In the journalism trade, there is dependable genre we call the "quirky" story. Editors love them because our readers do: they offer a churlish delight in the abnormal, the strange, the off-beat. For the most part, they’re harmless, fun throw-away stuff that lend a respite from the otherwise moribund front-page fare.
But occasionally the quirk-story is not so innocent. They overstep the bounds of mere curiosity in order to play into our ignoble instincts. A case in point is The New York Times story this Thursday — high atop the "most popular" stories list today — that profiles a black rapper, Shyne, who recently became a Hasid.
The story is about Shyne, the hip-hop star who was in jail for ten years after being convicted of the notorious New York City shooting that nearly imprisoned P. Diddy. Shyne has now moved to Israel (he’s not allowed in the States) and become a deeply devout Jew.
The Times’ story itself plays it straight enough: Dina Kraft, the journalist, allows Shyne’s his reasons: “What I do get is boundaries,” he tells Kraft. “Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself."
Kraft reports that his interest in Judaism dates back to his teenage years, though it was only in prison (he’s now 32), that he became a full-bore Hasid. Today, he scurries to the Western Wall, raps himself in tefillin, and sprinkles his speech with words like "neshamah" (soul), "chumash" (bound Torah), and "halakha" (religious law).
So what’s my problem? Simple: the story quite obviously plays into our prejudices, about both the ultra-orthodox and black Jewish converts. Let’s not kid ourselves, we are not interested in this story because a troubled man found stability in religion — those stories are obvious and everywhere, which is to say, no one really cares.
But a piece about a black rapper quoting the Talmud? Now that’s a story!
To be sure, I have no problem with papers running tough stories on the religious — and the Times does a good job doing it, particularly in Israel, where they wield too much power than they should. But there are limits. And I do not see how Shyne’s story tells us anything useful about Hasids.
If the aim is to show that many Hasids become religious after some personal struggle, fine. But how about you tell that story through a more representative example? A hip-hop celebrity is not one. (Nor is a pro-basketball star, pace the Times’ Amar’e Stoudemire story this past summer.)
This kind of thing is not only demeaning to the ultra-orthodox, but to black converts, too. Please, enough.