The music was loud and the crowd swayed to the hip-hop beat as over 50 congregants of the Kol-Am Congregation in Freehold listened to — and learned from — the music and poetry of the Tug of War Tour.
The aim of the group of New York poets and rappers is to demonstrate that people on opposite sides of the Mideast conflict can disagree and even argue, but can do so peacefully through the power of music and spoken word.
And Congregation Kol Am in Freehold did its part to purvey that musical message of hope when it brought the Tug of War Tour to the community on April 25 at Freehold Township High School.
The brainchild of Israeli-American MC Sneakas and MC Serch (of Third Bass fame), the Tug of War Tour explores narratives of conflict and coexistence between Muslims and Jews.
“The essence of Tug of War is distinct voices coming together in an attempt to effect serious change,” said Michael Shernicoff, coordinator of outreach at Kol Am. “We are excited to bring their message to New Jersey. The artists’ sentiments resonate with Congregation Kol Am — which translates to ‘Voice of the People’ — because despite the absence of brick and mortar, our congregation stands dedicated to learning, worship, community, and social justice.”
A Reform congregation with about 50 member families, Kol Am has no synagogue building and holds services and programs in area schools and community buildings.
The troupe’s poets — Vanessa Hidary, a Sephardi Jew known as “The Hebrew Mamita,” and Tahani Salah, a Palestinian-American Muslim — described through verse the poisonous effect of prejudice. Salah in particular noted that people often ask her to uncover her hair, which she keeps concealed according to Muslim tradition.
Hidary told the crowd that although her videos on YouTube are viewed by a high number of the website’s users, she has to bear the brunt of racist comments from some of them, something she said she has learned to deal with.
The rappers were MC Mazzi and MC Sneakas — Mazzi Behi, a 33-year-old Iranian native from Manhattan and Yoni Ben-Yehuda, 28, an Israeli native now living in Manhattan, who said he acquired his stage name because he is a self-professed “sneaker head” who owns over 300 pairs.
Ben-Yehuda explained that the group’s tour came about while he was working with Mazzi. He said the two of them were considering a tour and were thrilled when Hidary and Salah agreed to accompany them. “The idea was to do this in a non-filtered, unbiased way,” Ben-Yehuda said. He said their aim was not to show members of different cultures will always agree, saying that he and Mazzi argue on a consistent basis.
“We just want to show that we can disagree about many things, but can do so without killing each other,” Ben-Yehuda said. “There is no secret agenda here; we’re just giving people the truth. It’s a simple concept.”
The duo was accompanied on the stage by deejay Dash Speaks, who played backing tracks while Mazzi and Sneakas rapped about the prejudiced viewpoints that demonize each of their cultures.
Kol Am’s Rabbi Brooks Susman told NJ Jewish News he thought Tug of War Tour’s message was critical. “People spend too much time yelling at each other and not listening to each other.”
Members of his congregation had gone to see the Tug of War Tour in New York City and told him the group’s message was one that should be offered in New Jersey. Susman agreed, saying he hoped seeing the show would “bring about the ability to hear someone else’s story without forming a response while others are talking.”
Kol-Am president Henry Rose said he was looking forward to hearing discussions among congregants after the show. “Anything to build more diversity is positive.”
Proceeds from the show benefited Kol Am’s education curriculum and its social action community programs. The Village for Healthcare and Rehabilitation of the Workmen’s Circle provided support for the program.