Jews, African-Americans use MLK legacy to view shared paths

Jewish rapper Y-Love

When rapper Y-Love stepped on stage at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Jan. 16, he didn’t look much different than some other hip-hop artists: He’s African American, has a beard and wears a black hat when he performs.

But when he began rhyming, the audience knew something was different about him.

Blending English with Hebrew, Yiddish with Aramaic, Y-Love’s rhymes were unlike many other rappers’. That’s because he’s unlike many other rappers. He’s an African-American Orthodox Jew.

Y-Love was in Bethesda for the third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the NAACP of Montgomery County. The theme of this year’s event was ‘‘a look at dual identities through story and hip-hop.” It brought together people from both the Jewish and African-American communities, as well as those who represent both, to discuss identity, and King’s legacy.

For Y-Love, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based rapper originally from Baltimore, the intersection of Judaism and his skin color is immovable.

‘‘It’s always been integrated for me,” he said from the stage. ‘‘I never think of myself as African American or Jewish separately; it’s always together.”

The idea for a joint celebration of King’s life with Jewish and African-American community members in Montgomery County began more than three years ago, said Montgomery County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Henry Hailstock.

Hailstock and Ronald Halber, executive director of JCRC of Greater Washington, kept seeing each other at special events, both fighting discrimination, and decided to combine their efforts.

‘‘It’s always said that people forget our Jewish brothers helped form the NAACP,” Hailstock said. ‘‘Since we are often both fighting discrimination, we thought, ‘We ought to be doing something together.’”

The event Jan. 16 brought people from all walks of life, from elderly Jewish women in traditional ankle-length shirts to young African-American men in baggy jeans and Nike high-top sneakers, together to discuss the similarities between Jewish and African-American identities.

Two keynote performances, by Y-Love and author Carolivia Herron, combined the identities. For Herron, an African-American who converted to Judaism 12 years ago, African-American Jews have much to offer the country.

‘‘It’s always frustrating when you hear about tensions between blacks and Jews and no one asks us for help,” said Herron, who wrote the controversial children’s book ‘‘Nappy Hair,” in 1997. ‘‘We’re here.”

Herron and Y-Love preached messages of understanding, having been a part of both African-American and Jewish cultures. For some audience members, their presence gave hope.

‘‘For my kids it’s tough,” said Rachel Golden, a mother from Baltimore who is raising her African-American children in the Jewish faith. ‘‘Since they’re black, they have a certain idea of what their life is supposed to be like, but I’m trying to teach them that not everyone is the same. But [Herron and Y-Love] show that it can be done.”

The celebration also honored Operation Understanding DC, a group dedicated to creating young Jewish and African-American leaders to fight to end discrimination.

Hailstock said the event was a success because it brought together people from varying backgrounds, including Montgomery County Council members Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac and Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.

‘‘It’s important to show how we can do things together,” he said. ‘‘People of different background can come together and honor not only a person but an idea; an idea of understanding.”

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