Out of the closet, looking for love

Y-Love, the first black Hasidic rapper, this week announced he was gay, risking the alienation of Orthodox fans. Here he talks for the first time about the community’s reaction and how he can be both observant and gay

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Yitz Jordan, also known as Y-Love, circa 2012. (Courtesy Schneur Menaker Photography)
Yitz Jordan, also known as Y-Love, circa 2012. (Courtesy Schneur Menaker Photography)

The coming out of black ex-Hasidic rapper Y-Love was the biggest news to hit the Jewish pop music world since Matisyahu took off his beard and declared that he was “reclaiming” himself.

Y-Love in Jerusalem (photo credit: courtesy Razvan Nidelea)
Y-Love in Jerusalem (photo credit: courtesy Razvan Nidelea)

Tuesday’s revelation of the Orthodox rapper’s unorthodox sexual orientation was first published in Out magazine. In an interview, Y-Love, 34, told the world for the first time that he no longer cares enough about his “public reputation” to remain in the closet and that he’s finally ready to “date in the light” and even find a husband, although he is aware he might alienate some Orthodox fans.

It’s understandable why Y-Love chose Out for his coming out: it’s one of the world’s biggest gay publications. And it worked — the news that Y-Love is gay has been widely reported in Jewish media. But the scoop should have been mine.

I first met Y-Love, whose real name is Yitz Jordan, when we studied together in a yeshiva in upstate New York. We became friends after discovering our mutual love for punk rock, a music style not very popular among your average East Coast yeshiva student. But it was not during one of the nights when we left the yeshiva to head for a punk show in the East Village that he shared his secret with me. It was actually a mutual friend who told me that Yitz was gay — a few hours after we had danced at Yitz’s wedding.

About four months later, right after his divorce, Yitz told me himself why the marriage he was pressured into by rabbis and matchmakers was doomed to fail from the start. It was then that he promised me that if he ever came out of the closet, I would be the first to write about it. (He wasn’t even famous back then, but he was an aspiring rapper and I was an aspiring journalist and it just seemed like the perfect deal for both of us.)

After his public coming out this week, Y-Love did share some “exclusive” thoughts with me — about how the Orthodox community reacted to the news and how he reconciles religious observance with homosexuality.

But let’s start at the beginning. Jordan, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and an Ethiopian father, grew up in Baltimore. Even at the age of seven, he was fascinated by Judaism and decided that one day he wanted to join the chosen people. After studying in Jerusalem and Brooklyn as a young adult, he finally converted in 2000. Attracted to the Hasidic world, he grew long side curls and donned a shtreimel, the traditional fur hat, and embarked on rabbinical studies.

Y-Love’s hip hop career started when he and his study partner figured out it’s easier to memorize Talmud passages in Aramaic when they are recited to a rap beat. That’s also why to this day his lyrics contain a good percentage of rhymes in Hebrew and Aramaic.

We were still in yeshiva when Y-Love had his first performances in downtown Manhattan, usually during open mic night at the now-closed Orange Bear bar. While full of enthusiasm, Yitz’s sound was actually awful. In the beginning, around 2001, Y-Love just freestyled. Without text, without background music. He just grabbed the mic and started spitting rhymes, about whatever came to mind.

But Y-Love never gave up. He worked tirelessly to improve his music and made a name for himself by performing at any Jewish venue that would have him. The Jewish media began to take notice of “the world’s first black Jewish MC” and when his first album, “This is Babylon,” debuted, publications and TV shows around the world featured the Hasidic rapper.

Truth is, by then Y-Love was no longer wearing his shtreimel, no longer willing to live by the restrictive ground rules of the Hasidic world. Over the years, Y-Love, who now lives in California where he works as a web developer, slowly moved away from the ultra-Orthodox world he at first tried so hard to woo with his songs, most of which had religious content.

Now considering himself Modern Orthodox, he even released a track in which he raps, full of heartache, that he broke up with his soul mate because his community was opposed to the match. The moral of the song was that he should have listened to his heart and not to his rabbis. Most people had no idea he was singing about a man.

This week, he finally took the plunge. In some scenes of his new video, “Focus on the Flair,” which came out at the same time as the article in Out, he appears in drag.

“So many conservative-minded hip-hop fans have listened to me to be their ‘voice of Jewish values’ for so long that I’m sure some will huff off in disgust at seeing the real me,” he said in his coming-out press release. While he pledged to keep on using “Jewish quotes,” he hopes that his former fans will be replaced “by fans who can truly appreciate the real me.”

Whether Y-Love’s new image will help him make new friends is still unclear but from what he told me on Wednesday, one day after his coming out, it seems that he’s getting more love than hate from the Orthodox community. “Honestly, while I have received some bad reactions from frum kids being disappointed, it’s like I said on Twitter, the ‘hate is batel b’shishim,’” he said, using a Talmudic expression meaning that the amount in negligible.

‘I have received a surprising amount of support from precisely the Orthodox fans I thought I would lose’

“Most of the negative responses are more due to my going in drag in the video than anything else — and of those which have been truly anti-gay, each anti-gay post is usually quashed by 100 supportive comments,” he said. “I have received a surprising amount of support from precisely the Orthodox fans I thought I would lose. While I did lose fans and friends, I’ve gained many more. From all walks of life, Jewish and otherwise.”

Like so many observants gays, Jordan used to live a double life. Does he still affiliate himself with Orthodoxy? “Honestly, to me now ‘being Orthodox’ has become more about doing mitzvot [religious commandments] for myself, for what I believe, for God — and not out of any communal obligation or responsibility,” he replies.

“I’ll never be ‘observant’ or ‘100%’ in the eyes of much of the kehilla,” he said, using the Hebrew word for community. Some Orthodox will always wonder how a person can consider himself to be Orthodox yet fully embrace his homosexuality, he added. Y-Love is happy for such people to think that he is “off the derech” — abandoned the faith.

“I’d rather people think that I ‘left the path’ than I was trying to redefine Orthodox in their framework,” he continued. “I do mitzvot, I celebrate holidays, I light candles — while I’m not as observant as I once was, I still do mitzvot. I still believe in God and Torat Moshe [the Bible of Moses] as much as I ever did. But for angry, questioning, frum naysayers — to them, I’m off the derech.”

‘I hope to be able to stand against this and to influence a new age of new halachic rulings which allow gay people to have fulfilling lives’

That said, Y-Love asserts that he just wishes for “a regular Jewish lifecycle, complete with bringing my husband to shul, raising our kids in Jewish schools.” He is not sure whether all of this will happen in an Orthodox community, but he does feel that Judaism’s position vis-à-vis homosexuality is not as black and white as some might think. After all, “It’s God’s will to be gay,” as he told Out.

Some rabbis have the intellectual capability to dissect even the most complex Talmudic passage, he said, but when confronted with the question of what a gay Orthodox Jew is supposed to do, they only know that “it’s forbidden.”

“Judaism has definitions for what ‘fire’ is, what ‘eating’ is, what ‘cooking’ is — yet for homosexuality, the prohibition covers everything from an orientation to a wedding equally?”

A “homophobic social agenda” often interferes with the rabbis’ ability to teach the Torah truthfully, says Y-Love. “I hope to be able to stand against this and to influence a new age of new halachic rulings, which allow gay people to have fulfilling lives.”

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