Rapping to God

A peek into the world of Orthodox Jewish musicians.

Songwriter/singer Yitzchok Meir Malek (photo credit: Zak Yitro)
Songwriter/singer Yitzchok Meir Malek
(photo credit: Zak Yitro)

Luckily for religious rapper and reggae artist Ari Lesser, tunes about the Torah have no time stamp. “My music has the potential to last 3,000 years, and I have the best fan of all: God,” says the Orthodox musician, who has acquired a large fan base in Israel and abroad for his catchy compositions about Jewish life.

Bearing a bushy beard, kippa and tzitzit, the Cleveland, Ohio, native is one of many religious Jews ready to bust a rhyme. Religious musicians are turning mainstream, and there’s no doubt about it – they can rock. From hip hop to heavy metal, Orthodox artists have created a strong presence in the music community, helping to bridge the divide between religious and secular Jews.
“From three to 93, music is a universal language,” says Lesser. “In terms of Judaism, studying Torah can be dry for even the most religious people. I personally learn best from rhyming and song. I want to share that with as many people as possible. I don’t care if you are Orthodox, secular or even another religion – music and Torah are about learning. That’s it.”
Lesser’s religious inspiration came from a school history project. Before discovering Judaism from rap, he rapped about political and historical events. He loved the timeless aspect behind Jewish texts and wanted to learn more.
“Religion is our ancient family songbook,” says Lesser. “I very gradually got into Torah because of music. It was not the other way around for me. I felt very comfortable in Israel after going on Taglit and spent time living in Jerusalem and Safed. I learned so much there.
The more I learned, the more I wrote songs. It is how I expressed my new discoveries.”
For another Orthodox musician, Yitzchok Meir Malek, music is about bringing together Jews from all around the world. Ironically, his love of mainstream music was cultivated during his car rides to yeshiva.
“I used to car pool every day with another sibling to my yeshiva high school,” says the American- born songwriter. “On the way there, we would listen to The Doors. I just loved them. I would spend hours every day listening to classic rock. After 13 hours studying holy texts, I looked forward to my music time,” he recounts.
“At night, I would practice guitar for two hours and play everything. I felt caught between two worlds. Then, I thought to myself, ‘Why do they have to be two different worlds? Why can’t I combine them into one?’” he says.
Malek’s family roots also connect him to music. While imprisoned at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, his grandmother and several other family members managed to preserve a violin – their most prized possession. By holding on to the precious musical instrument through the Holocaust, the Maleks proved decades later that music was about much more than melodies.
Music helped them survive, and that violin has been a great source of Yitzchok Meir’s inspiration.
When he completed yeshiva, Malek moved to Israel to pursue his dream. After performing on the streets and in Israeli bars, he got involved with the Jewish Unity Project. Playing for thousands of IDF soldiers, Taglit Birthright trips and tours around the world, Malek derived great pleasure from seeing Jews from different backgrounds join together and dance.
“Music transcends beyond secular and Orthodox, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, left- or right-wing,” he says. “Many people ask me ‘Are you religious or secular?’ Since my lifestyle is so undefined, I tell them. ‘I love Hashem and the Torah, but I don’t love religion.’” With tensions increasing between religious and secular Israelis, Malek believes that music is one possible solution to bringing the multitudes together. In addition to participating in the Jewish Unity Project, he creates his own music. Together with renowned record producer Ronny Vance, he is compiling a collection of self-written work into a debut album. In his song “Here We Are,” Malek confronts his belief that in order to thrive as a nation, Jews must learn to take responsibility and be there for each other and not rely on the other nations of the world.
“I believe that to have world peace, we need to have peace in the family first. If we want to rebuild our nation, we need to all come together and stop this separation,” Malek asserts.
Another religious music maker is Los Angeles- born Rabbi Shlomo Katz. The Orthodox rocker has spent the majority of his life moving back and forth between Israel and his native America.
Coming from a family of musicians, he spent his entire childhood immersed in both mainstream and Orthodox music. The son of a cantor, he was constantly exposed to traditional Jewish music.
He connected with the sons of the synagogue’s rabbi and the music of Shlomo Carlebach. Conversely, he also drew inspiration from Bob Marley and Neil Young. Soon, he invented a sound that encompassed all four musical styles.
“I have created a unique identity for myself,” says Katz. “I redefine both the definition of a rabbi and Jewish musician. My line of work breaks down some barriers. People want to put me in a box, and they simply cannot.”
As a musical rabbi, Katz has faced many criticisms about his art. Since he is a religious leader creating mainstream music, many of his listeners have strong opinions regarding his work.
“One time, I played at the Pargod in Jerusalem.
This was a huge mainstream concert venue,” explains Katz. “I remember a rabbi coming up to me and questioning why I was there. He asked, ‘Why would you play at a place like that? It is unholy. What are you doing in this world?’ Then I realized to myself that anything worth doing will have some opposition.”
From listening to The Eagles and The Birds to studying at yeshiva, all three artists discovered the power of music. As they continue to create music, they are helping to narrow the gap within the Jewish community.
“Music brings you closer to God,” says Katz. “It carries a spark from above. When I put it on display as a rabbi, I am revealing my soul to you.
Music creates a desire for oneness. That is how it brings people together.”