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To Make A Difference: Hear My Song

Sharon Gelbach

Nissim Black, Meah Shearim, Jerusalem // Nominated by Penina Fein

Thursday, September 20, 2018

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I

met Nissim Black at the Ohr Naava Shabbaton two winters ago in Parsippany, New Jersey. He was the entertainment for Motzaei Shabbos, and he also spoke Shabbos afternoon and shared his story. His story was incredible and inspiring, but what I took away from it was Nissim’s humility. When he spoke to us, he was in entertainer mode—he spoke candidly, he looked around the room, he was a speaker addressing an audience. But when Nissim Black walked out of the speech, he was in a different zone —he didn’t stay to schmooze with the audience, he walked without looking to either side, very temimusdig — a real chassid.

And I saw it that night too, when he performed. I remember being blown away by Nissim’s ability to separate his star persona from his real persona. Onstage, Nissim Black is a rapper and a storyteller — he’s wearing big glasses and rapping and moving all over the place. In real life, there’s such a sense of humility and eidelkeit.

Nissim Black’s story is mindboggling and his music is great, but to be honest, it’s more the person than the music I was inspired by.

 

The throbbing, recurrent beat pattern and rhyming chant carry the musical stamp of Afro-Americans living in urban ghettos. But listen closely to the lyrics and you’ll hear an unexpected message: praise of Hashem; a call to teshuvah; a Jew’s innermost yearnings as expressed in his private conversation with his Maker.

 

It’s my hope that I know You/ 

My desire that I show You/ 

Gratitude/ That I owe You/ 

’Cause I was in that Klipas Nogah/ 

until You came and dusted off/ 

and revealed my spark/ I / 

was searching for the essence of existence/ 

wanted to find You/ but I didn’t see an entrance/ 

I came from a distance/ where everything was different/ 

I called out to You/ and You showed me that You listened/ 

from then we became best friends/ 

I gave my all to You and You showed me who I am/ 

I am/ staying by Your side/ to bask in Your light/ 

in Your mercy I reside/ 

(From “A Million Years,” Nissim Black)

 

Speaking to Nissim Black, one point emerges: Whether on the stage in concert at points across the globe, speaking in front of hundreds of yeshivah bochurim at the Mir camp, recording new songs, or farbrengening till 3 a.m. with the dozens of bochurim who are his guests every Shabbos, uppermost in his mind is inspiring his listeners with a love of Hashem, and encouraging them to forge a personal connection with Him. And the audiences are picking it up and clamoring for more. “I’m always surprised to see the different types of Yidden who have grown fond of me or my music,” he shares. “From those who’ve never kept Shabbos to the children of roshei yeshivah. It doesn’t matter; even Grandpa comes! Tzaddikim have invited me to perform at the chasunahs of their children.”

Considering his roots, the warm reception to Nissim’s music and message might seem surprising. Then again, if you know about the relentless internal force that’s driven Nissim Black to search and seek and seek some more, it makes perfect sense.

Nissim Black was born and grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an inner-city neighborhood plagued by poverty, crime, and drugs. With both parents using and dealing in drugs, and a home he describes as “like Grand Central Station for dealers and users,” he was exposed from a young age to disturbing, violent scenes and never benefited from a stable family life.  

What saved him in this unhealthy environment was his music. Both his parents were hip-hop artists, and his grandparents and uncles were acclaimed musicians. “I was born into music, and it was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he says. Nissim, then Damien, displayed musical talent practically before he could talk. At 13 he began recording and by the time he was 19, he released his first album, which put him on the map of professional hip-hop. After being featured in a popular music magazine, he received invitations to rap festivals and went on to perform throughout the US. “I was pretty big back in the day,” he reflects.

