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Hear My Song

Nissim Black left the corona ward with a new musical mandate


Photos: Eli Cobin

For Nissim Black, the rap artist and inspirational speaker who has devoted the past decade teaching people about emunah and Hashem’s unconditional love, battling COVID-19 was a learning experience on the most fundamental level. He says it clarified something he’s been struggling with from the time he converted to Judaism in 2013.

“From the time I began studying about Judaism, I’d been trying to come to terms with how to integrate my music with my spiritual aspirations,” says the now-Breslover chassid who’s created his own style of “Jewish rap.” “I think it all clicked after my experience with coronavirus. When I was lying there, unsure if I’d get out alive, I told Hashem, ‘If I’m outta here, the whole world’s gonna know Your Name!’”

“Don’t Open the Door”

Nissim’s COVID-19 journey, which didn’t escape the media, spanned the Three Weeks, starting on the day before 17 Tammuz and ending on Tishah B’Av, when he and his family were officially allowed to exit isolation.

“When I started feeling feverish and achy on Wednesday, I had a feeling it might be coronavirus, so I took Tylenol for two days straight. By Friday I was feeling fine and the fever was gone. I figured I’d stay at home for a week in quarantine, and then get tested,” Nissim relays. “But late Friday afternoon as I started davening Minchah, all of a sudden I started to feel this crazy pressure all over my body, as if I were being squeezed from all sides. I felt dizzy, and I lost my focus and concentration — it was terrifying. I still tried to push myself to daven, but felt myself getting weaker and weaker. I woke up on Shabbos morning with the pressure again, and told my wife that I needed Hatzolah. They showed up with all their protective gear and took me straight to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Yerushalayim.”

For the next several hours, Nissim waited for his test results. “I was still feeling the pressure and the dizziness, and had no idea what was going on. I knew that coronavirus affects everyone differently, but I had no way of knowing what these symptoms meant. First, they took my vitals and then swabbed me for COVID.”

Three hours later, Nissim was informed that he was COVID-19 positive. “They took me to an all-glass triage room, and told me not to move, not to open the door, not to talk to anybody, not even go to the bathroom. All I could do was cry out to Hashem. For six hours I begged Hashem to help me, sang niggunim, counted off things to give thanks for.”

It was already Motzaei Shabbos by the time Nissim was taken to the coronavirus ward, which he says was “like a world of its own. The medical staff were all dressed like astronauts, and there are all types of patients — some walking around, some on ventilators. There was a woman who’d recently given birth to a baby, there was a cancer patient — that’s the dynamic of it. I was struck by how the nurses and doctors were so involved, so dedicated to each and every patient.”

Nissim relates that by this time, he was feeling almost normal, and even made Havdalah for the other patients. By the next morning, he was discharged, with orders to self-isolate at home.

 

Fight of My Life

But the ordeal had only just begun. “I got settled in my guest room, but then I started to feel the pressure again, along with the dizziness and fever. Then I started coughing, stronger and stronger, until all of a sudden I had trouble breathing. The disease snuck up on me within a few hours.”

A friend who had arrived from the US had brought him hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, that has been recommended to shorten the duration of coronavirus symptoms if taken with zinc and a certain antibiotic within the first few days of symptoms. When that didn’t help, someone brought him an inhalation machine. Nissim tried using Butacort, a steroid drug used for asthma that he had in the house for one of his children, but it didn’t give him any relief and his condition was steadily deteriorating.

“That night,” Nissim remembers, “I could barely breathe and my wife called Hatzolah. The medics gave me oxygen and I felt a little better. At the hospital, when they told me the doctor would see me in the morning, I started to panic. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive the night.”

Nissim says he spent the night crying, not knowing what was going to happen from one minute to the next. “The next morning, I felt every breath like a heavy weight in my chest and stomach, and every cough sent shock waves of pain all over my body. I was lying there, in terrible pain and despair. Finally, they gave me a mega-dose of steroids and an injection to prevent blood clots. About three or four hours later, I started to feel major relief. It was like coming back to life.

“From then on, it was like a roller coaster. One day I felt good, and then the next day, slammed. When my family and friends would call me, I’d feel a lot better. My brother-in-law Yosef Brown was a fireball of chizuk. Rav Nosson Maimon called to check up on me. Rav Arush sent me a video. But then I’d start to worry, and the awful symptoms would come back. People also started telling me bad news: My neighbor called to tell me that his mother died from the corona; this one’s son was sick and another friend had lost his son. I decided to shut off my phone, because I felt that I didn’t need to know about these things.”

And then Nissim realized something profound: Perhaps half the battle was what he was doing to himself, what was happening in his own mind. “When I pushed myself to be b’simchah, I felt physically better,” he says. “And when I allowed myself to fall into despair, the suffering was overpowering. That for me was the game changer. I can say this a thousand percent: My state of mind had the greatest impact on my condition, even more than the medicine.”

