Most Orthodox rabbis who earn the title “emeritus” retire to a quiet life of
teaching and learning and visiting the sick.
Emeritus Rabbi Simon
Benzaquen, who recently retired after decades of service to Seattle’s Sephardic
Bikur Holim congregation, does all of those activities, but now has a new and
distinctly unorthodox career – as vocal accompanist to popular rapper
Nissim, formerly known in Seattle rap circles as D. Black, was
getting serious about converting to Judaism when he first heard Rabbi Benzaquen
chanting Kiddush after Shabbat services several years ago. “I was blown away by
his powerful voice,” says Nissim, who converted last year with his family under
the Orthodox tutelage of Rabbi Benzaquen.
Fast forward to Memorial Day
2013, and the newly retired rabbi and newly observant 26-year-old rapper were
appearing together on stage at the popular Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge
Amphitheatre in eastern Washington, alongside stars like Elvis Costello and
Mumford and Sons.
Spanish-born Rabbi Benzaquen, decked out in his usual
rabbinic uniform of smart white shirt, black tie and suit and black hat,
intersperses Hebrew verses over several of Nissim’s numbers. The young crowd of
rap fans shows their approval by dancing and waving in rhythm.
then, Rabbi Benzaquen, who studied at prestigious yeshivot in the UK and has
smicha from The Rabbinical Academy of Marseille, France, has joined Nissim on
stage at gigs that include a Seattle live music club and the Capitol Hill Block
Party, an annual showcase of the Pacific Northwest’s best bands and
All through his career as a congregational rabbi in Westcliff,
England, Maracaibo, Venezuela, and Seattle, Rabbi Benzaquen put his training
inchazzanut from London’s Jews College to good use, but he never expected his
recording debut to be on a rap album.
“I used to dismiss rap completely,”
says Rabbi Benzaquen in his Spanish-accented English. “I thought it was
inflammatory, full of four-letter words and derogatory towards women. But now I
feel that rap has got a bad rap! It’s the African American expression of
“Think about the Torah when it wants to teach us
something,” he explains, “it’s often through shira: song or poetry. That’s what
stays with you. That’s why rap can be powerful today and convey a positive
In a cut called “Sores” on the forthcoming album due for
release mid-September, Rabbi Benzaquen does a moving voice-over of Hebrew verses
from Psalms, set to his own haunting melody, as Nissim raps two stories, one
about African American oppression and another about a Jew suffering during the
“Nobody captures emotion like Rabbi Benzaquen,” Nissim says of
his mentor’s vocal talent.
For his part, Rabbi Benzaquen exclaims
passionately in response, “There are no two peoples who should be more connected
than African Americans and Jews. We could learn a lot from each
Both Nissim and the rabbi see their music as an opportunity to
positively impact the world. “I feel a mission to help bring back unity between
the African American and Jewish communities who were so close during the civil
rights movement,” says Rabbi Benzaquen.
“My main point is to elevate the
world,” Nissim tells JNS.org. “I have 3-4 minutes of someone’s time, and I don’t
want to waste it. I want to say something to help them; to help them think about
their lives and get past the struggles,” he says.
But for some in the
modern Orthodox community of South Seattle, Nissim’s presence in the community
has proven to be a way to re-inspire their own members.
“When I first met
him, I saw that Nissim had the potential to outreach to members of our community
who normally wouldn’t take Judaism seriously, such as the teens and young adults
who have stopped coming to synagogue. There’s nothing more inspiring to born
Jews than converts who take Judaism seriously. As a hip hop rapper, and someone
who’s worked with disadvantaged teens, Nissim was a natural, and the youth and
young adults were immediately drawn to him, his knowledge of Judaism, and his
natural emunah,” explains community activist Rick Eskenazi, a veteran member of
Rabbi Benzaquen’s congregation.
Rick and a number of Seattle youth from
the congregation and the local day school and yeshiva high school have
accompanied Nissim and the rabbi to their shows and feature in several of
Nissim’s new videos.
Along with the forthcoming album, Nissim’s future
plans include a November visit to Israel for some intense Jewish learning and a
possible benefit appearance for the Beit Shemesh Educational Center for
It’s probably safe to say that Rabbi Benzaquen, a
long-time member of the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, who is also a
certified mohel, sofer, shochet, chazan and accomplished ketubah artist, is the
only retired Orthodox rabbi who can add “rapper” to his resume.