From the Twin Cities to the Holy City: The journey of L’Chaim OG
Zecharya Yishai Levine is a Minneapolis-born rapper, entrepreneur and yeshiva student who now calls Israel home
Several years ago, Zecharya Yishai Levine stood in front of the Milwaukee Beis Din, facing the rabbis he was hoping would put the final stamp on his conversion to Judaism.
“I said ‘hey, before you guys say something, I want to tell you something,” Levine recalled in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “‘I’m going to make aliya, I’m going to go to Israel, I’m going to learn in yeshiva. As long as whatever you’re going to tell me measures up with that, I’m in. If not, don’t waste your time.’”
The rabbis, Levine said, were quite taken aback by his pronouncement, especially since they were the ones used to giving orders. At the time, the Minneapolis native had never even stepped foot in Israel. But he was convinced that was the path he needed to follow.
Fast forward around four years, and Levine, 36, is a newly minted Israeli living in Jerusalem’s hipster-spiritual Nachlaot neighborhood, studying in yeshiva — having completed his conversion in Bnei Brak — and has just released an album of original songs titled “What’s the Hechsher?” under his stage name L’Chaim OG.
When Levine sets his mind to something, you don’t want to stand in his way. In fact, telling him “no” might be the best way to motivate him. After all, when a doctor told Levine he would never be able to play football due to the loss of his eye to cancer as a toddler, he was driven to take up the sport.
“I had to wear goggles and a protective shield,” he said. “But I played and I excelled.” He wound up receiving a football scholarship to the University of North Dakota, and set records as a linebacker for the team. Levine said his parents never made accommodations or gave him special treatment because of his eye. And the experience, he said, helped guide him through life.
“Having one eye, you have less peripheral vision, less focus on things that aren’t as important,” he said. You have “more [of a] requirement to just focus in on what’s real and really in front of you.”
In a white shirt, black pants, big black yarmulke, tzitzit swinging and a mask pulled down to his chin, Levine fits right in among Jerusalem’s eclectic residents. But few can probably say they took his circuitous and colorful path to getting there.
He was born Zachariah Ysaye Oluwabankole Babington-Johnson to religious Christian parents, the son of Reverend Alfred Babington-Johnson, a well-known figure in Minneapolis’s faith community. He grew up in a strict family — his mother was a teacher — and was raised to prize education, discipline and entrepreneurship. After graduating from college and pursuing his football dreams for several years, Levine decided to return to the University of North Dakota to receive his JD/MBA, though he never intended to practice as a lawyer.
“I’ve never lost an argument,” he joked. “I didn’t go to law school to be a lawyer — I went to law school to do more things in business.”
During a break from graduate school, Levine was back home in Minneapolis and went for a drive one Friday afternoon. “I started listening to this voice in my head that was directing me or guiding me,” he recalled. Levine said the voice sent him around town until he was told to stop in front of a synagogue in St. Louis Park, a heavily Jewish suburb of Minneapolis.
“When I say ‘voices’ for me it typically means God,” he said. Levine pauses for a beat. “But sometimes that scares people.” He recounts pulling open the door of the synagogue late on Friday afternoon, and hearing the voice of a man say: “If a man is asking God if he should prosper spiritually or prosper financially, the answer is both.”
That resonated with Levine, who picked up a Chumash from the shelves of the shul. “I had read the Bible pretty much cover-to-cover as a kid,” he said. But he immediately sensed that the book he was holding was “different… intellectually, spiritually” to the Bible of his youth. “This is what I’ve been looking for.”
The very next day, Levine said, he attended the wedding of a relative on his father’s side, where he encountered a family member with a large yarmulke and a Magen David necklace. His “Uncle Yosef” told him that their family migrated from Israel down to West Africa, something that shook Levine after his experience a day earlier. “He told me to read Tehillim facing northeast before the sun comes up in the morning,” Levine recalled. “That kind of set me off on a path.”
That eventually led him to intensive study for conversion to Judaism, and he began wearing a kippa and tzitzit and attending prayer services multiple times a day. “I just kept kind of plugging away on that path,” he said. Amid that process, he quit his job and started his own video game company, in part to enable his Jewish journey. “That was my path to being able to be more religious — because I had more flexibility.”
Over the course of the next year, “it became clear to me that I had to get to Israel and yeshiva and learn.” But he was too impatient to wait for his aliya paperwork to clear, and hopped on a plane in November 2018. He eventually landed at Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva in Jerusalem that caters to converts and Jews from secular backgrounds.
Within a few days of landing in Israel, Levine said, he met former NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire, who became his chavruta, or study partner. The pair had connected previously over social media, and ran into each other at the popular Jerusalem eatery Crave.
“Zecharya asked me if I wanted to go to yeshiva with him at Ohr Somayach, and I said for sure, no problem,” Stoudemire, whose Hebrew name is Yehoshaphat, told JI. Today, he said, the two learn together — these days via phone and Zoom — “almost every other day.”
They also spent the Passover Seder together, and study everything from Mishna to Kabbalah, the parsha and other Jewish texts.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to have a chavruta that has had a similar journey, similar background.” Stoudemire said. “It made it easier for me.”