With that realization, Nissim knew what he had to do: “I felt like I was fighting the fight of my life. I had to take the chizuk from the people close to me, build on that for myself, and then give chizuk to others. Rumors had spread that I was in the ICU on a respirator. I don’t know how it got out, but I decided to make a video to dispel the rumors and give over a message of hope. I also called my friend, singer Eli Schwebel, who had also had the virus very bad — we gave each other chizuk as well.”

Nissim spent several days of ups and downs. “By Thursday night, I was so beat, it was hard for me to daven. There was an older chassid in the ward who was walking around, while I was lying in bed. I thought, there’s no excuse for me, and I forced myself out of bed. I started walking back and forth, and remembered what the physical therapist had taught me about the importance of moving around and doing the breathing exercises. I forced myself to keep walking back and forth.”

The next morning, his condition had improved so much that he was taken off the oxygen. “I was still feeling headachy and dizzy, but I pushed myself to put on tefillin and started helping other patients. After Shacharis, the doctor checked me and said I could go home for Shabbos.”

Nissim still had a long way to go before his household returned to normal. His wife was also sick with coronavirus, and since the children had tested positive, they all had to stay in isolation until Tishah B’Av, when their period of isolation was over.

Nissim says it’s now totally clear to him that he has a mission to bring emunah and knowledge of Hashem to the world through his music.

“For years, I’d stayed away from music because I was so afraid of getting pulled down, of falling. Over time, different circumstances pulled me back into the world of music and I understood that this is what I had to do, but I was still fearful. I was afraid on so many levels. Afraid of how people might misunderstand me and my art, afraid for my kids, and how my career would affect them now and in the future. Also, I know that rap is very far from a traditional Jewish sound, and I didn’t want anyone to fall or to listen to music that they ordinarily wouldn’t listen to because of me.”

Nissim had approached various rabbanim with his quandary, and they were all supportive. “My rav, Rav Shalom Arush, told me, ‘It’s your mission to reach the whole world,’ and when I asked him which type of music I should create to accomplish that, he told me that the main thing is the person who is making the music,” says Nissim. “Rav Yitzchak Ginsburg advised me to retain my own personal style. When I went to the mekubal Rav David Cohen, he told me even before I asked my question, ‘Don’t focus on the frum crowd. Get to the chilonim. That should be your focus.’ Breslov mashpia Rav Nosson Maimon, who I learn with, told me that as long as I continue to make music with my brother-in-law Yosef Brown, both of us adherents to Rebbe Nachman, we have the power to defeat the forces of unholiness.

“I heard, but I was still afraid. I spent hours and hours and hours of hisbodedus, trying to clarify this point. I told Hashem, ‘You never failed me. I’m not out to gain fame — I just want to do the right thing.’

“It’s true that some people don’t understand my genre — rap is not a traditional Jewish sound. I would never sing it at my Shabbos table. So people who aren’t used to it, or consider it alien, or associate it with messages of violence, have criticized me for it,” he says. “But Hashem helps and every time I receive a critical remark, not an hour passes before I receive a message from some unaffiliated Yid out there who tells me, ‘You made me put on tefillin,’ or that I’d inspired him to keep Pesach for the first time.”

Always a Seeker

Inspiring people to put on tefillin is a long way from Nissim’s upbringing in a Seattle inner-city neighborhood plagued by poverty, crime, and drugs. With both parents using and dealing in drugs, and a home he describes “like Grand Central Station for dealers and users,” he was exposed from a young age to disturbing, violent scenes and never benefited from a stable family life.

What saved him in this unhealthy environment was his music. Both his parents were hip-hop artists, and his grandparents and uncles were acclaimed musicians. “I was born into music, and it was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he says. Nissim, then Damien, displayed musical talent practically before he could talk. At 13 he began recording and by the time he was 19, he released his first album, which put him on the map of professional hip-hop. After being featured in a popular music magazine, he received invitations to rap festivals and went on to perform throughout the US. “I was pretty big back in the day,” he reflects.

Nissim’s earliest memories feature his quest for spirituality. One of the most significant influences in his life during childhood was his grandfather, a Sunni Muslim, who taught him how to pray.

“For as long as I can remember, I had this all-consuming feeling of wanting to be close to Hashem, and my grandfather was my only connection to religion,” Nissim says. But then his grandfather was sentenced to a 21-year prison term, leaving Nissim bereft. It was precisely at this time that he became involved with a Christian missionary organization that ran clubs, study groups, and a camp. Still identifying as a Muslim, Nissim took part in the activities, which he says, were “a healing experience, just what I needed at the time to get out of the negative environment I was in.” By the time camp was over, Nissim had exchanged his Muslim faith for Christianity. “I was the poster child for this place,” Nissim relates. “I brought half my high school to the organization’s study groups and clubs.”