Nissim’s earliest memories feature his quest for spirituality. One of the most significant influences in his life during childhood was his grandfather, a Sunni Muslim, who taught him how to pray. “For as long as I can remember, I had this all-consuming feeling of wanting to be close to Hashem, and my grandfather was my only connection to religion,” Nissim says. But then his grandfather was sentenced to a 21-year prison term, leaving Nissim bereft. It was precisely at this time that he became involved with a Christian missionary organization that ran clubs, study groups, and a camp. Still identifying as a Muslim, Nissim took part in the activities, which he says, were “a healing experience, just what I needed at the time to get out of the negative environment I was in.” By the time camp was over, Nissim had exchanged his Muslim faith for Christianity.

“I was the poster child for this place,” Nissim relates. “I brought half my high school to the organization’s study groups and clubs.”

Ever the seeker, it didn’t take long before Nissim began to question his newly acquired faith. “At this time, I knew nothing about Breslov, of course, but I was crying and talking to Hashem every day for hours. I wanted to serve Him in the most authentic way I possibly could.” 

When he was 21, Nissim married Jamie, the daughter of an evangelist and a devout Christian herself. Meanwhile, he continued searching, his spiritual journey taking a few more twists and turns until he came to the realization that Judaism had what he was looking for. He shared his newfound understanding with his wife, who made her own investigations, until she too was fully on board. Nissim credits her with the courage and impetus to make a clean break from their previous spiritual framework, and find their place within the Orthodox Jewish community as Nissim and Adina. She was also the inspiration for her sister Sheree — now Chana — and brother-in-law, Yosef Brown, (Nissim’s friend from early childhood) to follow in their path.

Rabbi Shimon Benzaquen from the Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation in Seattle accompanied both families through their conversion and subsequent marriage with chuppah and kiddushin. The Blacks and Browns later joined the chassidic Ashreichem Yisrael congregation led by Rabbi Shmuel Brody, a product of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore and the Jerusalem Kollel under Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, and who learned chassidus from Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg. Nissim Black describes Rabbi Brody as “a great light, a spiritual giant without making a lot of noise,” saying that he invested tremendously in his and his brother-in law’s spiritual growth. 

Nissim moved with his family to Eretz Yisrael in 2016. Today he lives in Meah Shearim and davens in the main Breslov shul there. “Rav Shalom Arush is my rav, but I’m part of the Breslov kehillah here in Meah Shearim. I’m also very connected to Rav Nosson Maimon, and have a chavrusa with him every day. I listened to his shiurim a lot when I still lived in America and always dreamed that I’d be able to learn with him.”

When not out of the country performing, Nissim divides his day between learning, davening, and hisbodedus, speaking to Hashem in his own words. At certain times of the year, he’s also involved in new projects, recording music. “It’s a parnassah, but no less, avodas Hashem. During project time I’m in the studio two to four days a week, five to six hours a day recording, with a couple of chavrusas during the day. I also spend time with my kids every day.”

Nissim is on record saying that he never experienced challenges associated with his skin color. “The truth is I didn’t until recently, when I tried to get my kids into school here in Eretz Yisrael. Baruch Hashem, there’s a lot of love, but there’s also a lot of challenge. It’s an interesting dynamic; people are comfortable having me speak to their bochurim in different forums, but then all of a sudden, when it comes to getting into school, ‘You’re not one of us.’ It’s hard, but thank G-d, I was searching for Hashem, not to fit in somewhere. That’s my stronghold: ‘You don’t accept me, but Hashem does.’ ”

It must not be easy to raise five children, aged ten through six months, who are physically identifiable as outsiders, in the heart of Meah Shearim.

“My wife and I are always telling our children how beautiful they are, that ‘kushi’ means beautiful according to Rashi. I try to teach my children in a very strong way that anyone who rejects them because of their color or because they look different, or for any exterior reason — they’re not ovdei Hashem. It doesn’t matter who they are; if they have a problem with skin color, they’re not connected to Hashem. Baruch Hashem, so far, they’ve been able to muster up a lot of strength.”

Music had always been a central component of Nissim’s life. In the period prior to his conversion to Judaism, his rap career suddenly soared with the release of a new album, and he was featured with the biggest names in hip-hop. But after becoming a full-fledged member of Am Yisrael, Nissim was convinced that his music was bringing him down spiritually and decided that he had no choice but to sacrifice his gift. “I felt that I was living in two worlds, because my relationship with music wasn’t one of kedushah. I was searching for good and trying to improve spiritually, and on the other hand, I had my rap music. I couldn’t reconcile both of those worlds.”