Levine echoed that statement: “It’s dope obviously to have people who have a similar hunger for Torah and a similar background to encourage each other.”
The Minneapolis native has formed a crew of sorts in Jerusalem of those who have traversed a similar, unlikely journey. Along with Stoudemire, Levine has befriended the rapper Nissim Black and fellow U.S.-born convert Mordechai Yosef Ben Avraham, and introduced them to each other.
“I started a little group chat — I’m always a community guy, bringing people together,” Levine said. “We started kicking it, hanging out, learning Torah, growing from there, and started hitting our goals.” Stoudemire even starred in the new music video for Black’s song “Win,” released last month.
Levine briefly served as Black’s manager, and the two have built a strong friendship since Levine moved to Israel.
“He’s someone I admire a lot, just to see him overcome a lot in his own life,” Black told JI. “He’s like a brother to me.” During their time working together, Black said, “we realized that we gotta figure out how to conquer the world together.”
“They’re like family,” Levine said of his newfound crew. “Culturally we understand each other, we support each other. Everyone is genuinely covering their own ground.”
Music has always played a significant role in Levine’s life. His mother’s first cousin was Prince, the late singer-songwriter from Minneapolis, and he says he grew up surrounded by many musical influences. Levine’s debut album, “What’s the Hechsher?” was released in April, and includes tracks “Mishpacha” (“I’m related to everyone in the room, that’s mishpacha/ Learn to live life by the rules, that’s Halacha/ Hashem guided me to the truth, that’s a bracha”) and “Kol Beseder” (“Life of fulfilling mitzvas/ Before Shabbos I hit the mikva/ If I’m in Tzfat then that’s the Arizal/ Hashem been guiding me for longer than I can recall”).
The album is “kind of telling my journey, but also just introducing the spiritual concepts and things that I came across,” he said. The album’s name, Levine said, in part reflects the attitude and questioning that Jews of color often face: if they converted, how they converted, where they are from. People, he said, often wonder “‘what’s the hechsher [kosher certification] on that guy,” Levine said. “I thought it was a way of addressing that openly.”
Black, who currently lives in Beit Shemesh and has released several albums and multiple successful singles, said he is a fan of L’Chaim OG’s music and the humor present in his new album.
“Some people that may not know him well might think that this is ‘just another black Jewish guy rapping, using the rap stuff again,’” Black said. “For guys that know him, his personality is very much in his music — something that you don’t find with a lot of albums. He didn’t take away his humor,” Black pointed out, but “you really get to see his relationship to his Yiddishkeit, to his Judaism, through his music.”
Stoudemire said he’s also a big fan of the album, and has been promoting it on his own social media.
“I love it because it resonates with me,” the basketball star told JI. “I felt like it’s only right for me to share it with the world.”
Levine said he started writing the songs on his new album soon after the Jersey City attack in December, where a couple linked to the Black Hebrew Israelite group killed three people inside a kosher supermarket.
“I channeled some of that energy into some of the music,” he said, describing feeling “awkward” during the aftermath of the attack. Levine was visiting Brooklyn at the time of the shooting, which came amid heightened antisemitic violence in New York City and tensions between the Jewish and black communities.
“I went to Mincha that day and the entire synagogue is staring at me,” he said. “I was like whoa, everybody knows Shemoneh Esrei [part of the daily prayer] by heart,” he quipped. “They don’t even gotta look at their siddur.” But Levine said he used the moment to try and build relationships and break down “certain stigmas” in the Brooklyn Jewish community.
One conversation with Levine took place a few days after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis after a police officer pinned him to the ground by placing his knee on his neck. For Levine, the story represents much of what he was eager to escape from his upbringing in the city that has since become an epicenter for the anti-racist protests sweeping the country.
“It’s a crazy thing going on there right now,” he said. “It’s tough for me,” he added, though he said he is thankful to be feeling safe a world away. He said he has several friends who were killed by the police in Minneapolis over the years, and growing up, “I never viewed the police as allies.”
In the eight years since Trayvon Martin was killed, Levine said in a further conversation this week, police have repeatedly been let off the hook for causing the deaths of scores of black men. “If you’re telling people to trust the judicial system, I think there’s enough record to say ‘you’re probably going to go a different direction.’”
The protests, he said, “are a moment the world can really take a reflection on, ‘how am I treating people, am I being prejudiced? Am I focusing on my own feelings and views over those who are and have been experiencing this?’ If so, then you’re further exasperating the problem.”
His experiences of violence in Minneapolis, he said, partly drove his dream of settling down in Israel.
“I grew up in the hood,” he said. “In America, you’re a man of color, you’re a target… America is not the dream.”
His time in Israel, he said, has felt very different.
“Racism is to me defined as institutional and here in Israel I haven’t had those institutional experiences,” he said. While he acknowledges they may exist, “that hasn’t been my personal experience.”
“Have I experienced some prejudice? Some bias, some ignorance? Sure.” But Levine said he tries to focus on the positive interactions: “I’ve experienced a lot of love and welcoming and support and encouragement… someone just looking at me funny is not going to hurt my feelings.”