By Yehuda Sugar
Jewish rapper sensation Ari Lesser (referring to himself more humbly as a spoken word artist), who made his entrée a decade ago into a serious Torah lifestyle with the help of Tsfat’s baalei teshuva Yeshiva Temimei Darech [thewayinside.org], will return to Tsfat on Lag BaOmer to headline at the yeshiva’s 3rd Annual One Flame Festival.
An added element of momentousness is sure to fill the air next Wednesday night as Lesser went on in the years after his yeshiva experience to build an international audience through scores of live appearances and the development of a dedicated social media following. His videos advocating for Eretz Yisroel, on Jewish festival themes and some 200 creative animal raps have rung up millions of views, with rhyming translations of Pirkei Avot, Tehillim and parts of the Siddur bolstering his appeal among frum audiences.
He will be the top-billed musician at the event the night of Lag BaOmer, preceded by the local Shefa Band and the yeshiva’s own “Kabbalah Dream Orchestra,” launched by its director, Rabbi Shalom Pasternak, jazz pianist-turned-rabbi and fiery teacher of Chassidus par excellence.
“The One Flame Festival, especially with Ari at the “mic,” is the fulfillment of our yeshiva’s desire to integrate authentic Chassidic devotion with an honest and raw expression of individuality,” Pasternak, 45, said. “It should be a night to remember.”
The concert will be held on the plaza and natural amphitheater, Maayan Haradum, in the heart of the city’s Artist Colony section. Fire-juggling, a live art show and food and drink will round out the program, to begin at 8:30 p.m. after Maariv and a bonfire lighting. Tickets are available on a donation basis at the website: https://tinyurl.com/2p86azax.
The festival marks the day of the passing of 2nd century Kabbalist and Talmudic giant Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer count, and the day a plague ended that claimed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. The event began four years ago (skipping a year due to Corona) as a well-suited match for the yeshiva’s curriculum of pnimius and revealed Torah.
Already by last year’s program, Tsfat Mayor Shuki Ochana took to the stage to herald the event as a “Tsfat tradition” no less in the city known as the Kabbalah capital of the world.
Lesser, 35, went from high school and college rapper focused mainly on themes of sustainability and social justice to purveyor of mainly Jewish themed music as a direct result of his yeshiva experience. A seed was planted a few years before, however, when after graduating from the University of Oregon as a political science major, he was residing at a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary that doubled as a Rastafarian ministry where a copy of the book of Tehillim caught his eye. He became entranced with it along with its author, Dovid HaMelech.
It was a Birthright trip that brought him to Israel for the first time and eventually to the yeshiva’s doorstep in 2012, about three years after the yeshiva’s founding. Though knowledgeable in the Tanach, Lesser had almost no exposure to the oral tradition or Jewish law upon entry. A year or so at the yeshiva, known for its warm and penetrating educational style, helped fill in all the gaps. The yeshiva maintains a similar atmosphere today, with a seasoned crew of young shluchim on board and the addition of a Semicha program for more advanced learners.
Married and the father of three boys based in Beachwood, Ohio, Lesser still travels the world performing and speaking annually at hundreds of high-profile events, having collaborated over the years with artists ranging from Gad Elbaz, C Lanzbom and Lipa Schmeltzer and performing with the likes of Nissim Black, the Moshav Band and Zusha.
Asked to comment on the upcoming event, Lesser, in his inimitable hyper-creative style, dashed off a short rap on the Lag BaOmer holiday:
“It’s Lag BaOmer so leave your home
Like Rebbi Shimon on Mount Meron
Don’t stay and hide in your cave go play
With your friends outside, it’s a beautiful day
Shoot your bow and arrow up in the sky
Get high on Torah like Bar Yochai
Light your bonfire, and pull an all nighter
On the yartzeit of the Zohar’s writer.”