Nissim Black: "I usually daven with an early morning minyan, and then I usually learn for a while. And then I go out to the field and meditate." (Photo/JTA-Tziporah Litman, courtesy of Black)
Nissim Black: "I usually daven with an early morning minyan, and then I usually learn for a while. And then I go out to the field and meditate." (Photo/JTA-Tziporah Litman, courtesy of Black)

Hasidic rapper Nissim Black opens up about his creative process, spirituality and Covid recovery

Nissim Black is passionately, assuredly, confidently in love with God.

Not in love with Judaism, though he’s fastidious in prayer and observance. Not in love with spirituality, though most mornings, you can find him meditating in the Israeli hills after sunrise. Not in love with ritual, though he’s a devoted Hasidic Jew.

No, Nissim Black is in love with the creator of the universe, with whom he has an intimate and fierce connection. He’s faced no shortage of adversity, experienced myriad modes of connection with the divine. Yet he’s unapologetically who he is, doing what he loves — rapping — with the undeniable gifts — perceiving and conveying clear-eyed truth — he’s been endowed with.

Days after his 34th birthday, on which he released “The Hava Song,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency spoke to Black at length about his music, his faith and his communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The word Hashem, literally meaning “the name,” is a Hebrew word for God commonly used by Orthodox Jews in everyday speech.


JTA: You just released a totally transformative version of “Hava Nagila.” Walk me through how that happened.

Black: It was really a story of divine providence. Thank God, I have been out there enough that producers send me beats all the time [musicians frequently utilize sample tracks to layer under their own lyrics]. My brother-in-law is my producer. He’s really a tzaddik [righteous person], so I let all of the beats go to him. Because if it’s good, he’s gonna tell me.

So this particular producer sent me a WhatsApp message — I used that when I didn’t have management. My wife and I were driving home from the grave of Shimon HaTzadik in Jerusalem. And we got in the car, we’re driving for a little bit, and she just starts putting on beats. My wife never just puts beats on!

And I’m like, where’d you get those beats from? And she’s like, somebody sent it to you! And the “Hava Nagila” beat came on, and I was flipping out over it.

He had a lot of good stuff on there. But that’s not my normal way of getting beats. So that one kind of slipped through the cracks. It was supposed to get to me.

I went home — I have a studio now in my house because of Covid — and I think within a few days, I had the song.

I can only imagine that with six kids at home, your day-to-day life is so crazy right now. What does it look like?

Thank God, everybody’s back in school except for my two youngest, but my wife manages that department and I’m either in the studio at my house or out running around handling other stuff that I have to handle musically.

I have a “Blackout” series on YouTube, so whenever I’m out, I have something to do. I have a camera guy that follows me around, or meetings or whatever else that comes along with it. But thank God, even when my kids were at home, I spent a lot of time inside the studio.

I don’t know how that happened, my kids were downstairs and I just gave a few hours, went up and worked on music, and then came back down. When I got sick with Covid, I came back home and was self-quarantining. But still, looking back, I’m like, how did I get that done? Even though they’re in school, now I can’t get anything done!

When do you find the time? Do you work in between day-to-day life? Are you more of a morning person, night person?

Yeah, I have an issue. I’m a never-go-to-sleep person.

I try to do everything now during the day, normal hours. I have to be ready to get the kids down for sleep around, you know, 5 or 6 o’clock — by then my wife’s all ready. I’m not getting the call, I’m getting the look. [laughs]

So I try to really go into the studio from noon or so, and I learn [Torah] in the morning hours. Right now I’m releasing one song a week. I actually have another song coming out in like two days, which I don’t know how I’m gonna manage. I just shot the video for “The Hava Song” also. There’s going to be a content overload coming up.

So the awesome part about it is that my wife is very supportive. The hard part is balancing my learning schedule with the father schedule. But Hashem gives us strength, He gives us power.

Nissim Black with his wife and children (Photo/JTA-Yitzchak Meltz Photography)
Nissim Black with his wife and children (Photo/JTA-Yitzchak Meltz Photography)

What is your learning schedule these days? 

I’m actually looking for a new kollel [Torah institute] to learn in. But usually I get up very, very early. In a normal week — this week has not been normal —  I usually get up to pray at sunrise, the earliest you can daven [pray].

I usually daven with an early morning minyan, and then I usually learn for a while. And then I go out to the field and meditate. I’m a Breslover Hasid, so I go out to the fields and go talk to Hashem. I go out to a lot of beautiful open meadows and forests here in Beit Shemesh.

