Ivri Anochi: A Tribute to the Paradox of Jewish Pride

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Shlomo Zuckier

Yeshiva Bochurim generally live a fairly monotonous existence. In the tradition of the Lithuanian yeshiva, their days are to be spent in the Beis Midrash, learning intently with only the shortest of breaks for eating, sleeping, and maybe the occasional Schmooze. Purim, however, is the grand exception to this singular devotion to Torah study. On Purim, the time of Ve-nahafokh Hu, reality inverts itself and the “dull yeshiva boy” emerges as an energetic, entertaining provocateur. Purveyors of Purim Shtick in its various forms have alternatively thrilled and distressed their audiences with attention-grabbing antics.

Which brings me to the great Shtick video of this year’s Purim season, an (unauthorized) music video of Benny Friedman’s “Ivri Anochi.” Well-executed for a non-professional filmmaker, this video follows in the great tradition of the ground-breaking Lecha music video, both produced by David Lavon.

The music video itself is a lot of fun, but upon a closer “read” reveals a real message.

There seems at first to be a dissonance between the content of the video—both visual and auditory—and the song’s message. If the song celebrates Jewish identity, how does that square with several quite characteristically non-Jewish features? First, the heavily techno-inspired music, which has been subject to many a mussar shmuess against “goyishe style music,” doesn’t quite indicate pride in a uniquely Jewish musical identity. Beyond the musical style, the various forms of breakdancing central to the video’s dance profile are clearly marked as “non-Jewish.”

This is no hora; the expertise of someone who can learn “that way” of dancing is prized precisely because it is not traditionally Jewish. And that’s to say nothing of the hat-juggle (1:38) and the skateboarding (in all his black-hatted glory, 3:08-3:11), which might be the least Jewish activity ever invented. So what gives? Why so much non-Jewish culture in this yeshivish music video?

Whether or not the following was intended, the context of the verse recited throughout the song is extremely fitting: עִבְרִ֣י אָנֹ֑כִי וְאֶת־יְקֹוָ֞ק אֱ-לֹהֵ֤י הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֲנִ֣י יָרֵ֔א—“I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven.” Drawn from Jonah 1:9, this is the prophet’s answer to his fellow seafarers’ query as to his identity “What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” Jonah’s response is simple but powerful, elegantly relating his nationality (Hebrew) and faith (a Lord-fearer). Even as Jonah is in crisis—his failure to heed God’s word is what caused the storm threatening the boat—and even amidst a host of gentiles, he is in touch with his identity as a Jew, and a religious one at that.

Given both the audiovisual and biblical content, the music video is about Jewish identity amidst non-Jewish culture. In today’s climate in the United States, obsessed as it is with taking pride in one’s identity, this focus is ironically essentially American just as it is Jewish to its core, and it is not the only music video following this trend. (This culture certainly affects both Americans proper and those expats who reside in heavily American yeshivish communities as well.)

But what exactly constitutes Jewish identity for the makers of this music video? Several themes are clearly prioritized within the video:

Torah study: The video opens (1:00 to 1:15) with a Bochur entering a quiet Beis Midrash and sitting down to learn. Rather than hearing the musical tones of his Gemara study, we instead receive the techno-style offering by Benny Friedman. As the song draws to a close (5:19-5:39), we are again shown our Yeshiva Bochur, as he rises from his study, only to return for even more words of Torah.  This literary message of this inclusio is clear—all the excitement and identity formation found throughout the song is a function of Torah study, which is the alpha and omega of Yeshivish identity (among that of other religious groups). The various holiday themes appearing throughout, as well as the incorporation of other mitzvot, add to the sense of the ritual core of Jewish identity.

Erasing Amalek: Between 4:10 and 4:45 of the video, at its climax (immediately prior to its dance- and Shtick-laden denouement), we find the erasure of the name Amalek instantiated no less than 15 times. This is prioritized in the narrative arc of the video not only because of its centrality to Purim, but also because the mitzvah to blot out Amalek is very much a particularistic and identity-affirming mitzvah, as it conveys the rooting out of anti-Jewish ideologies.

Clothing: Part of the video’s joke is that amidst all the very untraditional Shtick taking place throughout the video, a strict dress code remains in effect. All the (nearly exclusively male) actors not in Purim garb wear the “Yeshiva Bochur” standard—white shirt and dark pants, with a jacket and black hat optional. In the tradition of the Midrash that Jewish identity was preserved in Egypt by (among other things) keeping their dress consistent and distinct from the surrounding culture, our protagonists do the same.

At its core, then, this wild video of antics asserts that observant Jewish identity is preserved through these three tracks—rituals, especially Torah study; nationalistic mitzvot such as erasing Amalek; and preserving an independent identity through distinct forms of dress. (I should note that some of these themes apply as well to the original music video starring Benny Friedman, although with a particularly Chabad flavor.)

Despite the foreign culture in which our protagonists find themselves—techno music, “Goyishe” dance moves, the treif Internet, Jonah’s gentile-populated boat—they nevertheless are Jews, proud ones at that. It is precisely the foreignness of the culture amidst which we find the Torah, hagim, and yeshiva dress that drives the point home. The fact that this movie is suffused with American culture is thus no coincidence. All the contradictions and inversions of this video underscore not only Purim’s theme but the paradoxical experience of living particularistic Jewish lives amidst a larger secular culture.

Ve-nahafokh Hu!

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.