Inside the Middle East
November 18, 2010
Posted: 2041 GMT

It's late afternoon in Jerusalem and Moses Levi is making one of his frequent visits to the Western Wall.

"They say this is where the presence of God is," Levi says as he ambles across the plaza of Judaism's holiest site, a mere stone's throw away from Islam's sacred al-Aqsa Mosque.

"That's why you have Muslims here, Christians here, and obviously you have the Israelites here.  When everybody disagrees about everything, they agree about one thing:  that this is where they need to come to pray."

Like many of the worshippers there, he is dressed in traditional garb – a silver-striped silk robe, black knee-length pants, a white knit skullcap, and specially knotted fringes dangling from the sides of his legs.

In many ways, Levi is indistinguishable from the thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews who call Jerusalem home.  The only hint of something unusual is the Kurt Cobain T-shirt he wears under the robe, the black Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the signs of recognition on the faces of tourists passing by.

Levi is, in fact, far from your standard ultra-orthodox adherent to the Jewish faith.

He was born in Belize as Jamaal Barrow, the out-of-wedlock son whose father is now the country's prime minister.  At the age of seven, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, with his mother, and grew up in a hardscrabble urban setting.

It was on the streets of Flatbush that Levi took up rhyming, eventually becoming the hard-core gangster rapper known as "Shyne."  The up-and-coming hip-hop artist's career came to an abrupt halt after a 1999 New York City nightclub shooting incident also involving rap impresario Sean "Diddy" Combs and his then-girlfriend, actress and singer Jennifer Lopez.

Three people were injured in the shooting.  In the high-profile trial that followed, Barrow was convicted of reckless endangerment, possession of a firearm and assault. He served nine years in prison, but insists to this day that he acted in self-defense.

"Going to prison was an unfortunate situation and very tragic, but I was just defending myself," he says.  "It wasn't the result of some guy trying to be, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and live out some kind of movie and romanticize a street life."

During his time in prison, Levi dedicated himself to the exploration of Judaism, a process he said he had begun as a teenager, listening to his grandmother tell biblical stories about Moses and King David.

While he was still behind bars, he changed his legal name to Levi and began his more formal religious education. But this was not, says Levi, a stereotypical jailhouse conversion.

"Going to prison just freed my schedule to continue to do what I was already doing," Levi explains.  "Unfortunately some people think that going to prison is when the light switch went off in my head and I had an epiphany, but that wasn't the case at all."

After being released from prison in 2009, Levi fulfilled a promise to himself to visit Israel. He arrived in September, underwent a formal conversion and began to study Judaism with rabbis associated with the more stringent ultra-orthodox sects of the faith. He says he wanted to learn more about the religion and the meaning behind its many rituals.

"I have never gone out and done something just to do it," Levi says.

"I have to understand the dynamics of being kosher, why the food you eat is so important, why observing Shabbat is so important - I had to understand these things and believe these things to be that."

Even while developing his relationship with God in Jerusalem, Levi has been busy working on his musical comeback. Since his release from prison, he has sealed a six-figure recording contract with Def Jam Records and is planning a world tour.

His conversion and study of Judaism also renewed media interest in him. Levi's been the subject of many recent newspaper profiles, which conveniently coincide with the release of his album later this month.

The music, he says, is informed by his Jewish faith, but listeners should not be expecting religious rhymes.

"I am not rapping about Kadish or Shabbat shalom - that's not the music I make," Levi says, referring the Jewish prayer for the dead and the Hebrew Sabbath greeting.

While he's ditching the vulgar language of earlier recordings, his music still has not lost its edge, he says.

"It's really just a change in direction - the anger is still there, you dig?  The outrage is sill there at the profanity and obscenity of poverty."

His lyrical focus now, he says, is much more political than it was in the past.

"I am still angry that people are suffering in Palestine, the people who aren't terrorists. I am angry (Israeli soldier) Gilad Shalit is captive right now the way I was in captivity - but it's just a different way to channel that anger."

Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006 and is still being held.

Levi - who's still known in the music biz by his rapper moniker, Shyne – hopes the music will inspire a new generation of listeners to fight injustice.  He's also hopeful that his new Kosher image will help spread his message in and outside of the Holy Land.  It will likely even reach the United States, even if Levi won't.

Upon his release from prison, he was deported by the U.S. government because he was a convicted felon and was not a U.S. citizen.

