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Nissim Black: The Black American Rapper Became an Orthodox Jew

Published on Wednesday February 3th, 2021

From far, he looks like a Charedi Torah student on his way to the synagogue or to a Torah class. Black jacket, black hat, a large Gemara in hand. When he looks at you, the first thing you notice are his bright eyes. His face is pleasant. I saw him from afar in Uman, on Rosh Hashanah, swaying fervently in prayer. I saw him again, this time closer, when we sat down at the house of Rav Chaim Katz. When he opened his mouth, the sound that comes out was very melodious, but his pronunciation revealed its foreign origin.

"His name is Nissim Black," Rav Katz told me, as he noticed me observing him curiously.

Nissim heard his name and smiled shyly. He was used to being the subject of conversations because, from a very young age, he was on stage. But if in the past, being a celebrity and standing on stage were the essence of his existence, today he considers celebrity status with some perplexity and even resentment. "A Jew must make himself known for the Mitzvot and the good deeds he accomplishes," he told me. ''All the rest is just nonsense and vanity."

He pronounced these last words with a Yiddish pronunciation and a gesture of contempt that would not shame a veteran Breslover Chassid who expressed his opinion on the vanities of this world. But Nissim Black is not an ordinary Chassid. Even within this Chassidut which has welcomed a large number of people back to their sources and from all segments of society, Black’s story is exceptional. When he walks with his children and his brother-in-law in the alleys leading to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, it is hard to believe that just a few years ago, this Avrech who devotes every moment of his life to the Torah was an American artist, a rising star of the African-American "ghetto" of Seattle. At that time, Black himself would have had a hard time believing that he would leave his life of corruption and emptiness and attach himself with all his strength to Rabbeinu's Torah.

Prison, Abandonment, Violence: Childhood in Seattle

The Orthodox Jews of Seattle are grouped together in the district of "Sword Park", in the south-east of the city. It is a well-kept and pretty neighborhood, located between Lake Washington and extending to a huge forest, the last vestige of the primitive and densely populated city that covered the entire region at that time. Ninety per cent of Seattle's Jews live in this area, at a walking distance from the Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues: Machzikei Adat, Bikur Cholim and Ezra Betzarot. But once we cross Reiner Avenue, we are in a different world. These are the poor neighborhoods of Seattle's sinister reputation, where the black population lives in a vicious circle of poverty, violence, alcoholism, delinquency, etc. It is in this world that Damien Black was born almost thirty years ago.

Reiner Avenue was for him like the Sabatyon River: the unknown resided on the other side. From time to time, he crossed the river by bike and he was shocked at the creatures he saw living there. It turns out that they were equally shocked to see him. "I passed the synagogue, but I had no idea what was going on there," he says. I thought Orthodox Jews were like the Heimish group [a group of Christians whose members detach themselves from modern technology]. "

At the time, if Damien had been asked about his religious affiliation, he would have answered ... Muslim. When he was seven, his grandfather, a Sunni Muslim, came to live with them. He taught him the principles of Islam and taught him how to read the Quran. But his grandfather's influence did not last long. He was a former prisoner, and once he had broken the conditions for his release, he was sent back to prison.

It was a fairly common pattern in the African-American community, and especially in Black's family. "They were trapped in an intergenerational circle of crime, violence and poverty," he says. Under ordinary circumstances, for children born into such an environment, there is almost no chance to escape."

Black remembers constant chaos in his parents' house. His mother left their home when he was two years old. When he was seven, the FBI entered his home, which was transformed into a battlefield of gunfire. He however inherited from his family an exceptional musical gift. "We are the third generation of talented singers and musicians," says Black. But it did not help my parents progress in life."

In Search of Truth: From Islam to Christianity

The reputation of the "young prodigy" grew, and soon he began performing at improvised events in front of a local audience. A famous artist discovered his hidden talents, took him under his wing and began to record music with him in a professional production studio. The melodies were rhythmic and catchy, but the lyrics reflected the repulsion he felt at the dark and violent world around him. There was a lot of anger in these melodies: anger against his environment, against the void, against the lack of meaning he felt everywhere.

Questions of religion and faith often preoccupied him. He wondered: why am I alive? What is the reason for my coming into the world? What should I make of myself? "I was not looking for a particular religion, but I was looking for Hashem. I wanted to be close to Him, but I did not know how," he told me.

The last factor that pushed him outside the music world came when a violent quarrel broke out between a group of his fans and fans of another musician. In the hollow world of street thugs, nothing is more important than "honor", and when someone has soiled the honor of the other, things quickly deteriorate to bloodshed. The police arrived and made arrests. Black was stressed by this event. Although he was not hurt himself, the feeling of skepticism and emptiness about the world in which he lived intensified.

