Religious hip-hop artist puts his complex identity onscreen

There’s a telling moment, midway through “Y-Love” — a new documentary named for its subject, the boundary-breaking black Orthodox Jewish rapper — in which the artist contemplates his public and private identities.

Yitz Jordan, he explains, is the regular person. Y-Love is the hip-hop sensation: all attitude, swagger and undeniable stage presence. Y-Love doesn’t quite care if people don’t understand how rap and observant Judaism go hand in hand.

The artist recently added one more piece to the identity puzzle. In May, after the film wrapped, he announced he was gay — a move he says has helped to resolve some of the dissonance in his life.

“That split, that disconnect between ‘Y-Love’ and Yitz Jordan, a lot of that was a function of the closet. That was the No. 1 thing that wasn’t allowing me to be myself,” says Jordan, 34, by phone from his home in New York, two months after coming out. He’ll be in San Francisco for the documentary’s world premiere July 24 at the Jewish Film Festival and will perform the next night at Milk Bar in the Haight.

Born in Baltimore to a Puerto Rican mother and a Christian Ethiopian father, Jordan was just 7 when he became interested in Judaism after seeing a TV commercial. “It was literally five seconds, like ‘Happy Passover from your friends at Channel 2!’ ” he recounts in the documentary. He started drawing Stars of David on everything in the house because he liked the way they looked.

By 14, he was observing Shabbat, wearing a kippah and reading any Jewish text he could get his hands on.

He was 22 when he converted in 2000, and soon after moved to Jerusalem to study at a yeshiva. It was there, through making up rhymes with a friend to help remember Torah portions, that he became interested in hip-hop. From then on, being both an observant Jew and a rapper have never seemed at odds to him.

“There’s no mitzvah that says you have to sit still in black pants and white shirt and learn Torah — the mitzvah is to learn Torah. And everyone had tricks, mental devices for learning. It’s finding things that help get the Torah from the page into your head and your heart,” says Jordan. “Hip-hop worked for me. I’ve never seen why there should be a disconnect.”

After moving to Brooklyn, he began performing at open mics, releasing his first mixtape in 2005, followed by a critically acclaimed full-length album in 2008. A scene of one performance in Jerusalem features throngs of excited Israeli hip-hop fans mobbing the rapper after the show.

The film’s producer, Pilar Haile-Damato, says she and director Caleb Heller became interested in Jordan after reading a New York Times story about racial tensions and violence in Crown Heights — a Brooklyn neighborhood with prominent Hassidic and African-American populations. It took a while to earn his trust, says Haile-Damato, but once they did, she and Heller got a much more layered story than they had been expecting.

“We were in Baltimore, and we had gone through the house he’d grown up in, and we were coming to the end of this very nostalgic trip for him,” recalls the producer. “And he was in the backseat of the car and he just said, ‘Well, you know, I’m gay,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ It changed the arc of the film completely.”

Initially the pair thought they might end the 50-minute documentary with Jordan coming out and dealing with the aftermath. “But what became more interesting was his inner struggle, coming to terms with being honest about it,” says Haile-Damato. “And certain scenes now, you can see it in his face when we asked him certain questions: He’s thinking, ‘Am I gonna say this right now?’ I think anyone who’s ever struggled with identity issues can relate to that.”

What made it seem like the right time to come out?

“During filming, it just became like the 800-pound elephant in the room,” says Jordan. “I’d been starting to come out in my private life since 2009, but as an artist it was always a question of ‘Am I gonna lose all my fans?’ ” He adds that he used to constantly screen Twitter and other websites to make sure no one was leaking information about his sexuality.

“And then at a certain point it became: I’m over 30, I’ve wasted years of my life not dating, not getting married. I can’t really care about what public opinion might be anymore,” says the rapper. “Especially when you have gay kids killing themselves, you have this backlash to gay marriage from the Christian right, with brainwashing and ‘anti-gay therapy’ … I realized it was important to say, ‘I’m going to stand up for myself and my own community.’ ”

As for the fans? “The reaction has been almost overly positive,” says Jordan, laughing. Rabbi friends have tried to set him up with other gay Orthodox men. He was booked to perform at a retreat run by Eshel, the national organization dedicated to building understanding and support in the Orthodox community for gay and lesbian Jews.

A month after coming out publicly, Jordan performed at New York City’s Pride Festival — and was overwhelmed to see his friends from yeshiva, not to mention Hassidic women in long black dresses, marching and dancing alongside gay people.

“They say it gets better?” says Jordan. “I’m here to say it gets awesome.”


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