Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Black Man finds Judaism in Prison

Meltingpot readers,

On this last day of Hanukkah, I find myself craving potato pancakes and jelly donuts and wishing I were Jewish. Well, not really, but I do love the miracle story behind the holiday. And I love most any food fried in oil, but I digress.

Recently, I saw this New York Times articleabout the rapper, formerly known as Shyne, who has embraced orthodox Judaism. For those of you not up on the rap game, back in the late 1990s, Shyne was supposed to be the next big thing produced by Diddy, who of course, back then was still known as Puffy. Unfortunately, Shyne's career was stalled when he fired a gun in a crowded nightclub and subsequently served almost nine years in prison.

Because Shyne is a native of Belize, after serving his time here, he was deported and now cannot reenter the country without special permission. Interestingly, he's still making rap music, he has a new album coming out in the United States and his new name is Moses Levi and he lives in Jerusalem. What part of that story sounds odd to you? Do you have a hard time reconciling how a young Black man famous for rapping about the streets and the game, finds his salvation in the strictest form of Judaism? In prison no less? Yes, he converted under the tutelage of prison rabbis (but note, he felt the call to the faith before prison.) Aren't young Black men in prison supposed to become Muslim if they are going to go religious?

From the article in The Times:

"The science of Judaism” as Mr. Levi refers to it, has become his system for living, a lifeline that connects him to God and becoming a better human being. He sees no conflict fusing the hip-hop world with the life of a Torah-observant Jew.

Mr. Levi speaks in the style of the urban streets but combines his slang with Yiddish-accented Hebrew words and references to the “Chumash” (the bound version of the Torah, pronounced khoo-MASH) and “Halacha” (Jewish law, pronounced ha-la-KHAH).

As in: “There’s nothing in the Chumash that says I can’t drive a Lamborghini,” and “nothing in the Halacha about driving the cars I like, about the lifestyle I live.”

It seems that Shyne/Jamal/Moses finds great comfort in the rules of an Orthodox life. It centers him. He says, " ... you know what you have if you don’t have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don’t know when to say when and no one tells you no, you go off the deep.”

I love this story in that shows how people, despite their racial/cultural/ethnic background can find salvation in faith traditions. That is a very powerful message. In the story, there doesn't seem to be any mention of the Orthodox community in Jerusalem shunning the new Mr. Moses Levi because of his race or his past history. I wonder if that is true? I also wonder what the rest of the prison population thought of Shyne's conversion? I wish him the best of luck and hope Judaism brings him peace.

(Note: I feel a tiny bit of connection to Shyne, because I sat in the courtroom every single day of his trial back when I was a reporter for Entertainment Weekly. I watched his mother and his legal team and his friends and family respond when he was sentenced and he seemed so young and I was pregnant and emotional and just remember thinking his life would now be over. So I'm happy to see he's found his way.)

Besides Sammy Davis Junior and Rebecca Walker, do you know any other Black Jewish folk? What has their walk been like? I'm listening.

Peace/ Shalom!


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great story. Isn't it funny that rappers that work with P-diddy tend to find Religion after the gig is up. I'm just saying!

I'm glad he found his peace and his center. We all need guidiance and I'm glad he found his.

As for black jews...can't say I know many...okay make that any. Lenny Kravitz, maybe, but he doesn't practice.

Great though provoking post.

LT said...

Thanks! And maybe P-diddy is really working for the man upstairs, in kind of a subversive way.

Anonymous said...

Hi LT,

I am a new Melting Pot reader (I am the anti-Aida commentor). I love your blog!

Regarding this post, did you mean Black American jews?

If not, there is the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, also known as Ethiopian Jews, which makes up of more than 120,000 people residing in Israel. This community originally lived in the area of Aksumite and Ethiopian empires, nowadays Ethiopia. Their settlement in Israel was the result of a political/humanitarian maneuver by the Israeli government (Operation Moses, 1984, and Operation Solomon, 1991). The details of the story and the experiences of the people are actually interesting!