In the ensuing years, Nissim was afraid to reenter the world of music. “People were pushing me to go back, but I didn’t trust myself. I saw good people all around me falling, frum musicians who lost their way once they got big.” 

A few years later, however, circumstances led Nissim to a point where he felt compelled to make a comeback, and in 2013, he released his first album of Jewish music, Nissim. The album was all about worldwide elevation and inspiration. Sonically it was rap mixed with an alternative edge. Nissim was released in the non-Jewish music industry, but its new sound and content didn’t get the same warm reception as previous albums. “The black hip-hop world treated me as if I had sold out.”

But there were other dividends. “This album was a meaningful experience for me,” Nissim says of his first release as a Jewish performer, “because it allowed me to get comfortable recording again after a long break. I’d been so far away from music in terms of what was out there and the different sounds. My feeling at that time was, ‘I’m being obedient; Hashem wants me to make music again,’ so that was it.” 

Nissim was followed by another hiatus in terms of music. “I went back to shteiging and didn’t do too much in terms of music. I just wanted to be involved with avodas Hashem, without getting pulled down. I felt like it was like a ‘Yonah situation’ — Hashem was pulling me in one direction, and I was running away. It took some time before I understood that avodah is not just vertical, but also horizontal. 

“Tachlis, looking back I can say today that I hadn’t been able to make spiritual headway the way I wanted to until I embraced my music. I learned from Rabbi Moshe Weinberger [of Congregation Aish Kodesh], that if you take on a certain achrayus you have siyata d’Shmaya, and I feel like now that I’ve accepted my music as a responsibility, I have a lot of siyata d’Shmaya. Unfortunately, it means that I can’t learn as much as I’d like to or sit in deveikus for as long as I’d like to, but through giving, I have a lot of siyata d’Shmaya to gain a lot in a short amount of time and to affect a lot of different people.” 

Nissim Black’s breakout into the Jewish music market happened three years later, with the recording of “Hashem Melech” featuring artist Gad Elbaz. “A mutual friend, Elan Cohen, called me and asked if I’d ever heard of the song ‘Hashem Melech.’ I told him, ‘Of course! My two-year-old won’t stop playing it!’ Ilan called Gad and asked if he’d do a remix with me. Five minutes later, he called back and said that Gad was in.”

“Hashem Melech” was a huge hit, leading to invitations from all over the world — Germany, Brazil, South Africa, France, UK, Antwerp, Ukraine, Canada, US — and establishing Nissim Black as one of the newest, most popular faces on the Jewish music scene. The feedback was immediate and, for the most part, enthusiastic. “People would come up to me and tell me that their children started to learn more because of my songs. Or they told me, ‘My grandmother loves your music!’ On the other hand, some people are afraid of my music because rap is such a foreign genre, birthed in the black ghettos. It’s really not simple; I can’t say that rap as a genre is kosher. The question really is, ‘Can rap be kosher?’ 

“I feel that Hashem blessed me with a certain gift, and I have to use it to glorify and magnify His Name in the world. Torah gimmel in Likutei Moharan explains that the effect that any music will have on the listener essentially depends not on the music but on the musician; his music is an expression of what is inside him. Is he seeking purity, or something else? For music to be elevating, it must come from a menagen kasher, a Jewish musician who is working to elevate himself.

“The irony is that, as someone who was part of the world of non-Jewish music, I recognize melodies and patterns in what’s considered today’s mainstream Jewish music that come straight from the goyish world, and frum people are listening to it all the time, dancing to it at weddings….

