kveller’s archives), including some about beauty, love, etc. that I am not super comfortable with when I stop to really think about them.
I considered snorting out an explanation for my choice of music in the few seconds I had in the drop-off line. But I realized it was futile: That which is deep by definition can’t be explained in seconds. To appreciate the depth that the world has to offer, we have to accustom ourselves to looking beyond what is initially presented to us. And yeah, that takes time.
So what’s the lesson here? Probably nothing loftier than “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But the simplest truths of life are the ones we need repeated most often. We all know intellectually that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get, but, as the Living Wells say (track #2, “The Spark”),
Most of what I said you should know already,
But knowledge in your head is just an obvious start,
The real test is if you live it in your body and heart.
Life’s lessons aren’t gleaned from the outer flaky crust; it’s only once you slice things open that the best of life becomes accessible to you.