A gangster rapper goes Jewish

The New York Times had one of those sit-up-and-spit-out-your-cornflakes stories this week, about an African American gangster rapper named Shyne who has become a black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Shyne in Jerusalem / Photo by Ricki Rosen for the New York Times

Shyne isn’t just any rapper. He was the Sean Combs/P. Diddy protege who served almost nine years in prison for shooting into the crowd of a New York nightclub in 1999. But apparently he has thought of himself as an “Israelite” since age 13, and converted to Judaism while in prison. Today his legal name is Moses Levi, he wraps tefillin every morning, and he is studying with some of the most strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem.

Shyne/Levi still raps on Def Jam records and maintains parts of the hip-hop lifestyle. “There’s nothing in the Chumash that says I can’t drive a Lamborghini,” he told the Times. “Nothing in the Halacha about driving the cars I like, about the lifestyle I like.”

What attracts him to Judaism, he told the Times, are the rules.

“What I do get is boundaries. Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself.

“All these rules, rules, rules,” he said with his hand on an open page of the Talmud. “But 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.” 

Now I’m sure there’s more to this, and to him, than the Times was able to fit into a 30-inch story. But like Madonna becoming a Kabbalah devotee, this raises all those little hairs on my neck. 

His Judaism is so different from mine that it seems like they could be two different religions.

He sees a religion of rigid rules; I see a religion of social justice and ethics.

He chooses to enter the sliver of Judaism that is the most gender-segregated, the most patriarchal, where women are completely marginalized from public life. It’s tempting to play armchair psychologist and look at the parallels between the sexism  of hip-hop culture and that of the ultra-Orthodox — Shyne/Levi has moved from one culture that denigrates women to another.

Shyne apparently sees it as a universal truth that, without rigid rules governing every aspect of our lives, we will “go off the deep.”  I see that more as a sad comment on his own character. One of my main goals as a parent — and of just about every parent I know — is to raise children to be capable of making good decisions when there is no one in the room to “tell them no.”

Now, I certainly don’t want to denigrate or discourage converts. And on one level, Shyne’s decision isn’t that unusual. Thousands of African-American men in prison have sought out a similar set of rules and structure by converting to Islam. So why not black-hat Judaism?

Still, something feels askew to me when non-Jews seek out the most arcane, regressive, or extreme corners of Judaism to call their own.

Madonna and kabbalah. Shyne and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What is it that they see when they look at Judaism?

I fear they are viewing Judaism as some exotic and obscure cult, like I might view an indigenous tribe from the depths of the Amazon. As a romantic “other.” They’re certainly not seeing the daily lives of millions of us, the vast majority of American Jewry, as we struggle to blend our values and our jobs, as we drive carpools to Hebrew school and soccer practice, as we write checks to the ACLU and the dry cleaners and the temple building campaign.

It seems weird to use the phrase “anti-Semitism” in talking about Christians choosing to adopt aspects of Judaism. But what about when the aspects they choose are so extreme or offbeat? 

Would I feel differently if Shyne or Madonna had joined a Reform or conservative synagogue?

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5 Responses to “A gangster rapper goes Jewish”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    Let’s be fair – once someone has converted, they are no longer a “non-Jew”. They are, in fact, as Jewish as any other Jew.

  2. Meredith Says:

    I see a person who lived an out-of-control lifestyle and was unable to stop himself. It’s not a surprise that he chose a very rule-bound system. It seems clear to me that he desperately needed rigid rules and guidelines, and I see it as in many ways positive that he found himself a place that will give him that. Is it what I’d chose? Obviously not. But for a person who has trouble with impulse control and self-restraint, having strong rigid rules as fences can be a constructive solution.

  3. notdeaddinosaur Says:

    >>Would I feel differently if Shyne or Madonna had joined a Reform or conservative synagogue?

    Moot point; they wouldn’t have. I think your armchair psychologizing is right on target.

  4. Elliot Says:

    In Love Minus Zero, No Limit, a Jew (before thinking himself born again) wrote: “She knows too much to argue or to judge”. Do you know this Shyne/Levi soul so well to judge him unfit to be a Jew or to criticize his choice of an Orthodox path, Ilana? Further, Jews have no monopoly on social ethics, nor do a great many Jews display high regard for social ethics in their own self-centered behavior – just consider some we’ve all known, or those reported in the NYTimes practically any day). Me, i’m glad to hope that finding these boundaries and studying as he does has led Herr Shyne/Levi to a better life for himself and others. Rappin’ tefillin indeed.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I get your point, Elliot, but if we had to truly know every person in the public eye before we could “argue or judge” their actions, nobody would be able to write or say anything about Sarah Palin, Charles Rangel, Hamid Karzai, Ellen DeGeneres, J.K. Rowling, John Lennon etc. etc. etc.

      Being a celebrity in today’s world means your life is fair game for dissection, armchair quarterbacking and kibbitzing.

      Sure, people’s judgments may tell you more about the judger than about the judgee. But that’s interesting too.

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