Then after that, I get to work. And then after I’m done with the kids and speak to my wife, late at night, I’m also working. I’ve either got a Zoom, some type of interview, some type of something, usually at night to 2, 1, something like that. Ain’t no rest for the weary.

After I had Covid, I was drinking way too much coffee. I think I had a caffeine overdose a little bit. I stopped for a while. But now I’m doing it more slowly. Plus, I’m doing keto right now. It’s really not that bad. Like, you’re telling me I can eat meat and fat? That’s not really the worst. OK, so I’ll skip out on the doughnut, but I can have the steak. Not the worst thing in the world.

I haven’t really been able to maintain it, but I think it’s really helped me out because I wasn’t feeling so well. I think I was having some aftermath symptoms. The combination of pounding caffeine and not getting enough sleep didn’t help. After Covid, my body really needed to recover. I was having some other issues affecting me. But Baruch Hashem [Thank God], I’ve been doing a lot better. I lost a lot of weight on keto. And it’s getting my energy levels back to normal.

Your family immigrated to Israel from the United States in 2016. What was the adjustment to Israeli life like for you? 

It’s been a lot of adjusting. Obviously, right? None of your favorite products are here. Nobody really stands in lines. Depending on the neighborhood you live in, you know, people may bump into you, step on your shoe, and if you take a problem with that, then they look at you like, “what’s wrong?”

Normal Israeli life is very, very hard. But when two taxi drivers start yelling at each other, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to end with gunshots.

So it’s just cultural differences. Everybody accepts the fact that Israelis all stare. Me, my wife, all the kids, everyone is just going to stare at us, which I just was raised that you never do. Those things have been very hard to adjust to. I have it twofold because also I’m very, very known here. So I never know why they’re staring. Sometimes it gets a little out of hand, you know?

In 2018, you met with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky [a leading haredi rabbi in Israel]. It seemed like a very inspirational meeting, but unfortunately, you were there because your children were not being allowed into haredi schools due to racism. What was that meeting like for you? And has the Orthodox community gotten any better on these issues since then?

I was having issues getting my kids into the cheder [religious elementary school] when I was in Jerusalem. My boys were actually in schools, but my daughter was not in school. We tried for a year and a half to get her into [a haredi] school. We could have gotten her into a different school, but getting into one that matched the religious level of our home was much more difficult.

One of the biggest issues is misconceptions. A person’s skin color, or their career choice, doesn’t always necessarily have to reflect your prejudices.

That definitely played a role. And it’s unfortunate — it’s like that with any system, right? Once there’s a system that people have accepted, it’s very, very hard for people to ever really get out of the box of that way of thinking that keeps them stuck inside of that system.

So unfortunately, it was very hard for us there. But very fortunately, it was good because we ended up moving to Beit Shemesh [a growing Orthodox community outside of Jerusalem]. We were able to get the kids into school in Beit Shemesh, which ended up being a way better choice for our family.

There are some places where it’s going to be very, very hard for them to ever change. And at the same time, you just sort of have to move where it’s going to fit your situation a little bit better. And I feel like we did that. It was a tough thing because nobody ever wants to leave Jerusalem. But at the end of the day, it turned out to be the best decision we could have made.

My kids are in school now. They’re all happy here. Baruch Hashem, they have tons of friends. And two of every type of color and shade come to my house on Saturday. It gets a little annoying, the house is loaded with kids, but Baruch Hashem, the kids are happy.

And we still live in a very haredi neighborhood. It was so shocking to my kids to feel accepted. My son, when he first got invited to a tehillim group [recitation of Psalms] on Shabbos from a bunch of yeshivishe boys, he was tripping out. Because that just never happened in Mea Shearim. There’s just just every type of love and acceptance over here.

Wow, that sounds like it ended up being for the best. You mentioned that your brother-in-law is your producer. And he also converted, right?

Yeah, we’ve been best friends since kindergarten.

That’s amazing. Are you close with other people in your family? How did you and your wife’s choice to become Jewish and become a part of the haredi community affect your other relationships?

In the beginning it was hard for everybody — for my wife’s family, her accepting a new faith was a rejection of their faith. My biological father was actually very, very supportive. He’s actually a Christian theologian, a professor. He used to sell a lot of drugs back in the day, but now he runs an addiction program. If you met him, you would never think he had the past that he had. It’s a different religion, but I think because he made such a drastic change and has become a different person, he was just very happy and cheering me on.

