It was a warm night in the Old City of Jerusalem as a rather large group of young yeshiva and seminary students gathered to hear a soft spoken, raspy, deep voiced man speak about his journey from jail to Judaism. That man was Moshe Levi, better known as the hip-hop artist Shyne. Many of the youth in attendance were too young to have been familiar that his short rise to fame was simultaneous with his incarceration due to a shooting incident at a New York night club while hanging out with Sean "Puffy" Combs and actress Jennifer Lopez.
The speech was organized by Rabbi Eli Goldsmith of the Jaffa Institute who for several years now has been working with dis-enfranchised yeshiva youth. Rabbi Goldsmith is known for his fundraising concerts featuring local yeshiva youth. He plans to bring Shyne to speak at an event on December 2 for the dedication of a new wing for the Bet Shemesh Educational Center.
The album release for a local young artist named Chanan Benami will also be featured. Another speech at a young men's yeshiva in Tel Stone is planned as well for this week.
So how did the rapper and the rabbi meet? "I had the pleasure of hosting him for Simchas Torah at my house and we connected," the British born rabbi replied in an interview at Asiyah Media studios in Jerusalem, the new local home for the rapper's various musical projects.
"I thought it was significant that we pray for rain at that time and that rain represents bringing down all the positivity in the world." Rabbi Goldsmith purposely had the kippah wearing ex-convict speak to at-risk youth to demonstrate how he changed his life around.
Born in the country of Belize, Levi grew up with his mother in New York City as Jamal Barrow. His father is currently the Prime Minster of Belize. His grandmother and great-grandmother were Ethiopian and frequently spoke of Old Testament heroes such as Joseph, King David and King Solomon, people who later served as inspirations while in prison. The family background led Levi to believe he may be technically born Jewish.
"Don't cut corners and then blame G-d," Levi said during his speech. "Yaakov's (Jacob's) wife died and he thought his favorite son Yosef (Joseph) died too. But he kept on going. Ultimately it worked out, but not without the challenges. He didn't complain. He stayed on the path. Don't throw your hands up and say 'I'm through with it'." Levi related the Biblical Jewish figures to his own challenges in prison trying to keep kosher and keep Shabbat.
One young student asked him about the power of prayer and when it doesn't work. Levi responded by saying he prayed every day that the present year would be his last in prison. Those prayers were not fulfilled until he served almost a full ten years in a United States penitentiary, but that did not dissuade him from his beliefs. Levi also discussed seeing a friend shot to death in a New York club and another incident of being stopped and frisked by the police. He was angry at the police, but found out later the club to which he was on his way had its own shooting incident while he was being delayed. Levi ventures to guess that the annoying police check could very well have saved his life.
But Levi now spends his days in yeshivas and recording studios, not in dance clubs. He recently signed a lucrative recording contract with Def Jam Records for a new album titled Messiah. But despite the ability to live a faster life, he chooses one of learning instead.
The rapper strikes an interesting image in the Old City courtyard, dressed in chassidic style clothing with a white kippah and contrasting with a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. He says he wore it purposely to relate how Cobain was a successful musical genius but nevertheless committed suicide at the age of 27. He talks of other wealthy, successful people he knew in America who despite material success were miserable and addicted to pills. This is part of the reason he sought out a Jewish connection.
"Judaism is not a pill," stated Levi. "I had the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to do and meet powerful people. But what made me think that Judaism is the ultimate is because it's straight. They indict everyone [in the Bible] but they also glorify." Levi elaborates by talking about some of the most influential leaders of Israel such as Moses and Sarah who made mistakes and paid the price for them.
That message of personal responsibility is something that Rabbi Goldsmith tries to imbue in his students as well. The young rabbi has a sense of where the youth are coming from. His father and uncle Martin and Harvey Goldsmith, respectively, helped Bob Geldof create Live Aid and other huge British music festivals. He personally grew up secular-traditional, playing rock music and even releasing an album before becoming a rabbi.
During the interview with Israel National Radio, Rabbi Goldsmith interjects that he is giving a Torah lecture at 2 a.m. somewhere in downtown Jerusalem as part of a program to keep youth off the streets at night. It is these activities that earned him the title "the midnight rabbi." And yet as much as Rabbi Goldsmith gives opportunities for young aspiring Jewish rappers to perform, he personally prefers that they listen to something else.
"The frum (orthodox) world is going to have restrictions and we need to respect that. But we need to work with the tools we have." the rabbi says, "The realm of hip-hop seem to be a more aggressive or even chutzpadik place. I hope we can insert a vibe of holiness and a positive tone. This is the big challenge in out generation because the youth culture is breathing this vibe. It's creating a society of people who listen to the animal instead of the soul that wants to uplift. This is what we have to 'shyne' forth," the rabbi states, purposely using the hip-hop name of his new friend.
But what will the new Shyne music sound like? Besides from some leaks on the internet, it remains a secret,. Erik Jakobs of Asiyah Media merely says that "he's able to take particulars and make them universal. People can take his personal stories and learn from them." Jakobs has been recording Shyne for an upcoming "unplugged" style album featuring a live drummer and some other instrumentalists for what Jakobs calls, "more organic and stripped down." Asiyah Media is also producing a video component as well.
"I've seen a lot of performances with serious artists such as Enrique Iglesias," Jakobs comments," and Shyne's got it. He gets in the zone when he's rapping. He's imaginative. It shines out of him and listeners and viewers can feel it."
Jakobs and Rabbi Goldsmith plan to bring other rappers and musicians into the studio, although not top selling ones. They want to take some of the youth Rabbi Goldsmith works with and have them perform in the studio as a way to express their emotions and channel their energy. It will be an extension of his existing Unity of the Bands concerts "One thing is for sure, I've got loads of students," says Rabbi Goldsmith of the growing number of young musicians looking for an outlet both in the yeshiva world and in Israel in general. With several more Shyne speaking engagements to come, the idea of inspiring youth through music is likely to grow, whether it be hip-hop or any other genre.
Ben Bresky is the host of The Beat on Arutz 7 - Israel National Radio and a music journalist living in Jerusalem.