At that time, he defined himself as a Christian, as a result of a summer he had spent in a Christian missionary holiday camp. In his heart, he was jealous of the orderly and protected way of life of religious people. He was tired of a life of impurity and violence. But how to know which religion was authentic?

Like Yitro in his day, Damien Black went on a quest. His first stop: Christianity. "I began to study from every possible place. I did research, I read and I thought. I realized that Islam and Christianity came after Judaism and that Judaism was the primary source of all religion. But on the other hand, I had been taught to believe that one who does not believe in the 'J' man would burn in hell - and I did not want to burn. I was thus torn."

Damien thought he had found the solution to his hesitations when he met a group of "Jewish Christians" in Seattle. It is a Christian group in every respect whose members have adopted some distinctive Jewish symbols; the Sefer Torah, the Tallit, the Aron Hakodesh, for a missionary purpose. Damien thought he had found the ideal combination: "Judaism" as well as faith in the 'J' man.  For nearly two years, he became part of the group's activities and was one of his strongest supporters. He was not alone in this spiritual journey. His wife joined him as well as his brother-in-law and his wife. Four people in search of the truth.

And I Heal: The Meeting with Rabbi Nachman

Black's curiosity gave him no respite. He was only twenty-two years old, but important questions preoccupied him. Deep in his heart, he felt that the group of Christians had no answer to his questions. "I thought that the lack of satisfaction I felt was due to my lack of knowledge of holy writings. I began to look for a place where I could study the holy language so that I could read the holy writings in their native language."

One day, Black came to the local Beth Chabad with a special request: he wanted to learn Hebrew. He began to ask his Christian friends compelling questions: Since Hashem gave the Torah at Har Sinai, why do you not fulfill His commandments? Why did you adopt pagan holidays? How can we get closer to G-d?

"I discovered that most of the principles I believed in were false," says Black. ''This awareness gave me no respite. I went out for hours at night, fasted for three days in a row, shouted to G-d that I wanted to start all over again from the beginning. I said to G-d, "I want to know You, I want to know what You want and do not want me to do, I just do not know who You are."

Black realized that the concepts that the Christians had taught him were totally false. He left everything and embraced Jewish faith and traditions. Wonderful. But nothing is simple in life. When he finally felt that he had found the truth, he realized that his wife had remained behind. She came from a Christian family with strong values. As long as he mixed "Judaism" with Christianity, she could live with it in peace, but a total rejection of Christianity was too much for her.

But Black Is Obstinate

He convinced her to study. They opened books, asked questions, and proceeded with unrelenting investigations. His persistence was worth it. Not only did his wife agree to join him in his journey to Judaism, but she took the lead and encouraged him to consider an Orthodox conversion, and also convinced her sister and husband to join them.

It was at this point that Nissim became acquainted with Breslev. "When we left Christianity and began to get closer to authentic Judaism, ''real marital discord problems began to arise'', Nissim recounts. ''One of the rabbis with whom we were in contact gave us the book "The Garden of Peace" by Rav Shalom Arush translated into English. We started, my wife and I, to read the book in depth and to do everything written there. Quickly, I noticed a drastic change in our quality of life. It was simply amazing. I told myself that I was obliged to meet the author of the book. We were then given "The Garden of Faith", and we read passages daily. It opened our eyes. We suddenly saw reality in another light. I began to understand what true Emuna is and what the divine will in the world is. It was an overwhelming experience."

"In parallel, I began to investigate the personality of Rabbi Nachman, his books, his advice, and the meaning of the annual trip to Uman. A huge window was opened to a new and bright world, and I began to isolate myself and study the works of Rabbeinu."

During this period, Black was still in touch with the world of music. He produced a new album and had to embark on a world tour to promote it. He had an agreement signed with his organizer. But he wanted to learn Torah, move forward and advance with his conversion, and not stay planted in the evil world of showbiz.

But business is business, and you have to keep your promises. Black agreed to go on a concert tour, but he made an exceptional condition: he would receive no remuneration except travel expenses. In return for his renunciation of wages, he asked permission that he should be able to keep Shabbatot and Jewish holidays on the journey. The organizer shrugged and willingly agreed: for him, he won a concert tour with a famous singer, without paying a dime. The tour turned into dizzying success for everyone except Black. In fact, even for him, because it was a farewell concert at the stage.

Once the concert tour was over, Black put a stop to his musical career to begin the long and exhausting journey of conversion. He changed his name and adopted the name "Nissim". His wife adopted the name Lea Dina. His wife's sister and brother-in-law also joined them. It was a complex process that ended with a double wedding party for both couples, funded entirely by the Jewish community in Seattle.

