How Not To Cover Hasids: Or, Why We Love Stories about Black Celebrity Jews
11/12/2010 - 12:35

In the journalism trade, there is dependable genre we call the "quirky" story.  Editors love them because our readers do: they offer a churlish delight in the abnormal, the strange, the off-beat.  For the most part, they're harmless, fun throw-away stuff that lend a respite from the otherwise moribund front-page fare.

But occasionally the quirk-story is not so innocent.  It oversteps the bounds of mere curiosity in order to play into our ignoble instincts.  A case in point is The New York Times story this Thursday -- high atop the "most popular" stories list today -- that profiles a black rapper, Shyne, who recently became a Hasid.  

The story is the hip-hop star who was in jail for ten years after being convicted of the notorious New York City shooting that nearly imprisoned P. Diddy.  Shyne has now moved to Israel (he's not allowed in the States) and become a deeply devout Jew.

The Times' story itself plays it straight: Dina Kraft, the journalist, allows Shyne his reasons: “What I do get is boundaries,” he tells Kraft. “Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself."  

Kraft reports that his interest in Judaism dates back to his teenage years, though it was only in prison (he's now 32), that he became a full-bore Hasid.  Today, he scurries to the Western Wall, wraps himself in tefillin, and sprinkles his speech with words like "neshamah" (soul), "chumash" (bound Torah), and "halakha" (religious law).

So what's my problem? Simple: the story cravenly plays into our prejudices, about both the ultra-orthodox and black Jewish converts.  Let's not kid ourselves, we are not interested in this story because a troubled man found stability in religion  -- those stories are obvious and everywhere, which is to say, no one really cares.  

But a piece about a black rapper quoting the Talmud? Now that's a story!  

To be sure, I have no problem with papers running tough stories on the religious -- and the Times does a good job doing it, particularly in Israel, where they wield more power than they should.  But there are limits, and this one passes them.

For if the aim is to show that many Hasids become religious after some personal struggle, fine, but I do not see how Shyne's story does that better than a plain troubled kid's might. And if it is to show how blacks find comfort in Judaism, fine too. But a hip-hop star who says "There’s nothing in the Chumash that says I can’t drive a Lamborghini"?  Give me a break.

This kind of thing is not only demeaning to the ultra-orthodox, but to black converts, too.  Please, enough.

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i had the same reaction.
Long time reader here. I had previously read the NYT piece, and I have to disagree. I thought that the article taught me something I didn't know before about the ultra-orthodox, which is that they are much more tolerant and open to outsiders--especially black former prison inmates hip-hop stars. That, I think, says something positive about them. I agree with you that the article fails to address some harms and by narrating Shyne's story in a "churlish" tone, downplays the problems that you might be getting at. The major harm it seems to me is the danger of allowing individuals to treat Judaism as some passing fungible commodity; something to pick up off the shelf in prison; and to embrace because it makes you look different. In a word-- Judaism isn't a fad; nor should it be. Shyne's story may come across that way; but who knows? I certainly think that there is no problem with people of any color becoming attacked to Judaism because they feel a deep connection to its values and purpose. But to wear a black fedora because its cool or difficult just don't sit well with me. Keep up the dialogue though. Its an interesting story.