“For me, ‘Hashem Melech’ was a watershed. Until then, I didn’t think I could be so open and expressive about my love for Hashem; now I saw that I could inspire people with my music. I was crying from the realization! I hadn’t dreamed that the song would resonate so strongly. I’d been so broken, financially burdened. Suddenly, for this first time, I felt clearly that Hashem wanted me to do this, to be mashpia. I’ve been to tzaddikim, many great tzaddikim, and have been very encouraged to pursue this path — and to go even bigger.”

Nissim’s latest album, Lemala, encapsulates his essential message. “No matter where a person is, no matter how low, even there you can find Hashem. My whole story is about that. This, I think, is what can I contribute to the world, to Yiddishkeit. I’m using my gift to lift people from the lowest to the highest places.” 

My Motto
I don’t think of myself as having a particular motto. I’m not trying to convince people to be something they’re not. I’m just trying to contribute my part, to help people be close to Hashem. Every week, we host about 35 bochurim for Shabbos. They come from shtark yeshivos — Mir, Brisk. We have long seudos, till three in the morning, and we talk about serving Hashem. They’re not coming to hear rap; they know that on Shabbos I don’t do rap. I don’t want my legacy to be Nissim the Rapper, but Nissim the Oved Hashem.
My Mentor
Rav Shalom Arush, author of Garden of Emunah, is my mentor. In addition to his greatness as a mashpia, I think he did an amazing thing with his book, and I hope that as many people as possible read it. You know, I even gave it to [former US President Barack] Obama. I’m thinking, if he left it in a drawer somewhere in the White House, maybe Trump will find it!
The story of how I got to meet Obama started during a trip to Eretz Yisrael. When I was at the cemetery in Zichron Meir in Bnei Brak, at the grave of the Steipler, I received an invitation to the White House. I phoned the contact number and there was no answer; I was sure my brother-in-law Yosef was playing a prank on me. But soon afterward, I received a return call that I was invited to the Chanukah dinner in the White House with the president.
I’m thinking, What should I do? I called my friend Dror Cassouto and he called Rav Shalom Arush who then said, “You have a mission to bring President Obama The Universal Garden of Emunah, the version written for non-Jews.” I had a concert in L.A., and Reb Lazer Brody, who translated the book into English, personally arranged for me to get a copy of the book while there. The Chanukah party was on Thursday night, and I had the book with me. What I didn’t know was that guests aren’t allowed to personally give anything to the president. As soon as I arrived, a White House staffer saw me from afar and asked what I had in my hand. I told her it was a gift, and she said, “All gifts go in this closet.” Of course, I didn’t want to put the book in the closet, because I was sure the president would never see it. After getting past her somehow, I was introduced to Obama’s Jewish liaison, and someone took a photo of us. Meanwhile, the Jewish liaison noticed that I was holding something in my hand. When he understood what I wanted to do, he said, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to get past security with this book. Give it to me, and I’ll make sure it gets to the president.”
 I had no other choice, but afterward I realized that I didn’t even get his name. How would I find out if he’d managed to give the book to Obama? Several days later, he e-mailed me the photo we’d taken together, with his name and all his contact info. But before I could contact him, I received another e-mail — this time, from President Obama’s secretary thanking me for the gift. Mission accomplished!
Kids today are lucky because 
There are enough people waking up to the bigger inyanim, and they have more access to things that used to be taboo. The seforim of Rebbe Nachman are available, chassidus is starting to spread.
And they’re challenged because
There are more distractions, gizmos, gadgets, Internet.
I could never do this without
My wife, hands down. She believes in me more than I do. Only Rabi Akiva was zocheh to such a wife!
Times that I question myself
Every time, before there’s a great light, a point of clarity, I’m wracked by doubt. It says that Avraham was called “Ivri” because the whole world was on one side, and he was alone on the other, alone in that he recognized Hashem as the One G-d. I don’t know if this is specific to being a ben Avraham, a ger tzedek, but I find that whenever I want to be a ben aliyah, I have to be alone — I have to be Avraham Avinu all over again.
When the going gets tough
Just cry out to Hashem! We think we need to do more hishtadlus, but that’s not necessarily what we need to do. Sometimes, our doing gets in the way of Hashem’s doing.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 728)

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