By Larry Gordon
It was Thursday night at about 8:00 p.m. and Nissim Black was hurrying his way through a local makolet, a supermarket or grocery store, not far from where he resides in Jerusalem. Here in New York it was only 1:00 p.m., and unlike the fashion in which life is conducted in parts of Jerusalem, the erev Shabbos intensity or rush to prepare had not yet begun.
But that was not the case with Mr. Black in Jerusalem. He was on his cellphone and willing to talk because this was the time we had arranged to talk about his upcoming return to New York. If you do not recognize the name, you probably will in the coming weeks and months as Nissim Black prepares for his concert over Chanukah here in New York.
His story is a staggering one that leaves you with an air of both disbelief and awe at the determination of a young man to so dramatically alter absolutely everything about his life. In brief, his parents were rappers–and drug dealers–in Seattle, Washington. He was raised as a Sunni Muslim, but after his parents separated, he converted to Christianity at the age of 14. His mother was arrested for drug dealing and died of an overdose at the age of 37.
Shopping for challah and dips in Geulah last Thursday evening, Nissim says that the fact that he was raised near a Jewish neighborhood in Washington State is what changed his life. When he was at his lowest, he says, he saw a distant light gleaming from the lifestyles he observed around him–young Jews dressing a certain way, going to shul in the morning, afternoon, and on Shabbos. It was a way, he soon realized, to discover his destiny and, for the first time, peace in his young life.
He says upon reflection today that one of the things he was always able to visualize was the shul located directly across the street from the school he attended as a young teen. He wasn’t certain about what he was observing, but something about it made an important and indelible impression on him.
These days, Nissim sports a long black coat, a turned-up hat, and a white shirt with tzitzis flowing out from underneath. It is basically a new life for him, his wife, who converted to Judaism at the same time that he did, and his four children. But one thing that he did not leave in the past is his talent as a rap artist, though the repetitious cadence and the hard, emphatic sing-song nature of rap is not something that is usually associated with music that is paired with lyrics from our liturgy or Tanach.
I had the opportunity to see Mr. Black in concert about a year ago. After attending Jewish concerts for decades, I can easily report that a Nissim Black performance is both inspiring and unique. On December 24, a few days after Chanukah, Nissim Black will be the featured performer in concert at the Master Theater on Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m. Performing along with Nissim will be Zusha, Pinny Schachter, and Matt Dubb, best known for the album he was on two years ago with Lipa Schmeltzer.
Now, it is either fortunate or unfortunate that most of us in the community view rap music as something that is representative of so much that ails society in these modern times. So when you mention Nissim and his Hebraized version of rap, you are often met with one of those looks communicating something between displeasure and irritation with what it usually represents. But the listener soon comes to the realization that there is something unusual if not special going on here, and that is the thing you will be able to behold and observe in person on December 24 in Brooklyn.
Nissim is as soft-spoken as the story of his life is complicated. Raised in an environment plagued with drugs and violence, he says he felt that although he was experiencing these things in a personal way, there was a higher purpose to his existence in this world. He adds that at the time that he and his wife converted, his brother-in-law and his wife’s sister converted as well; they were both married under a chuppah in a Jewish ceremony on the same day.
While he is estranged from most of his family that he left back home, he says that his father, who is a Christian theologian, is his biggest supporter. Prior to converting, Black had the beginning of a successful mainstream career in the rap music industry. If you want to become a bit more familiar with Nissim’s music, I recommend two music videos. The first is Nissim Black’s performance together with Gad Elbaz of the classic “Hashem Melech,” and the video “A Million Years,” with Yisroel Laub.
These and other Nissim Black productions are somewhat “rappy” but feature a perfect combination of musical styles. Once you know the story of Nissim’s journey to Judaism, you cannot help but feel moved and inspired. Black is not just beautiful, but something very special.
On the subject of extraordinary young talent, let’s turn our attention to a young man who has perfected a craft and talent that is now in demand around the world. Marc (Moshe) Garfinkel, a Five Towns resident, began as a young magician and is now performing as a mentalist who keeps audiences spellbound wherever and whenever he performs.
The critics say about Garfinkel that he is at the top of the list of mentalists who possess the ability to both mesmerize and entertain. Last year he auditioned for the widely watched and popular America’s Got Talent that is broadcast and seen around the world. Marc was one of the 150 finalists chosen from a field of 50,000 performers from around the country. Judge Simon Cowell said, “That can’t just happen, what you just did, incredible! You have magic powers.”
As it turns out, it looks like we will never know if Marc could have been a finalist or even a winner of the contest because, as he explains, he was called back to perform on the first day of Pesach. “I tried to explain to them that it would be impossible for me to be there or perform on that day,” Marc says. “They said they would try to set up an alternate day for me but at the end of the day they said they just couldn’t do it.”
Still, Marc is very much in demand on shows around the country and around the world, and for bar mitzvahs, sometimes weddings, dinners, and other special events. I asked him to explain to me how a mentalist can do what he does. Sure, it involves illusion and trickery, but it also requires talent more than anything else.
This is what the promotional literature says about Marc: “Marc Garfinkel is not only a performer, but a true artist. He is universally acclaimed as the best in his field, a true creative force, constantly searching for new ways to astound. Witty, engaging, and supremely entertaining, his approach to his venerable art mesmerizes audiences wherever he appears. For the past 18 years, Marc has been entertaining audiences all over the world. He has trained under the tutelage of some of the top people in the industry, including Masters Jeff McBride, Jason Byrne, and Vito Lupo. All were impressed with his unique talent and drive. Marc also trained with Brian Gillis, who is considered one of the most skilled performers of mentalism and illusion. Only a short while after beginning his magic, a talent scout discovered Marc and presented him at an internationally attended magic competition, where Marc won the Lance Burton Award of Excellence.
“This momentum propelled Marc to perform all over the world, including Aruba, Costa Rica, and Alaska, as well as for Fortune 500 companies. He has performed alongside top singers and entertainers, including Drake, Oz Pearlman, The Maccabeats, Miami Boys Choir, 8th Day, Avraham Fried, MBD, Lipa, Yeshiva Boys Choir, Baruch Levine, Simcha Leiner, Meilech Kohn, and more. He has also performed for hundreds of organizations including Aish, NCSY, Misaskim, Mekimi, Bonei Olam, A TIME, Ohr Naava, Klein’s Ice Cream, Chazaq, Macy’s, and Walt Disney.”
For more information and to book a show or event with Marc, visit MarcGarfinkel.com.
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