My stepfather and all the rest of my family took it as a sort of a hit because my growth included me having to separate myself for some years. And so that was very, very tough on them.

But I think it was a necessary move at that time. And slowly but surely, I’ve been back in touch with my family. I talked to my stepfather — I call him my dad because he’s been my stepfather since I was 2 years old. I was just fortunate enough to have him in my life. But it was tough. Because the drug and street life were still very much still a part of that world at the time I was making my transition. And especially when I found out that I was going to have a child, I was like, no way in the world I’m going to raise them back in that same environment that I grew up in. Thank God I’d had a change of mind and a change of heart at a time already.

I was listening to one of your Blackout videos, and you mentioned that Judaism isn’t about religion to you, it’s about the spirituality and the personal relationship with Hashem. Your religious journey has been written about, but I’m curious to hear more about some of the big shifts in your own spirituality over the years and how that impacted your music.

I think the main thing is, I’m one that really believes you’ve got to live with Hashem. I never signed up for Judaism because of everything you can’t do. I didn’t go, oh man, I can’t wait to not be able to do anything on Saturday, to not be able to eat what I want.

It was all of the things that you can do in the beautiful relationship that Hashem had with the Jewish people. So naturally, [growing up Muslim and Christian], I didn’t have any knowledge of the Oral Torah, or Jewish law. When I started, all I had was a JPS Tanakh, and I read it from cover to cover looking for the behavior that God had, looking for God’s behavior, and people’s behavior, and what that relationship was supposed to look like and what it was supposed to be.

The interesting thing is, you never find that Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses] had a major problem and his solution was to go learn a tractate of Gemara. That’s not what happened —  he cried out to Hashem. King David was going to lose his son, so he fasted and afflicted himself and cried out.

So this is what I was seeing. You have to understand, to me, this is what Judaism wants. As opposed to today where there’s more systemizing. There’s Batei Midrashot [Torah study halls] and beautiful things birthed also. But one of the things you lose about that organic spirituality in relationship with Hashem, it’s like you almost missed the boat on what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place, you understand?

I think because I fell in love with Hashem, so to speak, it was easier for me to make my transition. Shabbat wasn’t an “I have to.” It was an “I get to,” you know what I mean?

I get to eat kosher. I get to. And I think because I started off with that type of relationship, I’m looking at the religious lifestyle as a relationship much less than I am as a strict mandate of what has to happen. Because I’m already in love with Hashem.

I go to Uman every year for Rosh Hashanah. It’s Judgment Day on Rosh Hashanah, so it’s a very interesting thing. You go to Uman, you don’t feel that at all. People are dancing, smiling, happy, you know, can’t wait for the moment of judgment.

So they tell a beautiful story. There was one Litvish guy and one Breslover Hasid staying in adjacent rooms. Rosh Hashanah was coming, and the Litvish guy was very strict on himself. He was doing viddui, confessing, and preparing himself for Rosh Hashanah because it’s Judgment Day.

And he looks over, and he sees the Hasid dancing and he’s singing.

He asked him, “what’s wrong with you? Why are you so happy? It’s Judgment Day; all your deeds are coming before Hashem!”

The Breslover Hasid turns to him and says, “You know what, you’re right. But my father is the judge.”

And I think that type of attitude changes the whole entire relationship with Yiddishkeit, with Judaism. And I think because I started off with the relationship aspect, it’s much easier to do what’s required of me.

That expanded into my music. I didn’t fall into the trap of like, OK, now that I’m Jewish, let’s make traditional mainstream Orthodox Jewish music. That’s not what I know how to do. I know how to use what Hashem gave me.

I did leave music for a while because I thought that it was the right thing to do. But I got to come back. Because I have a strong relationship with Hashem, I can be very confident in myself that I’m doing what Hashem wants me to do because I have a relationship, as opposed to having to check with the rabbi. Now I did, I did do all of those things. But once you’re sure, they’re only going to confirm what you already know. Because you’re already in touch with the boss. And I sort of feel like that’s the way that I’ve been able to move and do other things.

When people call me and say, “wow, how’d you get away with that? How did you like …” [laughs] it’s because Hashem is running it, not the system!

I feel like because of that, I’m able to go against the grain and I can talk about and say more and do more. I can say things other people are not going to say because I know at the end of the day, I’m not held down by a systemized thing. I’m held down by Hashem. So I feel like that’s affected my music and how I move in my music.

