Jamaican Hip-Hopper Turned Orthodox Jew: A Candid Talk With Yoseph Robinson
Yoseph Robinson was born in Jamaica, came to Brooklyn when he was twelve, and dropped out of school shortly thereafter. As a teenager, he moved to Philadelphia and became involved in a life of illicit street activities. In his early twenties and after a close brush with death, during which he was targeted by a rival Jamaican gang, Yoseph relocated to Los Angeles and set his sights on the Hollywood music scene. He became a Hip-Hop promoter and producer, and signed a lucrative album contract with Universal/Bungalow Records.
At the height of his musical success and while indulging in all the material abundance Hollywood had to offer, Yoseph chanced upon a Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch edition of the Chumash. Yoseph’s life was transformed. He decided to reject the emptiness and egotism of the Hollywood lifestyle and embrace Yiddishkeit. Yoseph converted to Judaism and now lives in Brooklyn as an Orthodox Jew.
The Jewish Press: What was your first experience with Judaism?
Robinson: Interestingly, my first “experience” with Judaism or with Jewish people did not resonate with me at all. When my parents came to the United States my mother worked for a lovely Jewish family called the Schwimmers. My mother even kept a picture of the Schwimmer family on the mantelpiece in our home. I saw that picture almost every day of my childhood. In fact, my siblings and I were able to come to the U.S. only because the Schwimmers generously agreed to sponsor my family. The funny thing is, though, the Schwimmers being “Jewish” was simply descriptive, like saying the Schwimmers were Asian, or Puerto Rican. Jewishness or Judaism had no intrinsic or latent meaning for me.
My second contact with Judaism occurred when I was thirteen years old, a few months after I arrived in the U.S. I worked as a delivery boy for a kosher grocery store in Brooklyn. Since growing up in Jamaica was a unique cultural experience untainted with racial or religious prejudice, I had formed no previous conceptions about Jews. As a result, the kosher grocery experience left no impression on me one way or the other. It was only when I randomly walked into a bookstore asking for a bible and received a Hirsch English edition of the Chumash instead that I began my fundamental connection to Yiddishkeit.
Who performed your conversion, and what were the requirements?
The Los Angeles beis din, under the leadership of Rabbi Tzvi Block and Rabbi Aharon Tendler, converted me. My geirus [conversion] studies program took about two-and-a-half years to complete, and centered on the weekly parshah, the halachos of Shabbos and kashrus, and the taryag mitzvos.
How did friends and family members react?
When I decided to convert, my friends thought I went off the deep end, and my family tended to agree with them. After realizing that my decision was a serious, lifelong commitment, however, I did garner the respect of those closest to me.
How is dating within the frum world for a black Jew?
Currently I’m focused on my parnassah and professional endeavors, such as the memoir I’m writing and my speaking engagements. So I haven’t really experienced the frum dating scene. I am looking forward to it. I would add, though, that there’s clearly an elephant in the room when it comes to the question of dating. The fact that I’m asked that question so often seems to indicate the existence of some bias. In any event, I’ll certainly be able to discuss the issue more insightfully as I begin to date more frequently.
What is your current study schedule like?
I have a chavrusah with whom I learn Mishnah Berurah, I learn parshah and mussar almost daily, and I have begun venturing into the mighty sea of Talmud.
How would you characterize your treatment and degree of acceptance by the frum community in Brooklyn?
For the most part, I must say, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and have treated me like members of their own family. These new lifelong friends are a true credit to Yiddishkeit, and beautifully fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavtem es ha’ger. As in every community, however, there are biases that persist. I do get stares and occasionally hear some thoughtless comments, but I choose to focus on the positive.
Are you in touch with other black geirim?
Interestingly, as time goes on, I have been privileged to meet many fascinating geirim of both genders and of many nationalities and ethnicities.
Has their experience with Orthodox Judaism been similar to your own?
By and large, their experience has been heartwarming and enriching. But they do voice some concerns of bias and unequal treatment. I certainly feel that some change or improvement needs to be made in this arena.
What kind of change are you referring to, and how do you expect this change to occur?
I feel that changes are necessary to allow a Yid such as myself, who happens to be dark-skinned, to feel secure and equally represented under the banner of Klal Yisrael. This kind of change can only come about when a community joins the effort. Without meaning to sound didactic, I feel that social change or justice will not come about through legislative bodies. It will come from ordinary people like you and me. It all starts with honest and open dialogue.
What is your message to potential geirim of any color or background?
My message to geirim is that if one is seeking spirituality, Judaism, practiced correctly, is the ideal vehicle for achieving that aim. I personally find it meaningful and fulfilling but, once you come aboard, keep in mind that while the Torah is flawless, people are not.
What do you hope to accomplish with the publication of your book?
I hope my book will appeal to people on multiple levels. In the U.S. there exists a fascination and mystique that surrounds all things Jamaican. In addition, my memoir provides an insider’s look into the dark side of drug running, which will ignite the imagination of a widespread American demographic.
My first-hand accounts of the Hollywood music scene and celebrity lifestyles will leave readers thirsting for more tantalizing details. Not to drop names, but the book mentions my experience of double-dating with Jay-Z and attending private parties with Janet Jackson and Jamie Foxx.
Finally, my decision to convert to Judaism leaves people simultaneously baffled and intrigued. I have infused my spiritual journey with a humor, intelligence, and wit that will also capture the curiosity of the sophisticated, high-end reader. In short, I hope to entertain, enlighten – and inspire as well.
What’s next for you while you’re working to get your book published?
Well, hopefully I’ll be able to talk with President Obama brother to brother, asking him to let my people be. In all seriousness, though, I’m just striving to grow spiritually and, im Yirtzeh Hashem, [I] hope to be discussing the phenomenal success of the book with you in the near future.