Speaking With Ari Lesser, Chassidic Rapper
By A. Schreiber
Ari Lesser was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His family was mostly irreligious, but before his bar mitzvah they began to express a greater interest in Judaism, becoming members of a local
Reconstructionist synagogue. Ari’s father is a writer and musician, which seems to be the source for Ari’s own natural musicality. After graduating from the University of Oregon with a BA in political science, Ari enrolled in a Chabad yeshiva in Tsfat and has recently married.
By all accounts, Chassidic rap is still an anomaly. Despite the smattering of multicultural music forms that have made their way into the mainstream Jewish music industry, I haven’t sensed a welcoming gesture towards this one. But I think that is about to change.
The Jewish indifference towards rap or reggae music is a result of the typical profane subject matter. However, Ari Lesser, the 27-year-old YouTube phenom from Cleveland, feels that rap enables him to deliver messages to the world that might otherwise go unnoticed or ignored.
Ari is not preaching to the choir—there are enough people doing that. Ari feels that there is a need to educate the world regarding the truth of Israel and the Jewish people. If you’re wondering just how successful Ari is at delivering this message and just how attentively the world is listening, in the eight months since his famous “Boycott Israel” song was posted online, it has garnered over a half-million views. A devoutly observant woman from Brooklyn wrote in an e-mail to him, “Despite my inherent dislike towards rap, your music resonates within me.” So while he may not be purposefully targeting the mainstream Jewish listenership, it looks like his amazing talent and substantive message is palatable to listeners of all persuasions.
The primary occasion for this interview was to mark the release of Ari’s latest music video of a song titled “Psalm 140.” The video was shot in both Brooklyn and the Five Towns by the super-talented Shlomo (Scot) Jay with music by Jeremiah BenZion. When I commented to Ari that I thought “Psalm 140” was a unique title, he replied unceremoniously that it is one of the classic psalms. It seems that the Tehillim of David HaMelech have made an indelible impact on Ari’s young heart. When I asked him who his inspiration is, he responded quite naturally—King David.
When I inquired into the source of his inspiration, I was referring to his inspiration in rap music. The answer I was expecting was along the lines of Bob Marley or perhaps MC Hammer. When he answered “King David,” I was caught a little off-guard. I mentioned that although I never listened to rap or reggae music growing up, I recently learned that there was a spiritual element to Rastafarianism that I was never aware of. I did not know that it was actually a religion that considered the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, its spiritual leader. I learned that there are those who trace Haile Selassie back to Shlomo HaMelech through the Queen of Sheba. So upon further analysis, it looks like we have more in common with reggae music than we were ever aware.
In any event, Psalm 140 has particular relevance to current times. Operation Protective Edge, which Israel launched as a defensive incursion into Gaza to dismantle the sophisticated terror fortress that Hamas has worked tirelessly to construct, has woken the worldwide chorus of Jew-haters from their slumber. Anti-Israel protests have been held in Paris, London, Manchester, Belgium, Germany, and even Chicago with unified chants the likes of which many say we have not experienced since the years leading up to the Holocaust.
King David opens the psalm by beseeching G‑d to save him from those who look to harm him. Quoting just briefly from the song itself, which was composed by Ari: “From a wicked man L‑rd set me free / From the violent people please protect me. Those who plot evil in their heart / Every day they gather for the wars they start. They sharpen their tongue like some kind of viper / Under their lips is the venom of a spider.” The song then continues with pleas from King David, imploring G‑d not to allow their evil plots to be realized.
Looking a little deeper at Psalm 140, which begins with the words Lamenatze’ach Mizmor, Rav Immanuel Chai Rikki, author of the Mishnas Chassidim as well as Chazeh Tzion, a running commentary on Tehillim, points out that the beginning letters and concluding letters of those words comprise Lochem Reish, which is the basis of King David’s entreaty of G‑d to save him from those who wish evil upon him—since he is impoverished and unworthy on his own of salvation; this is the implication of the word reish, meaning poor, as well as the letters dalet lamed of Le’Dovid, which spells dal, also meaning impoverished.
Of all the Biblical personalities, it is perhaps King David whom we relate to most. As we are aware, King David’s life was fraught with challenges from beginning to end. Yet, in spite of all the tension and angst that he experienced throughout his life, he rose to the occasion like no one else in history. As a result, anytime we are overcome with emotion—whether joyous or sad—and we want to express ourselves to G‑d, we turn to the Tehillim of David HaMelech because no one said it more poignantly than he did.
This particular psalm was composed in order for G‑d to close the mouths of David HaMelech’s antagonists, namely Doeg HaEdomi and Shaul HaMelech, who are repeatedly alluded to throughout the psalm. However, in our day, we utter these words in order to bring an end to the venomous, vitriolic chorus of hate that is built on pure anti-Semitism at its extreme. This is the overriding message of Psalm 140 that is brought to life and presented for a broader audience in Ari Lesser’s latest music video, which has been viewed over 4,500 times in three days.
Ari has risen to renown rather quickly. On his website, www.arithemc.bandcamp.com, there are about 12 albums of original music—including roughly 50 songs based on the words of Tehillim.
Ari has been traveling worldwide, performing at all types of venues, and writing songs that have been commissioned by many organizations looking to unify the Jewish voice and message during these very trying times.
Ari is an extremely positive person. He sees the best in everyone and in every situation. His message is meaningful, his medium quite modern, and all in all, quite en“rap”turing. ϖ