He isn’t a rabbi in the typical sense of the word, but David Lazerson is nevertheless known as the “Rappin’ Reggae Rabbi.”
Because since the 1970s, he’s developed a reputation as an internationally-celebrated musician and educator acclaimed for his work with special needs students in gritty, inner-city schools.
“The word ‘rabbi’ just means ‘teacher,'” he said. “In a way, it fits in good with my career.”
His career has been all over the place. He’s performed before Congress, at Woodstock reunions, even with the Grateful Dead.
He got his reputation for rap and reggae by using those musical forms to reach special needs kids in inner city Buffalo in the ’70s and ’80s. It was their music, he said, so it became his music.
“Back in those days, I used rap to help teach reading and even math,” he said. “And then I started writing rap tunes about racial harmony.”
He’s an expert on that subject, too. The movie “Crown Heights,” starring Howie Mandel as Lazerson, recounts his role in healing race relations after the 1991 race riots in Brooklyn.
Lazerson will be the keynote speaker at Sunday’s annual Chabad at the Beaches dinner in Florida. The Times-Union talked to him by phone Thursday.
It takes quite an effort to comprehend your career. How do you describe yourself and what you do?
I like to think of it all as a work in progress. ‘Getting better all the time,’ as the Beatles used to sing. I thank God for all of the blessings in my life.
How did you get into all these different forms of music?
I’ve always loved music. As a kid, my parents would always have on these great jazz musicians. They made sure we all got music lessons. My sisters and I were all initially forced to play piano. Then my parents gave in and let me take drum lessons. … They’d take me to different concerts and cultural events.
How did you come to play with the Grateful Dead?
I was in the right place at the right time. That was a total fluke. … I was on stage at the end of their concert they did in Buffalo, playing percussion with probably 20 other college students. The drummer just dropped off the chair. He was high as a kite, just laughing and stuff. I picked up the drumsticks and played for seven to eight minutes. That would have been 1971. It’s a pretty wild story.
Is there a spiritual dimension to the music, even the rap?
In Hasidic terms, how the Torah refers to music, it’s called the language of the soul. It makes these deep, inner connections for people. … Music is a great way to reach people and to teach people. I try to reach out to Jews and Gentiles with that message – to be proud of who you are and to do positive things with your life.
What’s your talk going to be about Sunday night?
I’m going to share stories from when I taught in the inner city. My day job is working with special ed kids, which is one of my loves. I’ve seen what music can do for that population. It’s just phenomenal.
How does music help in a teaching situation?
A kid can be in a vegetative state. You play music, give them an instrument to hold or a switch that will operate a percussion instrument or lighting effect, it just turns on a light for them. … I’ve learned from my students. They’ve taught me … a lot of fundamental lessons that I take to heart.