With his long hair and career as a rapper, Ari Lesser is not the typical Orthodox Jew. But his subject matter isn’t traditional rap material, either.
Lesser, who moved to the Valley last year, is best known for his piece “Boycott Israel,” a video that calls out the hypocrisy in the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement; namely, that people who want to condemn Israel for its actions should also boycott the dozens of countries around the world who are committing human-rights violations, countries that include Cambodia, Syria, Brazil and even the U.S.
Lesser grew up culturally Jewish in Ohio; he had a bar mitzvah at a Reconstructionist synagogue and attended an experimental Jewish high school for a couple of years, but by the time he reached the University of Oregon, “I was not really practicing at all,” he says, although he did take a class called “Israel-Palestine” that opened his eyes to the level of anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
“I consider myself to be somewhat liberal, but I went there and I was the right-wing nutjob in the class. It was so biased, it was crazy,” he says. “Every other Jewish student dropped this class. I had to stay in it just to be a voice of reason.”
Lesser pursued his passion for music while earning a degree in political science; after graduating, he was working in the music industry in Los Angeles when his interest in Judaism was kindled through the Psalms.
“I related to King David as a songwriter,” he says. He began to turn the Psalms into raps (a project he is still working on and is about one-third finished with), and was struck both by the immediacy conferred by the first-person voice and by the realization that the intended audience of the Psalms, God, was with him as he worked.
“That was kind of a very eye-opening thing to just connect me to God in such a direct way. ... That definitely changed my course in life for sure,” he says.
Three years into his “Jewish journey,” as he calls it, Lesser went on a Birthright Israel trip, a singular experience that came at just the right time.
“I easily could have gone when I was 18, and I would not have really appreciated it the same way, so I’m really grateful I didn’t go earlier,” he says. He stayed in Israel for almost a year and studied in a yeshiva.
Lesser and his wife, Miriam, were married in 2014 and moved to Phoenix so they could be close to her family when their first child, Samson, was born.
He has a number of projects he’s working on; he is in the process of rhyming the siddur, and he is also working on making a short rap for every animal on earth.
“I do it in my show, I’ll ask the audience to pick an animal, and I’ll rap about whatever they name. I have about 160 different animals, and the more I do my show, the more I see what animals are in the collective unconscious that people ask for and try to write something for those ones,” he says.
His political raps are still what he is best-known for. Last summer, during Operation Protective Edge, Lesser released “Hamas,” a rap that essentially said: It’s OK to not like Israel, but don’t think that Hamas are the good guys.
“There was a lot of worldwide animosity toward Israel going on at that point,” he says. “It was like, ‘How dare Israel do these atrocious acts?’ People forget that Israel is fighting a very real enemy that’s dangerous and is out to harm Israeli citizens and has openly declared that. It’s not a secret. You want to criticize Israel? Fine. But don’t forget about the other side.”
It’s the same message Lesser tried to convey in “Israel Apartheid,” which served a double purpose, Lesser says; he wanted it to highlight the hypocrisy of the BDS movement but also call attention to the suffering of people all around the world. Although he got some hate mail for the song, he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback.
“It was so successful because it didn’t just hit the pro-Israel crowd,” he says. “It really even appealed to people with a very liberal mindset, which is the goal, because that’s who’s on college campuses, that’s who you’re trying to convince. ... You can be very informative and very accurate, and at the end of the day, if all it does is preach to the choir, it doesn’t really touch the people who need to be affected.”
Watch Ari Lesser's newest video, filmed in Sedona, here.