Sign from Heaven: A New Life and the Return to Music

Nissim Black totally abandoned the world of music. He did not lose his talent, but this world represented for him everything that disgusted him: lies, flattery and falsehood. "I have not listened to non-Jewish music for years, and certainly not music like the one I created in the past. I do not know what is in fashion or popular. It is hard for me to see people waste their time with this filth. I totally disconnected from this world, not only because I was disgusted by it, but also because I simply do not have the time - I have a lot of Torah to study."

But Nissim was not completely convinced that he had made the right choice. It is true that the music which he composed in the past was negative and corrupt, but music can also awaken man and internalize messages in his heart that do not enter another way. The members of his family insisted that he try his luck, this time in the area of ​​Kedusha, holiness. He hesitated, waiting for a sign.

One day, his baby had a fever. The ordinary remedies did not have any effect. The fever continued to increase day by day, and suddenly they found themselves in the hospital. The doctors did some examinations and discovered that it was meningitis. Nissim had no choice but to pray for a miracle.

"I sat in an isolated corner and shouted with all my might that Hashem save my child. I said to G-d, "I understand that you're sending me a sign, but I do not understand how to act, is it related to music, should I do something in this area? Please give me a sign."

In the morning, my baby's condition had unexpectedly improved. "Your son experienced a miracle," the doctors told Nissim.

Nissim also felt that he was reborn. Something in him changed. He also began to receive signs. He had a microphone in the studio of his house. He had stopped using the microphone when he stopped making music, and it was damaged. From time to time, Nissim tried it, but it did not work. He switched it on and suddenly it worked. Another miracle. Nissim looked to Heaven and laughed.

He confided in his Rav, Rav Shimon Benzaken of the synagogue "Bikur Cholim”. The Rav did not laugh at his story, but advised him to act intelligently. "Miracles are prodigious," he said, "but we do not rely on miracles. Think about your existence and decide what to do. You must take responsibility."

Nissim hesitated for a long time, but in the end, he decided that the time had come to channel his musical talents again, not to show off, but to exert influence, to be a positive example, to help others. With his decision, the doors suddenly opened. A recording contract fell into his arms, he received invitations to festivals, a local newspaper suddenly became interested in him, and he recorded a new album.

Last year, he decided that the chain was complete and that he had to go to Uman on Rosh Hashanah. "Rabbeinu is a fire of holiness," he said admiringly. I had many revelations this year in Uman - the prayers, the awakening, the simple and tangible faith, everything drew me, I had the impression of having arrived at my Rabbi's house; Rabbeinu is for me a father, a mother, a Rav and a guide. For a man like me who experienced so much before arriving at Judaism, Rabbeinu is an antidote. Even within Judaism, Rabbeinu provides advice for the insecure, that no book of Chassidut or morality deals with. At Rabbeinu's tomb, me, my wife, my brother-in-law and his family, we understood the meaning of healing. He healed us all."

When Nissim speaks of "miracles", one can read the emotion on his face. "Everything I had dreamed and hoped for has come true. I found an incredible spiritual world, which I did not believe existed. I met virtuous Jews who guided me in the ways of G-d and showed me the way to go. I do not know by virtue of what merit I was entitled to all this."

In the past few months, he also managed to visit Eretz Israel for the first time, to see the remains of the Temple and to immerse himself in the atmosphere of holiness. When we see him walking in the streets of Jerusalem, surrounded by his young children, all dressed as Orthodox Jews, and with typical Jewish grace, it is hard to believe that he is the man who grew up in the slums of Seattle, at the heart of the impurity of the showbiz world. "I prefer not to think about who I was at that time," he says. ''I tell my story only because my Rav told me that it can awaken Jews who are seduced by the influence of non-Jews, and who are attracted by the world of vanity and emptiness of music. When they see me, a "hero of culture", one could say, who was about to realize the ultimate dream of any young black man, and who ended up turned his back on all of it to be related to the divine inheritance they will understand that they have nothing to look for. I feel that though this I am repairing the Klipot, the stains of black music."

He then went on stage and began to sing a short song. The rhythm is the same as the days of yore, but the words express a desire and a love for Hashem, and in the melody, there is a particular delicacy that only a Ben Torah has. Rabbeinu writes in his holy books that every singer and every song contain sparks of sanctity that have fallen from the underworld and have clung between the trees. It seems that one of these sparks fell into the heart of a poor black neighborhood of Seattle to save distant souls and bring them closer to the Creator."

The Torah-Box Team - © Torah-Box

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