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Redefining What Makes A Jewish Story

On a recent fall evening, a bunch of Jews got together to tell some stories for a Chicago audience. Most of them were Jews, at any rate. Except the Palestinian. And one of the African Americans. The other African American, National Public Radio commentator Aaron Freeman, converted to Judaism years ago.

If the performers sound eccentric, you should have seen them in action. Sponsored by the cheerily iconoclastic Heeb magazine, the evening was another in Heeb’s Jewish storytelling series, sponsored by Streit’s Matzo. The series has visited locations from New York and Los Angeles to Vancouver and Jerusalem — always featuring a roster that is nothing if not eclectic. Indeed, the Chicago event was opened by two men who, at first blush, did not appear to belong at the same party.

Hip-hop poet Kevin Coval, 31, is a nice Jewish boy from outside Chicago; 29-year-old playwright and emcee Idris Goodwin is a nice black boy from suburban Detroit. Not only are they co-performers and friends, they’re roommates to boot.

When they perform together, Coval and Goodwin can sound like one big voice. Words weave in and out, supporting and punctuating, heads and hands in motion. The effect is both beautiful and powerful, at least part of the punch delivered by the contrasting colors of their skin.

If it seems surprising that a black man from a Baptist home found himself on a Jewish storytelling stage, though, that’s kind of the point.

“People celebrating their culture,” Goodwin said after the event, when asked to describe the vibe. “I’m excited by [the question] of, how do you be modern? How do we embrace our stories, but not in a way that’s exclusive?” It’s a theme he often examines in his work, whether on his self-titled debut CD or in his plays, performed in theaters across the country.

Heeb editor-in-chief Joshua Neuman echoed him, explaining that the mission of the storytelling series was “to push the limits of what constitutes a Jewish story.” “We give the performers one direction: Tell a seven-minute Jewish story,” Neuman said. “Inevitably, they ask, ‘What’s a Jewish story?’ And we say, ‘That’s for you to decide.’”

Performing at Chicago’s Second City e.t.c. Theater, Coval told a tale that rambled between spoken word and straight-up rhyming: his discovery of hip-hop, his bar mitzvah, his rabbi’s inability to grapple with the sociopolitical truths the boy heard in the music. At one point, he recalled his 11-year-old self bouncing around his mother’s apartment, rapping a Run-D.M.C. lyric into a hairbrush — “You know I’m proud to be black, y’all!” — and his mother’s riposte: “Yeah, that’s great! Um, here’s a mirror.” The crowd roared.

Having once wandered far from Judaism, Coval, a regular of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” is now active in interfaith efforts and talks about his return to his roots. His poetry is rife with Hebrew and Jewish imagery, considering, for instance, the reunion of Isaac and Ishmael at Abraham’s funeral. In “Hero Israel,” from his 2005 book, “Slingshots,” Coval goes further, rapping about the arc of contemporary Jewish history and calling Israel and the Jewish people to task (“can you alone be chosen/in an interconnected universe/will you open your doors to all children/who cry silent in bombed nights”) and then without warning, shifting gears: “and yes, I saw you/in Crown Heights murdered by half brothers… and yes/I am scared to wear my yarmulke in public…” closing with a sudden, almost shocking “shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai ehad” then: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is One/so when will you stop killing/yourself.”

In an undeniably lighter vein, Goodwin regaled the Second City crowd of some 150 with a tale of his accidental attendance at what turned out to be an audition for bar mitzvah party motivators: “I kind of got into it,” he said with a mischievous grin spreading across his face. But later, over a late-night nosh in a local diner, I asked Goodwin why he didn’t talk about the Jew he lives with, and he turned serious.

“It didn’t occur to me,” he said. “There’s always been a history in the music business of a relationship between blacks and Jews. Historically, we’ve shared spaces before. And this was [a story] about multiple allegiances.”

Coval nodded in agreement, later referencing the notion of the cipher, the physical and metaphorical space created when people rap together. “I feel much more at home in the cipher than the synagogue,” he said. “There wasn’t any room for those multiple allegiances there.”

But, lest anyone get an incorrectly stodgy impression of the two, Goodwin hastened to clarify that they don’t make a point of holding interfaith discussions in the living room. “It’s not like we say, ‘I see your kugel, and I raise you a cornbread!’”

Of course, at that point in the evening, neither kugel nor cornbread was necessary; back at Second City, one of the storytellers had passed out cookies.

Emily Hauser is a freelance writer living outside of Chicago.

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