Soul Jew

U.S.-born Yehuda Menashe brings color to the Hasidic music world

Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae star, created a small sensation when he conquered the world's music charts a few years ago. This year, the budding career of Yehuda Menashe Patterson - dubbed by Channel 2 as "the first black Hasidic music star" - seems to be no less of an achievement.

Having grown up in a middle class, African-American family in North Carolina and Ohio, Yehuda, 20, used to be a regular churchgoer. Today, five years after his entire family converted to Judaism, he uses his soulful voice to sing classical Hasidic tunes in Hebrew and Yiddish.

"I don't see myself as giving the music a black touch, I only see myself as singing," he told Anglo File during a recent interview in Jerusalem's Diaspora Yeshiva, where he lives and studies. "I am singing the way I do because that's just the way I'm singing. Some people told me: You'd make a good rabbi for the black community. I said not necessarily, I'm for all Jews. If you're Jewish you're Jewish, it doesn't matter if you're black or white."

Yehuda, who in March officially became an Israeli citizen, says he feels at home in Israel's Haredi circles, although he adds that children are sometimes scared of him and policemen stop him more often than others. Even grown-up Haredim periodically startle when they see him, he says. Once he "freaked out" a woman so much that she "almost jumped to the side of the road," he recalls. "If they're close-minded people, that's what happens. Believe it or not, that's normal. Do I agree with it? No, and I do complain about it. People should [have] more respect for Hashem's creations. Who made a person black or white? The Holy One, blessed be He, did."

Aside from this occasional bewilderment, the community by and large accepts him, says Yehuda, who hopes to find a wife. As soon as people see he is serious about living an Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, his color becomes irrelevant, he assures.

"After only a couple years in yeshiva this gentleman converted, learned Torah, Yiddish music, become fluent in Hebrew and is unbelievably simchadik," a talkbacker commented on an online article about Yehuda, using the Yiddish word for joyful. "Clearly he has a very special neshama [soul]. Let that be an inspiration to us all." Another person admired that Yehuda "sings from the heart," adding he "definitely has potential with a bit of voice training. He's a diamond in the rough."

With rising prominence, Yehuda has started taking money for his performances but can still not fully support himself with his music. Yehuda avoids discussing his future career plans, but his manager, Moshe Kornfeld, revealed he is currently preparing the release of his debut disc.

Reflecting on his journey so far, Yehuda says he sees himself as a man on a mission: uniting the Jewish people. "I have seen many different kinds of Jews: religious secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Hasidim and [non-Hasidic] Haredim - and everyone is in their own little shell," he says. "I feel there has to be more holiness in the way people get along. Since I converted and discovered I could sing, I felt I had an obligation to use this to lift up Klal Israel (Jewish unity)."