He calls the decision "draconian" and is fighting to have it reversed. But Levi remains optimistic and says he is not in exile.

"I don't think in terms of exile, I think in terms of it's a temporary setback and I will be in New York, I will be in the United States very soon."

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Filed under: Culture •General •Jerusalem •Judaism •Religion •Video

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mp   November 19th, 2010 4:42 am ET

So he is a gangsta..but a godly person...yea. ...soo....hmm..i hope its just one of those articles that just put stuff on paper. hope nobody is making this into an "overcome" story. this guy is a punk making money saying whatever he needs to. talk religion to get money. or if in fact a religious zealot, rap gangsta style to get money..either way congrats dude. but your life is a joke. Practice what you say or just dont say anything in the media idiot.Nuff said.

Mike   November 19th, 2010 5:03 am ET

Nice story, but need to make a few corrections.

1) The first few sentences imply that the Western Wall is Judaism's holiest site. Actually, the Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site. Since a mosque has been there for hundreds of years, the Israeli government decided that Jews gathering on the Temple Mount to pray would be too provocative. The Wall was therefore determined to be a sufficient landmark for Jews to gather and pray.

2) Kaddish (more specifically "Mourner's Kaddish" is not a prayer for the dead, per se. In other words, it is not a prayer where the Jew asks God to convey his/her loved one's soul up to heaven. In fact there is no mention of death at all. It is a prayer where the Jews praise God and ask for peace. It is intended to comort the living. Translations are readily available on the internet.

Scott   November 19th, 2010 5:04 am ET

Nice to see an article that involves Judaism and Israel without hateful Anti-Israel or Anti-Semetic comments below it. But maybe that's because this is the first comment.

CNN get it together with either controlling them or not doing it. This is news not a message board.

Rastafareye   November 19th, 2010 5:43 am ET

Baruch hu.

Home School Mom   November 19th, 2010 5:59 am ET

Shalom brother Levi. God certainly has blessed you to move in a new directions that will be even more of a blessing to others who will be inspired by your music.

Chaiah   November 19th, 2010 7:12 am ET

Moshe Levi ben Abraham, you have a lot of wisdom and I will be listening here in the US. Injustice exists in so many place – Palestine, Israel, Ruwanda... and even in the US.

Amir Gorewitz   November 19th, 2010 10:50 am ET

We see Jeff Seidel and Shyne learning everyday st the Mir Yeshiva.We always see them together. It seems like a great combination. Not only do you see Shyne by the Western Wall, we see Shyne walking around and talking to the youth.

Jadakiss   November 19th, 2010 11:43 am ET

Why they take away Shyne's phone calls and visits?

JAY   November 19th, 2010 8:02 pm ET

Let's not forget that the "Holy" Temple Mount is only Holy because it was built on top of Solomon's Temple. They desecrated the holiest place on earth and then claimed it as their very own holiest place on earth. What a crock.

Cameron   November 19th, 2010 11:35 pm ET

Wait... his father is the prime minister of what? Did I read that wrong?

Ioan Emil   November 21st, 2010 9:44 am ET

I am proud that he get strength in his faith to change on who he was, he never said a bad word about going to prison because he learned down there the true reason of being there. I understand him... because I am just like him. Well done brother!

miriam   November 21st, 2010 1:13 pm ET

More corrections.

His conversion was only symbolic since his maternal grandmother was an Ethiopian Jewess.
Hence the "conversion" followed by learning about Judaism, rather than the reverse required in real conversion.

David   November 21st, 2010 10:08 pm ET

Moses Levi??? Moses LEVI???
I want to be black, so I'm changing my name to Bole' Bubbah Jefferson.
Orthodox Jews have been Orthodox for generations. And this clown thinks he's gonna jump right in and be a real "Shaineh Yid"? (perfect Jew)
He's right up there with Madonna becoming a Kaballah master.
The things some people will go through. . . . . . .

rich porter   November 22nd, 2010 10:27 am ET

Don't knock someone trying to be more positive with their life and actions. Nothing wrong with change as long as you change for the better, which is the case here.

Jerusalem   November 22nd, 2010 12:28 pm ET

Isreal needs to declare her borders and live within them as does every other nation on the planet.

