Rapper: prison to Promised Land

It seems like every few months I read about another celebrity who has suddenly discovered they're Jewish or that they at least might like to be. Britney Spears. Lindsay Lohan. Amar'e Stoudemire.

These stories typically end up being a lot of hype and no substance; the religion element is often just a fleeting hook to again talk about the unspectacular lives of famous people. (No, I'm not a regular reader of Us.)

But this story feels different.

It's about the rapper Shyne -- you know, "That's Gangsta" and other songs about guns and drugs and, um, women that I can't embed here -- who was released from prison last year after serving eight for his role in a 1999 night club shooting.

Thanks to prison, Shyne is a changed name. In fact, his name isn't even Shyne anymore. It's Moses Levi.

Turns out that the rapper's maternal grandmother may have been Jewish and that Shyne's stint in a cell led him back to his Hebrew roots.

Granted, Amar'e Stoudemire, though not in prison, said the same thing this past summer before traveling to Israel. But it turned out he wasn't actually Jewish. Shyne, of the Ethiopian variety, is, and during the High Holidays he moved to Jerusalem where he is living now as a Hasid.

The above video has a nice discussion of what led Shyne/Levi back to his roots, and back to Judaism's roots (both physically and theologically). As does this article from the Jerusalem Post. And same for The New York Times's arts section.

Let's take a quick look at the NYT's approach:

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." As a teenager he started reading the Bible, relating to the stories of King David and Moses that he had first heard from his grandmother. At 13 (bar mitzvah age, he notes) he began to identify himself as "an Israelite," a sensibility reinforced after finding out his great-grandmother was Ethiopian; he likes to wonder aloud whether she might have been Jewish.

He was already praying daily and engaged in his own study of Judaism at the time of his arrest but only became a practicing Jew, celebrating the holidays, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath under the tutelage of prison rabbis. In Israel, he said, he had undergone a type of pro forma conversion known as "giyur lechumra" (pronounced ghee-YUR le-kchoom-RAH).

Great stuff. Many readers are going to know those Hebrew phrases, but many more aren't -- and even those who do may not be able to pronounce them. More importantly, this passage sheds a lot of light on Levi's sense of Judaism.

What follows goes more to how this new worldview has changed Levi's life and even shaped his forthcoming music. His two new albums, on Death Row Records, are titled "Gangland" and "Messiah" and hint at his spiritual evolution:

What Mr. Levi has moved on to since being released from prison last year is a life in which he is often up at daybreak, wrapping his arms with the leather straps of tefillin, the ritual boxes containing Torah verses worn by observant Jews for morning prayers. Throughout the day he studies with various strictly Orthodox rabbis.

"What are the laws?" he said, explaining his decision to adhere to the Orthodox level of observance. "I want to know the laws. I don't want to know the leniencies. I never look for the leniencies because of all of the terrible things I've done in my life, all of the mistakes I've made."

Overall, a great story from the NYT and one of those rare stories from a celebrity who really seems to have had a life-changing religious transformation.

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