Hebrew hip-hop, wannabe groupies bring reality check

At first, it seemed like any other rap concert, complete with unintelligible, loud lyrics and a crowd of sweaty youngsters jumping up and down in time to a heavy beat.

If it hadn’t been for the repetitive chorus — “Zuz, zuz” (“move, move,” in Hebrew) — in one of the band’s most well-known songs, I might not have noticed that this, in fact, was no ordinary rap show.

This was hip-hop, Israeli-style.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of rap music, but, since it’s not every day that an Israeli band comes to town, I decided to join my family (sister, parents and boyfriend included), and traverse the Bay Bridge — amid rain and fog — into Berkeley to see and hear Hadag Nahash in action.

I didn’t know much about Hadag Nahash (“Snake-fish,” in Hebrew) before attending the show at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall last month. In an article I found online, I read that they were a seven-member band whose rhymes reflected their progressive politics, and that they had become a leader in Israel’s emerging rap music scene.

It was the Israeli part — and not the rap appeal — that drew me to Hadag Nahash.

For years, I’ve been magnetized by anything Israeli — social gatherings, cultural events, dance and theatrical performances. I delight in those rare moments when I pass by Hebrew speakers on the streets of San Francisco, and I’ve frequented every falafel joint this side of the Silicon Valley.

In spite of — or rather, because of — the fact that I feel far from home, I search for anything that reminds me, in a positive cultural context, of Israel.

It was only natural that when Hadag Nahash toured the Bay Area I would be there, jumping up and down in time to the beat along with the rest of the pumped-up audience.

The only problem was that, instead of inducing a state of nostalgic euphoria — similar to that brought on by just-eaten comfort food — the Hadag Nahash show left the bitter taste of reality in my mouth. I walked away (a few minutes before the official end of the concert) with the harsh realization that I could no longer depend on local Israeli events to remind me of home.

Either home had changed so much during my many years in the United States that it no longer resembled my idealized memories of it, or rap music in its essence was strictly an American phenomenon, and no amount of Hebrew rhymes could make it any more Israeli than the Super Bowl.

It’s not that the Hadag Nahash show was bad — in fact, I’m sure most rap enthusiasts would have enjoyed it. The musicians were talented and successful at getting their audience to get up and dance.

But, other than Hebrew lyrics — which were barely intelligible to my slow ears (throughout the show, my family and I were constantly asking each other, “What? What did they just say? Did you get that?”) — and the hostess’ brief reference to Israel at the beginning of the show, the performance didn’t remind me of the Israel I knew.

But perhaps that’s just the point. Israel is no longer what I remember it as — a small, somewhat insulated and pioneering country.

It’s developing, commercialized and globalized. Maybe it’s time for me to open my eyes and wake up and smell the KFC in downtown Jerusalem, whether I like it or not.

Toward the end of Hadag Nahash’s Berkeley show, I went to the ladies’ room, where I saw a group of young girls huddled by the mirrors, brushing their hair and reapplying faded lipstick.

“What do you think they [Hadag Nahash] are going to do tonight after the show?” one girl asked another.

“I don’t know,” the other replied excitedly. “Do you think they’ll want to go out somewhere?”

I was shocked. Were these girls real-live Israeli-rap-band groupies? If so, then our little plot of desert land really has changed, for better or worse.

Personally, I can’t help missing the old Israel — the one mainly untouched by mainstream Americanisms.

My affinity for Israeli cultural and arts events in the Bay Area stems from my need to remind myself of the Israel I remember. The trouble is, the real Israel keeps changing.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].