It was early on during his difficult, isolated years in prison that the former gangsta rapper known as Shyne decided to formally take on the laws of Judaism as his own.
Shyne, who legally changed his name in prison from Jamaal Barrows to Moses Levi—Moses is one of his favorite biblical heroes, and Levi is for the Levites who were musicians during Temple times—remembers the initial skepticism he encountered from prison rabbis at New York’s Rikers Island, where he was first incarcerated, and the other prison rabbis that would follow.
“In prison culture, everyone is trying to make a scam, everyone is a con artist, so who is this dark-skinned guy they wondered? Does he just want the Jewish food?” asks Levi, now cloaked in the black garb of a Chasidic Jew and living in Jerusalem.
“A guy with payes? Maybe they might believe him,” he tells JTA, laughing.
Levi, 32, a former protegee of the hip-hop mogul Sean Combs (aka P Diddy), found himself drawn to Judaism ever since hearing Old Testament stories from his grandmother as a boy. He was with Combs and then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, the singer and movie star, the night of a 1999 shooting at a Manhattan nightclub that left three injured and resulted in a trial that became a media circus.
Combs was acquitted, but Levi was found guilty of opening fire in the nightclub. In 2001 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. After serving nearly nine years he was released last year.
Levi credits Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of his attorneys, with helping him gain access in prison to prayer books and other religious items like a tallit and tefillin.
Now, as he walks through the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City on his way to the Western Wall, he clutches a worn prayer book whose maroon leather cover was torn off by prison officials for security purposes.
Adhering to an Orthodox approach to Judaism made the most sense to him, said Levi, who is studying with several haredi Orthodox rabbis from some of the most stringent yeshivas in Jerusalem. A few months ago, Levi said, he underwent a type of conversion called a “giyur l’chumra”—a conversion usually for those who likely are Jewish but undergo conversion “just to be on the safe side.”
“I’m looking for a connection to Hashem,” Levi says, using the Hebrew name for God. “I am not trying to weaken it. I want to know what is done, then I can decide if I’m up to it. What did Moses do? What do the sages say to do?”
Levi feels like he’s returning to the fold. His days are spent in study and prayer. Reminders of his newly acquired Jewish education come out in his rapid fire, Brooklyn-accented speech smattered with Hebrew words and Talmudic and biblical references.
Levi is an anomaly in more ways than one.
His father is a prosperous lawyer who currently is the prime minister of Belize, in Central America. When Levi was a child, his mother took him from Belize to the United States. They settled in New York, where she worked as a house cleaner to support them.
But Levi soon was enamored with life on the streets, becoming a gang member. He was in and out of trouble, and at the age of 13 he was sent away to a juvenile center. By 15 he had been shot.
These days, after spending time in prison, adopting Judaism and moving to Israel for a few months, Levi is talking about a musical comeback.
He plans to release two albums this spring that are part of a joint venture with Def Jam Records, the major hip-hop label. Gone is some of the harsher and misogynist language of his previous two albums, one of which came out while he was in jail. While not explicitly religious, the lyrics do have a spiritual bent.
In Jerusalem, where Levi says he plans to stay for the next few months, he appears nonplussed by the second glances he attracts. But as a black man in the clothes of a haredi—complete with long black wool coat, fedora, knickers and black ribbed socks—Levi indeed stands out.
At the Western Wall plaza he encounters a group of young, religious Ethiopian Israelis. Levi’s great-grandmother was Ethiopian, and he thinks she may have been Jewish. Exploring his possible Ethiopian Jewish heritage intrigues him.
Levi plans to travel to Ethiopia in the spring, and says he’d like to help fund a yeshiva for Ethiopian immigrants in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.
“The Israelites won’t be whole and Messiah won’t come until all the tribes are connected to Hashem,” Levi says, referring to the Ethiopian Jews as a lost tribe—an originally Jewish community cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for generations.
Levi finishes his evening prayers at the Western Wall before paying a visit to the protest tent next to the prime minister’s residence that calls for the immediate release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza for more than four years.
Noam Shalit, the captured soldier’s father, is in the tent, and Levi is anxious to speak with him.
“I know what it’s like to suffer and not be with your family, and heaven knows what kind of pain and torture they are doing to him,” Levi says after the two shake hands and sit down. He adds, “All we can do is pray.”
“We need more than prayers,” a polite but terse Noam Shalit replies.
From the Shalit tent, Levi heads out into a chilly Jerusalem night to meet with one of the rabbis with whom he studies regularly.
Every day, he says, the tenets of Judaism help him become closer to the kind of person he strives to be.
“The bottom line is not to be a Chasid,” he says. “Some people can dress up and look the part, but sometimes they don’t behave that way and the person you never expect turns out to be the mensch. Right?”