(Photo/JTA-Courtesy Nissim Black)
(Photo/JTA-Courtesy Nissim Black)

Your rabbi in Seattle, Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, once told a reporter that “rap gets a bad rap,” and that it’s an authentic expression of African-American life. Do you feel that people see that your message is authentically Jewish? Has there been pushback?

I think that there is some pushback. But it rarely ever comes to me; I always hear it from somebody else.

And it hasn’t been formal. There’s been musicians over the years that have had herem [excommunication] put on them by a community that felt like the music was not Jewish enough. But there’s been a lot of big singers that today are super accepted, that are the mode of what Jewish music is, who also had to go through very, very similar types of things.

We have to realize that even as a people, we don’t always get it right. I’ve spent so much time in Tanakh and reading Jewish history. There’s been many prophets who have come and were slain all throughout Jewish history. And these were people that Hashem sent!

Sometimes we get it right and it’s not the right guy. But there have been many times where Hashem has sent prophets, and it was the religious leaders who were against the person, who either killed them or tortured them. So looking at that, I try to always stay neutral and try to stay out of it. But other people don’t necessarily feel that way.

Every once in a while I get negative feedback. And I will say every time it happens to me, I can’t think of a time where I didn’t get something very encouraging and the opposite right afterwards.

I think the majority accept my music because it’s authentic to me. I’m not some yeshiva kid who was listening to Drake and then decided to rebel against the way I grew up. I internally know how to use this weapon that I have. Because I’ve been using it my whole life.

I loved your mask that you posted on Twitter. [It said, in Hebrew: Don’t speak ‘lashon hara,’ evil speech, to me.] There’s a lot of divisiveness within the Jewish community. What’s your message to Jews who strongly disagree on politics or community issues? 

There’s a whole lot of ego. I was in the hospital with Covid. I didn’t have the best oxygen, and I was on oxygen. And I was thinking while I was there. You start to think about life, and like, how much time do I spend on things that really don’t matter?

How much time am I wasting on issues or talking about things that just have no significance? If I was on my deathbed, would this be a major issue for me? When you evaluate it, you’ll see that a lot of these arguments have nothing to do with anything.

Most people that are having a dispute — about politics, or this or that rabbi in the community, and all the other stuff is just like, it’s so easy to not get involved in stuff that people just have no idea how easy it is. [Laughs]

Once you just really put in your head that “I’m not gonna get involved,” it’s very easy to do that. So I think the main thing is just knowing Hashem and really thinking about, like, is this a matter that Hashem cares about? Because a lot of it is not. It’s not a big deal. And one of the most beautiful things the Gemara [Talmud] talks about is that Hashem wants unity over other things.

Like, even if we were to — and I used this line in a rap awhile ago — even if, God forbid, we were all given over to idol worship, but we were together, Hashem was willing to concede. He was willing to allow that if there was some unity. The Talmud said because there was no unity, He was willing to destroy the people.

Anybody that has had a near-death experience, one of the things that I’ve seen most of the time is that people are shown how they’ve treated other people. And when you look inside of the Tanakh, and you look inside the Navi [Books of the Prophets] especially, what is Hashem screaming about? How we’re treating the widows and the orphans, how are we treating each other. Like that’s the main thing, more than everything else. Like Hashem was willing to say, “I don’t want your Shabbos, your Yamim Tovim,” I don’t want any of that. Because I don’t even have your heart. If your heart is impure. The first time the Temple was destroyed, we were doing a bunch of “avoda zara” [idol worship]. The second time the Temple was destroyed, everybody was frum [religious]. So what’s the problem?

Now we’re mad at everybody over here. This person is not religious, Bibi is this, that one is this.

Listen, when we were all religious, we didn’t have it right. Everybody was fighting about who was what and whatever. Hashem also destroyed the Temple. So like, now what? You know? So I think the biggest thing is, we’re going to be judged mostly on how we treated other people.

There was a lot going on in your latest Blackout episode: A Black Orthodox Jew shares an incident of racial profiling, you cut off someone’s dreads and you’re given a speech about how much your work matters. What is going on in that scene for you? 

[Laughs] There’s a lot going on there. My first Shabbat dinner in Seattle was actually with Yakov Lemon, one of the men in the video, whom I affectionately call uncle. He immigrated to Israel about a year after we did.

He wanted to cut his dreads because he felt that it was hindering his ability to be as effective as he wanted to be inside of the community. Obviously, people see dreads, it’s not traditional, Jewish — not that there are too many haircuts he is going to get that are going to be traditionally Jewish, whatever that means.

