What do Kanye West and Jerusalem have in common?

So, I’ve just about completed my first week in Jerusalem. As all first-year students of HUC-JIR must, I packed up and headed off to begin my studies at the campus in Jerusalem. As not all first-year students of HUC-JIR must, I said goodbye to my wife, as the clear impracticality of both of us being unemployed and living in a foreign country for a year, and HUC-JIR’s staunch stance on all students attending this first year in Israel program, made it impossible for us to be together.

This is clearly a challenge. And in my way of looking at the world unavoidable challenges are the ones that provide the most dear and important lessons. There’s an added level of challenge to it in that it feels like I am circling back on the past. I was in school in Jerusalem about 8 years ago for six months, after a six month stint in Beer Sheva. I’ve been through countless academic programs designed to bond me with my classmates, impress a lasting narrative on me about whatever institution I was attending at the time, many which attempted to weave a broad tapestry of Jewish history all rooted in the land of Israel. Some things worked, some things didn’t; some things I took, some I left. This time around, though, picking up and moving to a new place for a new experience has an added level of sadness in leaving behind my wife, friends, and other family in the states.

I still have no earthly idea what lesson is being provided to me by my being separated from my wife for a year, but I hope it will become clear over time. In fact, Kanye West has provided me with ample reason to believe that one day, no matter how much I hate the fact right now that I am separate from my wife, I will maybe see some value in it.

Up until the past few weeks I hated Kanye. Like, really hated him. I could always acknowledge his talent, but couldn’t get past the revulsion he elicited in me through all of his overwrought claims of genius and sprawling acts of needless spotlight grabbing. When his newest album, Yeezus, came out, though, I gave him another shot.

I have never been able to get into hip hop despite many attempts both on my own and by friends. Yeezus is full of everything I hate about hip hop: Misogyny, self-aggrandizement, glorification of all things hedonistic. But its sound, its flow, its structure, and even its lyrics immediately got their hooks into my soul. I can’t explain it. I spent weeks trying to figure out if I had been wrong all along, if Kanye has just been a Russell Brand-style genius this whole time, putting on a show to lampoon the very culture he is representing. I began constructing elaborate theories of Yeezus as a concept album, charting the rise, fall, and redemption of a hip-hop star. I started convincing myself that Kanye was, in fact, not only obscenely talented musically, but a full-on genius. Then I read his New York Times interview where he proclaimed himself the new Steve Jobs (what?!), and realized I was making more of it than was there. It’s certainly a brilliant album, but Kanye isn’t any more self aware than I gave him credit for before the release of Yeezus. For some reason, this time around, Kanye hit the right chord at the right time for me and I got hooked.

So it’s all a matter of perspective and timing.  We work in cycles, our lives travel paths that spiral around a center point, not simple straight lines. It’s just like the Torah. We have been reading the same stories for millennia, but continue deriving new meaning from them. Throughout our lives, we may get second, and even third chances to learn from these same lessons. Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, is actually just a repetition of all of the stuff that just happened in the Torah so far; A moment for reflection before charging forward into the last book of the cycle of the Torah reading

It took Yeezus for me to really get Kanye’s greatness, but just because I missed it before didn’t mean that I had completely gotten the guy wrong. I needed to keep trying, in different times and contexts, to “get it.” He’s still just as much of an attention seeking idiot as I ever thought he was, and I don’t think there’s some grand narrative behind Yeezus that makes it a brilliant, scathing critique of the culture it was born from. I do think it’s an unbelievably well made work of art, though. Had I not given him another shot, I would have missed out on the whole thing. The lessons here are already learned: Just because I was wrong about one side of him doesn’t mean I was wrong about all of him, and just because you’re a genius at one thing doesn’t mean you’re a genius at all things.

Maybe it will take this whole year in Israel for me to lock down the lesson I’m not even fully aware exists yet. If there were ever a place to help create the kind of cognitive dissonance that would crack open the filters through which I process my reality, it’s certainly Jerusalem.  The wild contrast of sacred and profane, the old and the new, is everywhere. For instance, today’s women of the wall Rosh Hodesh service that was turned back by thousands of orthodox seminarian women and Ultra-orthodox men is just mind boggling when considered alongside the modern Western trappings of much of the city. The constant dissonance of Jerusalem certainly provides an excellent spot to place someone who needs a good shaking up. Hopefully, like with Yeezus, I’ll gain something that brings me great joy from a source I don’t expect. I think we could all probably take this week’s parashat as a cue to rethink some things that we are already certain we understand and are familiar with. Never hurts to try!

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