Shyne-ing in Jerusalem: How One Rapper Saw the Light and Moved to Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

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Lior Mizrahi / AFP / Getty Images

Jewish US rapper Shyne studies the Torah at the Esh Hatora yeshiva in Jerusalem on November 17, 2010.

Doing his time for firing that pistol in the nightclub with Puff Daddy and J. Lo a dozen years ago, the rapper known as Shyne experienced a jailhouse religious awakening.  The faith he says changed his life involved embracing his heritage as a black man, forswearing destructive behaviors, covering his head and taking a new name. Yet it had nothing to do with the Nation of Islam.  The former Jamal Michael Barrow, a.k.a. Shyne, a.k.a. Shyne Poloeniut, now answers to Moshe Levi.  He spends his days studying Torah and striding through the Old City of Jerusalem in the long tailored coats favored by Hasidic Jews, sidelocks a-bob and a rabbi’s lecture booming on his iPad.

“An African in America who’s pretty famous in African-American culture, you would think would be drawn to Islam, or maybe Christianity,” he says, in the lobby of the King David Hotel. “But I couldn’t convert to something I’m not. Islam just didn’t make sense to me. I come from the ultimate truth.

“European Jews are not the only Jews.”

It helps, he says, that his parents descended from Jews who fled persecution, finally settling in Central America, where his father — a once-estranged figure in his life — is Prime Minister of Belize. Levi grew up with his mother (an Ethiopian Jew), who left for Brooklyn where she cleaned houses while he learned thug life. The rites of passage never included a citizenship, however, so in 2009  he was deported after serving nine years for opening fire in the Club New York, wounding three. He already had a record deal with Def Jam but he notes that “a million or two goes pretty quickly. It costs to make records.” He also had a penthouse suite in Mexico City, where he found a community of Jews as observant as he’d become “in the can.” “Still,” he says, “it was like, ‘Where am I going to spend Rosh Hashanah?’’’

So in 2010, he moved to Jerusalem, where Moshe Levi both fits in and doesn’t. Race is only part of it. Israeli Jews come in all shades, from the Falash of Ethiopia to the pinkest German Ashkenazi. When it comes to religious observance, however, skin color generally signals less than attire. The round felt hat, formal suit and high white stockings Levi sports is the uniform of the Ultra-Orthodox, Jews who dress in the clothes of 18th century Eastern Europe for a reason: They take great efforts to form communities removed from a modern world riven with degradations like television, the internet and, yes, rap music. As a group, they are also the poorest Jews in Israel, families often subsisting on welfare while the husband spends the day studying scripture.

That’s not Levi, who doesn’t actually read Hebrew. “I’m more of a doer than a reader,” he says.

Nor does he follow a particular rabbi, another Ultra-Orthodox norm. “I definitely try not to get into the whole gang affiliation thing,” Levi says.  If on some days he wears a striped suit, other times flat black, it’s because he admires the traditions. He also jets up to Paris for Fashion Week.

“I don’t really have time to figure out their thing. I have my thing.”

His thing is not Zionism, the ideology that brought Israel into existence as a state.  “Absolutely not,” Levi says. “I just said I’m absolutely not into sects or gangs. I love all human beings.”

His thing is music. As Shyne, he has completed two unreleased albums, Gangland and Messiah. Both are rap, but “totally philosophical and sophisticated,” he says. “No misogyny. None of that deranged stuff  I used to be into” a decade or so ago, as a protégé of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs at Bad Boy Entertainment. He was with Combs and his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Lopez, when the ruckus broke out in the Club New York.  Combs and his bodyguard were also tried but acquitted.

“I don’t even want to be a rapper,” Levi says at one point in the interview. “I don’t listen to that music. I’m a musician. I’d rather be like Bob Marley or Leonard Cohen, one of those guys.”

This is the part of the “transformation” that Levi, or Shyne, or Barrow grows most emphatic describing. By his own account totally rehabilitated and reformed, he is launching a campaign to be allowed back into the United States. “He has an uphill battle” says his immigration attorney, Michael Wildes. Conviction on an aggravated felony effectively bars an alien for life. But rare exceptions are made for “outstanding talents” who demonstrate the good they can do outweighs the bad they’ve done. Wildes’ father successfully represented John Lennon against deportation; the son was representing Amy Winehouse.

In Israel, Levi has performed at fundraisers for terror victims, the Israeli military and rapped about solar power at the opening of an alternative energy plant in the Israeli desert. He talks of plans for a youth center in Belize and a college tour in the United States, if the State Department can be persuaded. “The hip-hop culture is not a philanthropic culture,” he notes. “I’m not pointing the finger at them, all I’m saying is: I am a giver.”

The rap star has lined up impressive character witnesses, including Harvard Law Professors Charles Ogeltree, a friend for years, and Alan Dershowitz, a vociferous advocate for Israel. But Wildes says U.S. officials will be skeptical of his client’s claims of a new life, including his a la carte, decidedly unorthodox approach to at least the trappings of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. “It’s almost like he’s Joseph in the Biblical text,” says Wildes.

Says Levi: “It’s not about how much Torah I know and what rabbi I’m following, It’s about what I’m doing with the information.”