By Judy Lash Balint/JNS.org
Click photo to download. Caption: Nissim (left), formerly known in Seattle rap circles as D. Black, with Rabbi Simon Benzaquen. Credit: Judy Lash Balint.
SEATTLE—Most Orthodox rabbis who earn the title “emeritus”
retire to a quiet life of teaching and learning and visiting the sick. Emeritus
Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, who recently retired after decades of service to
Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation, does all of those activities, but
now has a new and distinctly unorthodox career—as vocal accompanist to popular
Nissim, formerly known in Seattle rap circles as D. Black, was
getting serious about converting to Judaism when he first heard Rabbi Benzaquen
chanting Kiddush after Shabbat services several years ago. “I was blown away by
his powerful voice,” says Nissim, who converted last year with his family under
the Orthodox tutelage of Rabbi Benzaquen.
Fast forward to Memorial Day 2013, and the newly retired rabbi
and newly observant 26-year-old rapper were appearing together on stage at the
popular Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in eastern
Washington, alongside stars like Elvis Costello and Mumford and Sons.
Spanish-born Rabbi Benzaquen, decked out in his usual rabbinic
uniform of smart white shirt, black tie and suit and black hat, intersperses
Hebrew verses over several of Nissim’s numbers. The young crowd of rap
fans shows their approval by dancing and waving in rhythm.
Since then, Rabbi Benzaquen, who studied at prestigious yeshivot
in the UK and has smicha from The Rabbinical Academy of Marseille,
France, has joined Nissim on stage at gigs that include a Seattle live
music club and the Capitol Hill Block Party, an annual
showcase of the Pacific Northwest’s best bands and DJs.
All through his career as a congregational rabbi in Westcliff,
England, Maracaibo, Venezuela, and Seattle, Rabbi Benzaquen put his training in
chazzanut from London’s Jews College
to good use, but he never expected his recording debut to be on a rap album.
“I used to dismiss rap completely,” says Rabbi Benzaquen in his
Spanish-accented English. “I thought it was inflammatory, full of four-letter
words and derogatory towards women. But now I feel that rap has got a bad rap!
It’s the African American expression of everyday life.”
“Think about the Torah when it wants to teach us something,” he
explains, “it’s often through shira: song or poetry. That’s
what stays with you. That’s why rap can be powerful today and convey a positive
In a cut called “Sores” on the
forthcoming album due for release mid-September, Rabbi Benzaquen does a moving
voice-over of Hebrew verses from Psalms, set to his own haunting melody, as
Nissim raps two stories, one about African American oppression and another
about a Jew suffering during the Holocaust.
“Nobody captures emotion like Rabbi Benzaquen,” Nissim says of
his mentor’s vocal talent.
For his part, Rabbi Benzaquen exclaims passionately in response,
“There are no two peoples who should be more connected than African Americans
and Jews. We could learn a lot from each other.”