But it was something that he really felt that it was time for him to do. And he had had that before — he had long dreads, and in order for him to make his conversion, he also had to cut them.

Really? Why, was it considered chatzitza [something that prevents water from touching all of one’s body during immersion in a ritual bath] or something? 

No, just because, you know, it wasn’t a Jewish haircut. You know, the system, go back to the system.

So I think he grew them back spitefully years later, but he decided he wanted to cut them again. And so he asked me, he wanted me to be the one that cut them. So I did it.

He was getting racially profiled. The police went up on him, asked him for his passport, and he told them, “I’m Israeli.” But I think the beautiful part that I wanted to highlight was “I’m Israeli, just like you are.” Just the fact that he has pride in it.

That’s one of the biggest things also in America — with all of the racial issues, and all of the social issues that are going on over the last year — but at the end of the day, you’re an American. You know what I’m saying? That has to be the overriding thing. It’s not my color. I’m an American.

So I just sort of felt like that was his way of saying — and I cut out a lot more of what he was saying — most African-American converts, and other converts, because of the limited amount of us that there are, have had some point where you felt like you were the only one.

So I think for him, I think he feels pride in watching us grow, in the fact that more and more of us Black Jews have moved to Israel — it’s a good amount of guys. We have a group chat just to support and keep each other up.

It’s something that I’ve been trying to be more conscious of also, to show the diversity withinside of Judaism. Because I think showing that Judaism comes in all different types of shades is going to have a powerful effect on the Jewish people and on the rest of the world. It’s just something that’s not known, especially to the Western world.

What’s next? It sounds like you’re producing music at a really impressive rate. Who are you hoping to reach? And what are you thinking about as you’re making your music?

I’ve really opened myself back up. I have to spread my wings a little bit more, and spread my reach to include people who maybe don’t feel so connected to traditional Jewish music or traditional Judaism.

I want to be able to have an effect on the African-American community. I grew up not being able to have a lot of great wholesome content, but it was way, way better than what’s going on today.

I feel like that’s been one of the biggest things plaguing the Black community — the violence and disrespect to women inside of the music, and thinking that you have to have that message in order to sell.

I just don’t support any type of system like that.

I’m going to be just as good of an artist without doing all of that. I’m gonna unapologetically be happy about my relationship with Hashem, be happy about my religious choices, be happy about all of those things. And I’m going to make just as good of music or content or better.

The yeshiva bochurim and the seminary girls have me all day long because I’m in their environment. But I feel like the way to affect what happens to the little kids like me is by being somebody that doesn’t fit inside of that traditional box. I jumped out of that completely, in many different ways. I think having positive role models can be very effective for young Black kids growing up, and Black people in general.

As I was leaving the community, they had already started taking a lot of funding out for a lot of programs that were actually helping, and they started giving it to the gang unit. Obviously, you’re going to create more violence when you have fewer recreational things in the community. And money isn’t going to those types of things, which we actually had.

People need positive role models to look up to. And I think it’s also important for minorities inside of Yiddishkeit, inside of Judaism, also to feel like, wow, we have a voice, we’re represented. Like, what things from our previous life, our Black culture, can we bring in?

Everything is a product of its culture that it had when it was not in Israel, right? Ashkenazi Jewry is, you know, I’m pretty sure that we did not invent gefilte fish and other things — these are cultural things that were in the place, same thing in the Sephardi communities and different things like that. So there’s a lot of things that culturally — I had a friend, and he said, you know, on Shabbat, he never makes cholent, he never has gefilte fish. He said, “I grew up eating fried chicken and collard greens. So that’s what I have on Shabbos.”

Not to feel like we have to get rid of all of that — because that’s the first thing we all do. That’s the first thing I did — “let me get rid of everything I ever knew, and try to conform and fit in.” But am I really happy doing it? Or is it so wrong for me to have fried chicken? Probably from a health standpoint, but cholent isn’t any better!

A lot of these things, like being happy to be in your own skin, I feel like I see that more and more even within the very ultrareligious Orthodox community.

A lot of the kids, they’re dying because they have talents, things inside them that they can’t do because it doesn’t fit the box. So I sort of feel like my music is trying to, and I’m trying to, break all of those barriers.

Laura E. Adkins
Laura E. Adkins

Laura E. Adkins is opinion editor at the Forward and former opinion editor at JTA.

JTA

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