Nissim Black: The Famous Rapper Who Tried Every Religion Then Became A Hasidic Jew
by Sara Levine
January 15, 2018
Nissim Black has an impressive yichus (lineage), but not the most typical of a hasidic Jew. His grandparents were musicians who worked alongside Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. His parents were successful rappers in their own right. Black relates that music was always a part of his journey, even as Judaism was in the background. “I grew up in Seward Park… which was actually an [Orthodox] Jewish neighborhood.” Black was always entertaining the family. Known as “D. Black,” he recorded his first professional record when he was 13-years-old. When he was 15, he received international attention. Rapping in the style of Jay Z, Biggie and Tupac, he worked alongside Macklemore and performed with Nas. “My whole life was towards this…I guess some of it paid off.”
Black grew up in a rough home. Both his parents and stepfather used and sold drugs, and in 1995, the FBI raided his house and arrested his mother. His grandfather was also in jail. When he got out, he would take Black to mosque with him as he was a Sunni Muslim. At 13, Black had a strong desire to get to know God. “I had an uncle who was also Muslim. I started talking with him.” At the same time, Black’s biological father had just become a Christian Minister. “I was so confused.” Black fell down crying out to God, “I wanna know who You are.” At 17-years-old, he attended a Christian camp. He felt a camraderie there and became a junior missionary, leading bible study groups. “The major hangup that I had…I love football. There was no way I could devote my time to God on a Sunday when the Seahawks were playing. I told God, everyday of the week I’m yours, but [not] Sundays.” Black met his wife, who was a Seventh Day Adventist who went to church on Saturdays. This foreshadowed Shabbos in a way they had yet to see.
Black was offered a contract with Virgin Records. They wanted his rapping to be rougher which he wasn’t sure about. He also considered how many rappers end up dead. “I found myself at a crossroads. I was in a situation that could have led to my taking someone else’s life or them taking my life.” After praying and crying, “All of a sudden I got very religious again…What’s the truth? Why do I believe what I believe?” He went to Google and was soon the proud owner of a JPS Tanach. “If JC was Jewish, why were Christians not Jewish?” Messianic Judaism became his temporary answer.
While he was Christian, Black was taught to convert Jews. He was fascinated by the authentic relationship that Jews had with God in the Tanach. “What I thought was true my whole life wasn’t true.” Black read Navi (Prophets) and was struck by all the words of nechama (consolation) in it. “He’s not giving it to the church..He’s talking about…His love for the Jewish people.” Black started having a different appreciation for Judaism. The more he learned, the more he said “I want in.” He and his wife started learning together, and Black’s wife’s sister, who married Black’s best friend, also began the process of conversion. “My wife came to me and said ‘I want an Orthodox conversion.’ I had never seen a black Jew. But Hashem’s hashgacha is amazing. I was at a store and a black Jew… invited me for Shabbos.” Then Jews for Judaism came into his life, along with Rabbi Eli Cohen of Melbourne. He never looked back.
After trying out all the major religions, what makes Black feel confident that Judaism is it? For him, it is very significant that with both Islam and Christianity he was sought after by the religions themselves – they both tried to recruit him. He was also a child at the time. When he started searching for truth without any outside influences (at the age of 20), he was led “by a burning heart, fiery tears of prayer, and a will to serve God no matter what it took.” No one invited him to be Jewish, but after much fasting and crying out to God and a willingness to submit himself to whatever presented itself as truth he landed at Judaism. It wasn’t a quick decision. He got busy looking up the origin of all the religions, and what made Judaism stand out was the consistency. The story didn’t change. God never changed His mind.
He kept reading in Tanach the word “Forever.” Shabbos is “Forever.” Klal Yisrael are His people “Forever.” It couldn’t be any clearer than that for Black. There would be no need for further adjustments to what Hashem called kodesh and what He called His. Black is always searching for truth, however he is wholeheartedly convinced that there is no greater truth than Judaism. . The greatest thing that Black believes he received from Judaism is clarity. He also has strong family values now that he can impart to his children and to future generations.
Black believes there are many black geirim (converts) due to the fact that “African Americans come from slaves…[it] helps them identify with Jewish history and creates opportunities for potential converts to get close to G-d.” Black believes that the search for truth is the ultimate motivator of converts. “Hashem called the other nations to teshuva…I think that what is happening is that African Americans by nature are a very spiritual people.” Even if a person can’t trace back their lineage geneologically, “[through the Torah,] you can at least have a spiritual one.” No matter the reason, it is inspiring to Black. “The more people we can get to serve Hashem, the world will be a better place.”
Black says of their conversion journey, “We’ve had an amazing experience.” Seattle’s warmth was a major factor. “The community is very loving, very open. Hashem gave us a lot of chein with the people there.” They have since moved to Jerusalem. Most people are accepting but sometimes kids will “yell ‘kushi,’ but what does Rashi say, Rashi says ‘kushi,‘ means ‘beautiful.'” While Black is a Jewish celebrity because of his music (his collaboration Hashem Melech with Gad Elbaz is a major hit), he has felt overwhelming love and support that he hopes extends to other geirim. His advice to them and baalei teshuva is profound. “When I came to Judaism, I gave up rap, I gave up everything that I knew…Slowly Hashem gave back to me the things that were important…to ultimately help and affect the Jewish people.” Using his incredible talents for Hashem now inspires Black and his fans worldwide alike.
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A former Hollywood script editor, Jerusalem event planner, non-profit fundraiser and professional blogger, Sara Levine is an accomplished writer and editor. After graduating from USC's School of Cinematic Arts, her first screenplay was well-received by story executives at major studios. As a journalist, her articles have been published internationally in popular magazines and websites. With over 18 years experience as a story consultant, her notes and critiques on novels and scripts have been used to select and improve material by top studios, networks, agencies and writers in Hollywood and beyond. She is currently at work on her first novel.