When he was 21, Nissim married Jamie, the daughter of an evangelist and a devout Christian herself. Meanwhile, he continued searching, his spiritual journey taking a few more twists and turns until he came to the realization that authentic Judaism had what he was looking for. He shared his newfound understanding with his wife, Jamie, who made her own investigations, until she too was fully on board. Nissim credits her with the courage and impetus to make a clean break from their previous spiritual framework, and find their place within the Orthodox Jewish community as Nissim and Adina. She was also the inspiration for her sister Sheree — now Chana — and brother-in-law, Yosef Brown (Nissim’s friend from early childhood and longtime music collaborator) to follow in their path.

Rabbi Simon Benzaquen of the Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation in Seattle accompanied both families through their conversion and subsequent halachic remarriage with chuppah and kiddushin.

It’s Your Advantage

The Blacks and the Browns moved to Eretz Yisrael in 2016, first to the Rechavia area, and then on to Meah Shearim, where Nissim davened in the main Breslov shul there, although Rav Shalom Arush, of the Chut Shel Chessed kehillah a few blocks away, is his rav.

Today they live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, which he says “has been a wonderful thing for me and my family, first and foremost in terms of getting my children into good schools.”

While Nissim had said publicly that he never experienced challenges associated with his skin color, last year his family faced a primal challenge when it came to getting their children into school.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” he says. “People are comfortable having me speak to their bochurim in different forums [the Blacks are known for their massive Shabbos table filled with several dozen bochurim and a seudah that can last until 3 a.m.] but then all of a sudden, when it came to getting into school, it was a different story. It was hard, but thank G-d, I was searching for Hashem, not to fit in somewhere.”

When his children weren’t accepted into certain chadarim because of their color, he sought the advice of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who told him, “being black is your ma’aleh, not your chisaron.”

“When I was living in Yerushalayim and applied to get my daughter into the local Bais Yaakov, I had to go with a whole SWAT team,” he says. “I had letters of recommendation, a whole matzav. Here in Beit Shemesh, I came just with my heart and they accepted her into a beautiful school. My son is learning in a marvelous Zilberman-style cheder, and just made a siyum on Sefer Bereishis.

“For my wife,” he continues, “the move to Beit Shemesh been life-changing. In Meah Shearim, she couldn’t really communicate with the other women, and Seattle was a small community with fewer opportunities. Here, for the first time since we converted, she started befriending other women in the community, and going to classes and events. I don’t think it was a mistake to live in Yerushalayim — it was a great experience overall — but the move to Beit Shemesh has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Musical Mandate

While music had always been a central component of Nissim’s life — in the period prior to his conversion to Judaism, his rap career suddenly soared with the release of a new album, and he was featured with the biggest names in hip-hop — during the time he was studying to become a full-fledged member of Am Yisrael, Nissim was convinced that his music was bringing him down spiritually and decided that he had no choice but to sacrifice his gift.

“I felt that I was living in two worlds, because my relationship with music wasn’t one of kedushah,” he admits. “On one hand, I was searching for good and trying to improve spiritually, and on the other hand, I had my rap music. I couldn’t reconcile both of those worlds.”

Then circumstances led Nissim to a point where he felt compelled to make a comeback, and so he released his first album of Jewish music, Nissim. The album was all about worldwide elevation and inspiration. Sonically it was rap mixed with an alternative edge. Nissim was released in the non-Jewish music industry, but its new sound and content didn’t get the same warm reception as previous albums. “The black hip-hop world treated me as if I had sold out.”

Nissim was followed by another hiatus in terms of music. “I went back to shteiging and didn’t do too much in terms of music. I just wanted to be involved with avodas Hashem, without getting pulled down.

“Tachlis, looking back I can say today that I hadn’t been able to make spiritual headway the way I wanted to until I re-embraced my music. I feel like now that I’ve accepted my music as a responsibility, I have a lot of siyata d’Shmaya. Unfortunately, it means that I can’t learn as much as I’d like to or sit in dveikus for as long as I’d like to, but through giving, I have a lot of siyata d’Shmaya to gain a lot in a short amount of time and to affect a lot of different people.”

That feeling of responsibility, and the knowledge of being at death’s door and being embraced by Hashem and being given his breath back, has put him in a new place. “I’ve seen incredible Hashgachah since I came back from the hospital,” he says. “It’s been less than two weeks, and I’m already in the middle of writing my 11th new song. I’m writing from a depth of emotion that I went through on this journey, the despair I felt when I thought Hashem was gone, when I felt He wasn’t there for me. These are very deep songs, coming from a point of my innermost yearnings. Soon you’re going to hear them, and you’ll understand.”

