Meet DJ Raphi, the man transforming the religious dancing scene

If Raphi Nathan – aka DJ Raphi – has anything to do with it, the religious hoofing scene is due to go through one fundamental makeover. 

 DJ RAPHI (center) is known around the globe for his dance video tutorials. (photo credit: Gilad Tidhar)
DJ RAPHI (center) is known around the globe for his dance video tutorials.
(photo credit: Gilad Tidhar)

Ever been to a haredi wedding? I’ve witnessed a few in my time, and even taken part in the seemingly age-old – if not ancient – customary dance format of a bunch of men, of all ages, holding hands and doing the “one foot in and one foot out” thing.

While that might have some value, by virtue of its very repetitive and, therefore, meditative and groove-oriented nature, we’re not exactly talking aerobics here.

But, if Raphi Nathan – aka DJ Raphi – has anything to do with it, the religious hoofing scene is due to go through one fundamental makeover. 

Nathan, 31, is a South African-born resident of Ra’anana who has been an avid fan of dance, and the dissemination thereof, for some years now.

He made aliyah with his family at age 8. Born into a musical family he says he had several motives for hitting the artistic road.

 Sunset in Ra'anana, Israel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Sunset in Ra'anana, Israel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“My dad, Mickey Nathan, is a musician. He has a YouTube channel, so there was always music at home.” 

There were social grounds too. “I wasn’t interested in sports at all,” Nathan recalls, noting that had certain social ramifications. “Everyone else was [into sports]. And as an oleh hadash who wasn’t into sports, you know, you were kind of the weakest link.”

Luckily he had some artistic DNA to fall back on. “When I was 10, I told my parents I wanted to play the drums,” he says. Many a parent would have balked at the idea of offspring laying their infant hands of some means of making inordinate and, no doubt, initially disorganized feral noise. Still, Nathan’s request was accommodated, at least for a while. 

“I went to an after-school lesson for three months and the teacher said I had natural talent. But my parents couldn’t afford for me to carry on with the lessons then.”

The youngster’s musical drive was a match for the financial shortfalls. He improvised, and utilized another art form to keep his percussive chops in shape. “I learned how to remember the [drumming] rhythms. The way I did that was through beatboxing. I would just go over the rhythms with my mouth. It wasn’t intentional.”

That gave the teenager an outlet for his energies and artistic proclivities. He also had hopes of compensating for his lack of athletic prowess and improving his peer standing. “I slowly became really good at beatboxing, and I thought it would make me cool. I thought the other kids would think that beatboxing was cool. But no. They didn’t.”

Still, he made strides with his vocal calisthenics “At the age of 13 I won my first beatbox contest, on a radio show. That was great.”

A couple of years or so down the line, at least on a personal level, things improved dramatically when he got a gentle sibling shove in a different direction. “By chance, my younger brother Eitan went to a breakdancing class, and he said ‘you should really check this out. I think you’d enjoy this.’”

It proved to be an epiphanous moment, and enduring life-changer. “I went along to the class and all the negativity, all the criticism that I’d had, just disappeared.” 

It was more an emotional shift than an athletic-artistic breakthrough. “I was terrible,” Nathan laughs. “I cringe when I look back on that. But the people in the class were really supportive and gave me confidence.”

However, it was only when he moved to a new school, Bar-Ilan Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, where he took on a heady mix of art, Judaism and science studies, that he really turned the corner. “The people there thought I was really cool. They said: ‘You wear a kippah, and you’re a dancer, and you do weird noises with your mouth!’ That gave me the sense of belonging I’d been waiting for. I decided I was going to go for it. I was going to show people you can be a dancer and religious.”

BY NOW Nathan was fired up and ready to launch. He kept up a punishing regime, dutifully completing all his schoolwork assignments, and practicing his breakdance routines three hours a day. By the time he was 18 that paid handsome dividends and paved the way for his DJ Raphi metamorphosis. 

“Eitan and I entered a breakdance competition, a real one at a real club in Tel Aviv,” he enthuses. “We walked in there, with our kippot and tzitziyot and everyone stared at us.” 

The religious boys did the business. “They put us in with the best breakdancers in Israel, and we smoked them! We blew them away!”

Nathan went on to win the national championship, in 2011 and 2012 and, in 2018, added the beatbox national trophy. Not bad going. 

He also got to take his gifts abroad, competing in the world breakdance championship in France. He says he was proud to fly his flag out there. “As a religious Jew I brought my ethnicity into the world,” Nathan states, adding that there were challenging logistics to be negotiated too. 

“The competitions were always on a Shabbat. I thought: ‘God, what are you doing? I am really trying and you keep on giving me things I can’t deal with.’” He constantly found himself having to walk great distances to competition venues, on a Friday night after making kiddush, or on Shabbat afternoon. 

On one occasion, at a competition in New York, the dancers had to sign in just before the end of Shabbat. He kept the organizers waiting, and only registered after espying three stars in the night sky, which indicated that Shabbat had ended. “I basically took my truth with me everywhere I went,” he declares. 

He eventually got into playing music for crowds. “I saw these DJs while I was on my travels around the world, and I thought I want to do this. I learned how to DJ in New York.”

He began to combine disc spinning with teaching people how to shake a leg when he got back here and caught a dismal scene. “I did a few local gigs and then someone asked me to do a bat mitzvah. I put on a song there, “Baruch Hagever” (Blessed is the Man), a song people have a dance to, but the people there didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know how to do the right moves.”

Nathan sprang into action. “I went down into the crowd, showed them what to do and then went back to put the next song on.” His die was cast. “I kept on doing that, and that became my trademark. I redefined the role of the DJ, not only playing the music but also leading the crowd. The DJ has to create an atmosphere where everyone can dance.”

TODAY THE dancing DJ is known across the globe for his dance video tutorials, as well as appearing at major cultural events here, such as the Tzama Chassidic festival at the ICC in Jerusalem where he recently performed for audiences of thousands, and got them all grooving with him and his troupe. 

Nathan was keen to spread his wings and the dance word, gathering and training a bunch of musically-minded folk with a gift for hoofing. “We did weddings and bar mitzvahs, and that sort of thing, for a living,” he explains. 

Things went swimmingly until the pandemic struck. “All my professional tools, everything I’d done until then, vanished in a split second.” By that time Nathan was married with a family. Things looked grim. “I realized we didn’t have a way to bring in money,” he recalls. 

It was time for a radical rethink. “I’d been showing people how to dance, taking their money for it and using that to live off. I thought why don’t I just show people how to dance for free? You never know. What goes around comes around, right?”

It took a while but he eventually got there. He videoed himself doing a move called the cha-cha slide and put it out there in the virtual world. “Nothing happened,” he says. “But my wife said we still have some money. Put it into a YouTube channel. So I made another video and then more and suddenly we started getting feedback from around the world.” 

Nathan had struck a lockdown chord. “People wrote things like ‘Thank you so much. We’re stuck at home and we were all depressed. But the entire family ended up dancing.’”

The videos became a global hit. “I got responses from Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and Mexico. They sent me messages saying I’d saved them during the pandemic. I thought, how did they even get to this? To see some Jewish guy dancing in a black hat?”

DJ Raphi is now something of a viral phenomenon, while keeping his local gig schedule going.

He says he just wants to keep the dance vibes out there, and feels it is something we can all get into. “They say that music connects people. But I say dance really connects people. If you go somewhere in the world where you don’t speak the language, you show someone what you mean with your hands, with body movement. That’s dance. It’s stronger than words. Stronger than music.”

For more information: https://youtube.com/c/DJRaphi