All the right moves

St. Louis artist Benjamina Kaplan created a multimedia installation for the World Chess Hall of Fame’s upcoming exhibit exploring intersections between chess and hip hop culture. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

I don’t know that much about chess or hip-hop culture, but apparently the ancient game and the more modern art form have more in common than one might think. 

For starters, there’s a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area called the Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF), which fuses music, chess and martial arts to help at-risk young people. HHCF was begun in 2006 by Adisa Banjoko, who says in the blog,, “In a game of chess, two people battle each other by making strategic moves on a board that has 64 squares. In a rap battle, two artists seek to display mental superiority, using similar survival strategies to a chess player, except that they duel with the wittiest rhymes to win.”

In a 2012 interview with Forbes magazine, Banjoko further explains how he views the connection between chess and hip hop: “Most people don’t realize that rap music has celebrated the game of chess more than any other form of popular music. Rappers like T.I., Tupac, Public Enemy and members of the Wu-Tang Clan have played the game and championed the philosophies that come off the board. However, few of them are really seeking Grand Master status. The goal is more to stay mentally sharp, avoid threats, recover from loss, refine their focus, etc. This is what the Hip-Hop Chess Federation teaches kids to do in real life.”

Now for the St. Louis Jewish connection you’ve been waiting for:

Recently, Banjoko served as educational consultant for “Living Like Kings: The Unexpected Collision of Chess and Hip Hop Culture,” which opens at the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End on Thursday, Oct. 9. The centerpiece of this new exhibit is an immersive, multi-media experience created by local artist Benjamin Kaplan. The installation includes archival and original video, music and photography, custom-designed type and illustration and a series of 12 interviews with chess grand masters and scholars as well as hip hop artists. The 27-minute video, set up on two screens, touches on themes that chess and hip hop share, such as history, strategy, spirituality, process, creativity, education and symbolism. 

Kaplan, 43 is the father of two young daughters and a member of Central Reform Congregation. When we spoke, the New York University film grad and freelance artist explained that he “tried for years to concentrate on just one thing” like music or visual art or film, but “each discipline informs the other so it was very hard for me to compartmentalize,” he says.

Also informing his work: Kaplan’s Jewish upbringing. “Judaism is all about questioning, about commentary,” says Kaplan, who moved to St. Louis in 2000. “For me, any subject I am exploring is a deep dive. It’s taking stories and commentary and repurposing them. 

“Judaism is a remix. It’s taking the pieces that mean the most to you and creating a way of life that works for you. That’s exactly what I am doing in my art.”

It took Kaplan about five months to complete the chess/hip hop project, which he says can be viewed all at once, or in bits and pieces. “It’s episodic in nature, and meant to be experienced in a number of ways,” he says. “You can walk into it, hang out for a few minutes, go look around and come back to it. I constructed it in modules so hopefully each time a person views it, (he or she) will feel and see something different.”

Kaplan admits that at first, the connection between chess and hip hop seemed incongruous. “But having gone to school in New York and walking through Washington Square Park everyday, I knew that chess was a mainstay in the African-American community,” he says. “As I dug deeper into it, the connections between the two, particularly musically, are pretty strong. Chess is a subject referenced more by hip-hop artists than any other musical artists. Usually it’s metaphorically, but it can apply to all sorts of situations.”

“Living Like Kings: The Unexpected Collision of Chess and Hip Hop Culture” will run through April 26 at the World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland Avenue. Admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation. For more information, go to

Blazing new frontiers 

St. Louis native Avi Goldstein, a filmmaker now living in New York, will take part in a preview screening and discussion of his new documentary “Fire Lines,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12 at the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive.

The film, which Goldstein produced and directed with David Viola in cooperation with the Palestinian Ma’an Network, tells of the December, 2010 forest fire in 

Mount Carmel near Haifa, which became the deadliest natural disaster in Israel’s history, claiming 44 lives. Over 20 countries responded to the call for help. The fire was also historic for the unprecedented type of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian firefighters, who offered to join the international effort. The narrative unfolds through the voices of Palestinian and Israeli firefighters and is brought to life with dramatic archival footage.

Goldstein, 34, explains that while the fire itself had received international coverage, participation of the Palestinian firefighters had become little more than a footnote. “David and I and the producing team at Ma’an felt that it was a story at the margins worth exploring,” said Goldstein, who along with his film cohorts, spent the better part of a year traveling between Israel and the West Bank interviewing more than two dozen Israeli and Palestinian firefighters who took part in the effort.

What Goldstein found most compelling was “the real deep set of values true to firefighters around the world.”

 “They have such a strong sense of purpose and value of human life,” he says. “As people are running away from a disaster, firefighters are running toward it. 

“There’s a universal spirit to their work. They see themselves as part of a worldwide brotherhood with a core value to go where they are needed and save lives and property no matter the social or political situation.”

By the same token, Goldstein said, the historical and political circumstances that divide many Israelis and Palestinians were salient among the firefighters.

“I think one thing that is touching about the film is how they grappled with their individual perspectives as they intersected with the core values of the (firefighter) brotherhood,” he says. “There certainly was tension within the community when the (Palestinian) firefighters went back. It wasn’t a unanimously popular decision. The film doesn’t shy away from this or other challenging aspects of the story.”

After the 42-minute long documentary, Goldstein will hold a post-film discussion with Art Oestereich, fire marshal of the Creve Coeur Protection District. Goldstein, by the way, is the son of Batya Abramson- Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The Jewish Film Society, the Webster University Film Series and JCRC are sponsoring the screening as part of an ongoing series focusing on various aspects of the Israel- Palestinian conflict. It’s free with Jewish Film Society membership and $6 for the general community. Call Zelda Sparks at 314-442-3169 for more information.

Wanted: Teen do-gooders

Nominations for the 2015 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards are now being accepted through Dec. 14. The awards recognize up to 15 Jewish teens annually with $36,000 each for exceptional leadership and impact in volunteer projects that make the world a better place. 

Last year, Jake Bernstein, 20, of Clayton was named a winner for his work on VolunTeen, a nonprofit that connects youth with available volunteer opportunities across the country. 

The award is named for San Francisco philanthropist Helen Diller. The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards have since granted a total of nearly $2 million to 55 Jewish teens from across the nation.

Anyone interested in nominating a teen (or any teen interested in self-nominating) should visit For more information, email [email protected] or call 415-512-6432.