In 2002, my fabulous black female partner, Crystal Emerald Green, and I broke through the glass ceiling of Hip-Hop Urban Wear and launched CHED-DA to Kmart as an exclusive collection. After being challenged by the big boys at Phat Farm, Sean John, and Rocawear, we earned our place in the top 50 brands of street-wear fashion. Although it didn’t end well with revolving CEOs at Kmart, combined with limited production capabilities, I was certainly crowned with street credibility and a lot of positive press. However, the best label I received was from my younger family members who admired my “cool factor.”
In 2008, my little 11-year-old cousin (his wish is to remain anonymous), straight out of Bobov’s domain in Borough Park, was having a Jewish identity problem. He was “acting up” and wanted to change his name to a more secular version. He was also a big fan of rap/hip-hop personalities and music. Of course, his parents were concerned and wished to turn him around to a better place. Upon my suggestion, he spent a good portion of that summer with me with the hope that he plays along with my scheme to renew his Jewish pride. Since I had his trust because I was “cool,” I put down the rules in the following manner: If he behaved himself, he’d collect points to be used at the end of the summer in order to meet the biggest celebrity rap star in the world (at the time). Having no idea what I was plotting or who it was, he was rather great the whole summer, staying at the synagogue on Shabbos, talking respectfully, and listening to me – frankly, I was impressed.
Little did he know, my friend Seth Gerszberg and his partner Mark Ecko owned the most important fashion brand of the time, called Ecko Unltd., with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. They occupied a completely renovated 275,000-square-foot headquarters on West 23rd Street, formally the Hasbro Toy building. They also owned G-Unit by 50 Cent, hip hop’s biggest personality. I called Seth and told him my little cousin’s story concerning his lack of enthusiasm about yeshivah and Jewish practices. We came up with the ultimate plan that would have the biggest effect on my house quest. Of course, I clued his mom and dad and they were excited for his upcoming experience.
At the tail end of that summer, I took my little cuz and his mom to Ecko headquarters. We were greeted by the giant rhino mascot, and escorted upstairs to the showroom where we were surrounded by the largest stocked candy store. Our eyes couldn’t focus on the art, furniture, and display cases, because they were so creatively engaging. Seth Gerszberg, sporting a Breslov white yarmulke, came out to welcome us to Ecko land. Naturally, the little boy was shocked and impressed that the owner of this place was Jewish and religious. Seth introduced his sales staff members, who were terribly proud to have been recruited from Gush Katif, Israel, right after its horrendous surrender to the PLO. Seth generously gave my “lil cuz” some branded product along with a grand tour, which included a full basketball court. It was a boy’s fantasy land, but the best part was yet to come.
As we viewed each incredible floor, we finally got to G-Unit, and you would think we landed in a diamond mine. Two muscular bodyguards led us to a blinged-out showroom. Just as we started to sit down, 50 Cent came out and asked, “Where is that boy who doesn’t want to stay in yeshivah?” and finished that sentence with his proper Hebrew name. I thought I had to catch a fainting little boy and an awe-struck mom, but 50 knew exactly what to do. He took out one of his bestselling hoodies and autographed it to him with the same words. Seth Gerszberg and 50 Cent turned this boy’s world back around. Not only did they customize a “kiruv” intervention, but they led by example. Never again did my cousin feel ashamed, challenged, or stigmatized by his schooling, neighborhood, name, or religion.
Yesterday, I called my cousin, now a grown and accomplished man, to discuss the level of anti-Semitism within the hip-hop community…especially about 50 Cent, who seemed to respond to the Nick Cannon fiasco with a reprimand. Tweeting that Cannon was saying stupid things on his podcast that ended his career with Viacom, 50 Cent received flak from others within his community that he should have shown more of a supportive approach to Cannon and ignore his blatant anti-Jewish remarks. The question is: Where are the rest of the voices? Where is Jay-Z, who started Rocawear with a Russian Jewish family who sent their daughter to yeshivah? Silent. Where is Russell Simmons, who built an empire with his Israeli partner who served in the IDF? Praising Farrakhan on his social media. “People have hated me and criticized me for bringing this great Minister to speak to and mentor the hip-hop community…to awaken the cultural elite, so they could empower the masses,” reads Simmons’ latest post. Where is Diddy (Sean Combs), whose Hamptons White Party guest list reads of the who’s who of Jewish society? How does he explain himself to his business partner, Bruce Philip Rockowitz, who is a Jewish Canadian businessman, and the CEO and vice chairman of Global Brands Group, which owns the majority of P Diddy’s clothing line? Instead, Diddy tweeted support for notorious anti-Semite Farrakhan by promoting the Nation of Islam leader’s Fourth of July address on Revolt TV, a cable channel founded by Combs. Has hip-hop been kidnapped by hate or just sheer ignorance to the lure of Farrakhan’s army of twisted lies about Jews?
As we tried to figure out what and where things went wrong within the relationship between hip-hop culture and Jews, we were greatly saddened at the continuous blatant anti-Semitism. Still, we praised and reminisced about our friends, 50 Cent, Seth, and his wonderful company. We will cherish and never forget the story of one little yeshivah boy from Borough Park who learned to be a proud Jew from a hip-hop rap legend.
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.