Jerusalem   November 22nd, 2010 12:30 pm ET

Isreal needs to declare her borders and live within them as does every other nation on the planet.
If this wanna be musician intends to be relevant, perhaps he should sing a song about that!

d.cleveland   November 22nd, 2010 12:40 pm ET

Something tells me this young rappers conversion has more to do with him getting back into the US legally than anything else....if he maintained his thug image he would be less likely to get permission.....but as a young man who turned his life around......
spin spin spin

Elisa   November 22nd, 2010 2:24 pm ET

His grandmother is not a Ethiopian Jew. I'm from Belize and I was a history major. Belize is a very small country with a population of little over 300,000. Our black people never came from Ethiopia. They came from from the Bight of Benin. He is just making that stuff up.

3:16   November 22nd, 2010 2:39 pm ET

Ok, since everyone else posting here seems to be ignoring the most obvious question:

You converted to Judaism, but don't believe in Christ, you Messiah? Hello??

3:16   November 22nd, 2010 2:40 pm ET

Ok, since everyone else posting here seems to be ignoring the most obvious question:

You converted to Judaism, but don't believe in Christ, your Messiah?

Continue to watch TV   November 22nd, 2010 3:20 pm ET

I think all people should support Israel

I love Sarah Palin

I think the TSA needs to touch our genitals incase they explode

I like to have my naked picture taken by radioactive machines at airports

I believe Obama stand for "a change we can believe in"

I believe AIPAC are a good source of neutral & honest information

I believe we will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

I belive its normal for steel frame buildings to collapse neatly into their own foot print after a fire.

I belive Israel helps America

I believe Kennedy died from a magic bullet

I believe Bush was the best democratic representative to spread democracy around the world.

I believe bush won his elections and hanging chads are irrelevant

I believe America leaders would never take their country to war illegally and with immoral intent

I believe the Golf of Tonkin incident

I don't read

I swallow all I'm told on TV

I'm so lazy, that I only listen to one side of the story

I don't care if the world burns as long as I'm okay

lolol black ULTRA_ORTHODOX JEW lol WOW   November 22nd, 2010 11:52 pm ET

lol now we have the ULTRA and soon omega and then itll come to:

super mega ultra power ranger orthodox jew.

you can even see in the video how the " ORTHODOX " JEWS stare him.. how he doesnt belong.. HES AN ULTRA ORTHODOX yet he does such music videos still... lol made my day a black jew... im sorry but to jewish it isnt like native americans where you can just say there native american with blues eyes blonde hair and white skin.

what a joke.. black ULTRA ORTHODOX JEW lol

miriam   November 23rd, 2010 11:17 am ET


The only joke is your sheer ignorance.

Or perhaps it's not ignorance but pure bigotry.

There are many black ultra-orthodox. orthodox and irreligious Jews.

miriam   November 23rd, 2010 11:36 am ET


Did they not teach you that migration occurs due to a variety of factors, slavery being only one?

Kiing   November 23rd, 2010 6:03 pm ET

He is no different then the rest of the world. Use whatever to get that money. The problem with this world is, why do we care he went prison so what, he found god so what.

spread the love   November 23rd, 2010 6:13 pm ET

To "lolol black":

I'm not saying I know his intentions, but to dismiss the guy just because he's black is as unjewish as it gets.

BiggestFish   November 24th, 2010 5:37 pm ET

You are incorrect. The Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site, but according to Jewish law, Jews are not allowed to go on the holy ground while the temple is still not standing. That is why Jews don't go there.
Jews have been going for thousands of years to the wall. It is a border of the temple mount, but is not on the mount itself.

dave   November 29th, 2010 3:55 am ET

biggest fish is correct.

rambo   December 1st, 2010 7:10 pm ET

haaaaaa! that hair cut blew me away that shits hilarious man its crazy... shyne now man cause I still listen to "s.h.y.n.e" and a couple other gutter tracks from him from back then but I do not take any respect away from him based on what he is today its good he found his light you know having a gangster mind set should not last your whole life time.

Really?   December 31st, 2010 5:22 pm ET

The point of this article was to illustrate that people have the power to turn their lives around – even in extreme cases like this one. Why all the negativity? If he had just chosen to go to Hebrew School and sit in on a few synagogue services, there might be reason to be skeptical about this conversion..but c'mon. He's clearly very devoted to this change, as demonstrated by his study in Jerusalem. I'm even more surprised that a few people who claim to be Jewish themselves are expressing so much hatred towards him. Seems like maybe you all should be the ones studying up, since you can't seem to have kindness for others.

Let's just be happy that yet another troubled indvidual found solace in religion and was able to turn their lives around. We could all benefit from a similar mentality.

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