The Arty Semite

Rambam Beats Hip-Hop!

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

It might seem as though the stand off between medieval Jewish philosophy and contemporary hip hop culture had been decisively decided in favor of the latter. But not so says young African-American author Thomas Chatterton Williams. Published this past spring by The Penguin Press, Williams’s “Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture” offers an unsparing, informed critique of the negative aspects of hip-hop music. Williams decries the “outrageously ignorant artists,” as he qualifies some popular stars, and their effect on the education of average African Americans.

Forward readers might especially appreciate how Williams’s salvation came about through reading, among others, Moses Maimonides. His father, Clarence Leon Williams, a devout bibliophile with a PhD in sociology, introduced the young Thomas to “Trial and Triumph: a Novel About Maimonides” published by Crown in 1965. Its coauthors, Lester M. Morrison, a distinguished physician, and Richard G. Hubler, a screenwriter and ghostwriter, offer a fictionalized sketch of Maimonides’s life, which the thirteen-year-old Williams devoured enthusiastically.

It may surprise some that “HaNesher HaGadol” (הנשר הגדול; the great eagle) would so dramatically appeal to one African-American youngster in New Jersey. In a videotaped conversation (see YouTube excerpt below), Williams explains the attraction, telling his father: “Your respect for [Maimonides] and his respect for learning made a deep impression in me and stayed with me when I got to college. I needed a guide for the perplexed (laughs)!” Clarence Leon Williams replies, laughing: “Because at thirteen one can be quite perplexed!”

The elder Williams, born in 1937 in Longview, Texas, spent time during his youth studying at Galveston’s venerable Temple B’nai Israel, his son relates, “where a stunned rabbi had invited him to study after Pappy had won a blind-entry essay competition with a piece on Maimonides.”

Clarence Williams’s vast library also features books by such other literary Jews as Émile Durkheim; Franz Kafka; Baruch Spinoza; Hannah Arendt; et al., as well as thousands of books by non-Jews. Clarence Williams explains that his paternal goal was to “introduce [Thomas] to the world of knowledge, regardless of color or historical period, since I don’t believe that any one group has all of the wisdom, yet wisdom is needed early.”

Thomas chimes in that his boyhood was spent in a home “filled with books and the love of learning, and on the other hand, when I left the house there was not much love for learning or books in the world I had to learn to move through.” Happily, the younger Williams resolved this dichotomy by choosing to emulate his father’s obsession with books, eventually earning academic degrees from Georgetown and NYU.

Watch two fans of Maimonides and Spinoza, Thomas Chatterton Williams and his father, chat in April.

Watch a C-SPAN video of Williams at this past July’s Harlem Book Fair.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Thomas Chatterton Williams, Richard Hubler, Maimonides, Lester Morrison, Clarence Leon Williams

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.