Taking a Shyne to Judaism

The Jerusalem Post (from which this title was lifted) and the NY Times both published stories this week about the hip-hop artist “Shyne,” born Jamal Michael Barrow, and who now goes by the name Moshe Levy ben David when not performing. He has had quite a journey, from his birth in Belize to an Ethiopian Beta Israel mother, to the “hip hop scene” in NY, to several years in prison — and now to life in Jerusalem, where he is both studying in yeshivos and re-launching his music career.

My reaction to his music is, well… it’s rap. Or hip-hop. Or whatever they call it. I have always liked music that wasn’t the standard “yeshivishe” fare — perhaps due to a much more varied musical background — but I have trouble placing spoken words over a beat loop in the category of “music” (this, from the author of the “Yeshiva Rap”). Compare to Matisyahu, whose beats and music are, at least in my opinion, somewhat more sober (in other words, a lot less “rocked up”) than a lot of “Jewish” music today (which, of course, often lifts riffs and beats, if not entire music tracks, from secular rock). Matisyahu also puts obvious Jewish ideas into his music. They say similar things are coming from Shyne, but while it may be true that he has dropped the obscenities and misogynistic lyrics which reportedly characterized his earlier efforts, I wasn’t comfortable linking to his new release.

What is impressive, though, is Moshe Levy’s interview with the Jerusalem Post. He speaks with obvious sincerity about his process of growth and change, in a dialogue sprinkled inspirational references to people from Tanach (the Bible), and discusses both his checkered past and his transformation due to Torah observance. Because of who he is, the Jerusalem Post printed positive reflections on Judaism that we rarely get to see in the “mainstream” press, and his words can inspire secular teens who wouldn’t listen to most anyone else who spent much of his time in chassidic garb. I feel he was mekadesh Shem Shamayim (sanctified G-d’s Name), and if his lyrics help others to grow beyond the life of violence and “fast living,” he should be blessed for that as well.

Hat Tip: The indefatigable Jeff Seidel, who learns with Shyne/Moshe Levy and is quoted in both articles.

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3 Responses

  1. S. says:

    I’m curious if you thought the Lamborghini comment was a kiddush Hashem? It struck me as a weird form of Prosperity Theology, which seems to be so popular these days, and which he superimposed onto Orthodox Judaism. Actually, it’s a little bit frightening if his honest assessment was that Orthodox Judaism is into materialism, and he can have his spiritual life and his Lamborghini too. Is this what he saw and concluded from taking a look at OJ?

    [YA – I found his reference to owning a Lamborghini extremely shallow and disappointing. I’m experienced enough with the press getting important things wrong that I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. And Prosperity Theology may not be the culprit at all. It could just as easily been an earlier impression that true spirituality demands renouncing any claim to this world – and some kiruv worker telling him that this is not the case in Judaism. We should probably find out more before rendering judgment. (I did speak with a mechanech in Yerushalayim about the propriety of inviting Shyne to speak at his yeshiva for Americans. We agreed that if he had nothing more profound to offer than his preference for expensive cars, that he could take his message elsewhere.) ]

  2. Jeff Seidel says:

    Here in Israel,Shyne and I are daily study partners in the Yeshiva – College for Jewish Learning, he is very prompt, punctual, attentive, and a real pleasure to study with. As a result we have become very good friends. We just spent a weekend on Prague with a gathering of students from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Ben Gurion University. As we walk the streets of Jerusalem together, he has become a popular figure and an inspiration to all the young people here.

  3. S. says:

    In fairness, it could have been a leading question – they could have asked him “what about all your bling?” and that was his response, and maybe he was kind of kidding.

    Still, I was wondering, if not worrying, that someone could really look at Orthodox society and think that. I mean, people see what they see. I don’t think there are too many Lamborghinis around, but as a lot of people are fond of pointing out, Judaism doesn’t frown on gashmiyus – or at least that’s the impression one can sometimes get by puk chazi.

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