ON BRIDGING BOTH WORLDS

“Rambam says that the process of teshuvah involves returning to the same situation you were in previously and making the tikkun in that place. In my previous life as a rapper, I wasn’t singing for Jews, I was singing for other black kids, and those are also areas I have to repair.

“I would say my music today is not only good for Yidden. People from the neighborhood I grew up in, people from my high school, are calling me and telling me that I’m putting out positive vibes. These are non-Jews, but I know that there were good people there who have a heart, but who didn’t have role models and ended up doing horrible things. I know because I was there — today I feel that I’ve come full circle, giving these people faith. Even my father called me crying and telling me, ‘Your music is lifting me up so much.’ For the frum crowd, it’s all just rap music. If you don’t understand the nuances, you think it’s all the same. But if you’re familiar with the genre, it’s very, very easy to differentiate between light and darkness.”

ON THE RECOVERY PROCESS

“A shout-out to Yaakov Basher who brought me a ZMedicAir air purifier. There is a gemach in New York that distributes these machines for free to help coronavirus patients recover faster. There’s no doubt that it helped me and my wife.

“A lot of people who had the virus continued to suffer from residual symptoms. This may sound crazy, but since I went a few days ago to the Arizal’s mikveh, I haven’t had any symptoms. I feel so much better! Rebbe Nachman says the mikveh can be a cure for all types of ailments.”

ON PARNASSAH IN THE COVID ERA

“I’ve been having a very hard in terms of parnassah, just like everyone else. Right before corona hit, I had sealed a private independent partnership that would allocate a budget for my music projects and more content, so that’s how I haven’t slowed down. Due to everything being closed though, my major cash flow has slowed down, but I’m optimistic. Hashem will prevail!”

ON VICTIMS AND VICTORS

“I think the African-American community and the Jewish community can learn a lot from one another. There’s so much common history, so much to connect over. We’re all in the same story — Jews are also not white! White means, ‘You’re in the club.’ and if Jews would have been seen as members of the elite, the Holocaust would never have happened. So, color doesn’t have anything to do with who the person actually is.

“People who are trying to turn the communities against each other have an agenda. Logically, it makes no sense. We know there’s a ruchniyus background to the hostility of non-Jews against the Jewish community, but from what we see on the surface, it stems from a lack of knowledge, stereotypes that are perpetuated without getting to know the people. It doesn’t make sense for Black Lives Matter to support the Palestinians over the Jews. Study the history of the Arab populations versus that of the Jewish People. If you’re examining behavior that’s aggressive, oppressive, violent and rage-filled — you just don’t find that in Jewish history, whereas that all comes naturally to the Yishmaelim, the Arabs. You see it in Europe, in Syria, in countless other places.

“Oppressed — that’s the Jewish story. Except that we don’t stay victims. I think that emerging from victimhood to being victorious is a lesson the Jewish community can teach the black community. If the Jewish community will be willing to teach, and the black community will be willing to learn.”

ON SUFFERING FROM DISCRIMINATION FROM THE JEWISH WORLD

“The world needs to see that there are Jews of color, and they are more numerous than anyone realizes. There are converts and all these new groups popping up. They bust all the myths and break all the stereotypes.

Frum people have asked me how we should help BLM. I think they have to think first about helping the Jews of color in their own backyards. I personally have experienced way more love than racism, but that didn’t take away the pain from the racism that I or my wife have experienced. This is something I’ve heard repeatedly from Jews of color who reach out to us and tell us their story.”

ON MAKING ALIYAH

“When deciding where to live in Eretz Yisrael, and weighing the benefits of being in an all-Israeli versus an Anglo environment, I think you have to make the best decision for your children — the ones you have, and the ones you will, G-d willing, have. People say, ‘I didn’t move to Israel to be among other Americans,’ but why not? Olim from France feel comfortable among other French people, the Teimanim feel comfortable among fellow Teimanim. After a while, you understand that the challenges of aliyah are great enough — you don’t have to add more to the mix.”

ON SEARCHING YOUTH

“A lot of the young people who feel disconnected often mistake their relationship to Judaism with their relationship to Hashem. Inside the frum community, you’re expected to follow all the guidelines that are meant to keep you a good Jew who follows the rules, but that’s not going to help you find a connection to Hashem —and the main thing is the connection to Hashem. Judaism without Hashem present is just like any other system. These kids are losing their way, because it’s all about the system. But we don’t need another system — we need Hashem present.”

ON KNOWING OUR STORY

“One of my pet peeves is the lack of emphasis on learning Tanach. Beyond the historical context and the importance of understanding and knowing the Torah, the Tanach infuses us with pure emunah in Hashem. We read about the heroes in Jewish history, Yosef Hatzaddik, Shmuel Hamelech, David Hamelech, about whom it states: ‘And Hashem was with him.’ I want to be able to look back at our story and say, ‘And Hashem was with us.’”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 823)

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