Today in Black Jewish History Month, a bittersweet happy birthday to my friend, Yoseph Robinson.
Born and raised Chester “Cat” Robinson in Spanish Town, Jamaica, the foundations for Yoseph’s eventual transformation to Judaism were apparently laid long before he was even born: his paternal grandfather was a Sephardic Jew.
Raised by his grandmother Pearl until the age of twelve, Yoseph, like most of the island kids, thought of the United States as a kind of utopia. It was a fantasy come true when he and his two sisters were finally able to join his parents in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York in 1989. At the age of 12, he exchanged his slower-paced life of mango-picking, fresh water fishing, and swimming for an Americanized one filled with stylized clothes, girls, and worries about being cool enough.
Constant disobedience in school and a strained relationship with his parents during his teenage years led Yoseph to drop out of high school when he was just 16. Influenced by a group of older kids and in need of money, Yoseph entered the world of drug deals, street crime, and violence. His reckless lifestyle took him to the Bronx, Philly, and finally LA, where Yoseph set his sights on the Hollywood music scene.
Inspired by the models set by Jay-Z and Lil Wayne’s “Father”, avowed drug-dealers turned legitimate Hip-Hoppers, Yoseph became CEO of NO EXIT records. But by the time he was 23 years old, Yoseph knew he had to leave the affluent Hollywood scene behind in order to physically and mentally survive.
It was a series of flukes which formed the final leg of his journey to Judaism. A botched delivery of a plasma TV led him to take up reading. A book shopping excursion led to an accidental trip into a Judaica shop. A lack of knowledge between the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament led Yoseph to purchase a copy of the Old Testament because to him it sounded “more authentic”. Two and a half years later, in 1999, under the supervision of the Los Angeles Bet Din, Chester Robinson the mogul and streetrunner became Yoseph Robinson the Jew.
After deciding to become an Orthodox Jew, Yoseph dedicated his life to serving G-d and studying the Torah. While continuing his spiritual journey, Yoseph spoke about his experiences at numerous venues, including community events, college campuses and high schools. He hoped to inspire others in their commitment to Judaism while simultaneously strengthening his own.
Yoseph persevered through many highs and lows in his lifetime, but converting to Judaism continued to be his most challenging transition by far. His struggles, transformation, and experiences as a black Jewish man in the United States inspired Yoseph to write a book, which remained unfinished at the time of his death.
The book was not merely Yoseph’s autobiography, however. It was meant to be a platform to explore the relationship between Jews and blacks in the United States. Yoseph gave first hand accounts of the racial strains that exist in today’s Jewish community. He did not want to be seen as just another guy who spoke about religion, but as a man who inspired people to be the best human beings that they can be. He longed to be judged on his renewed character, not superficially by his skin color. He hoped his book would inspire a social movement to build a community between Jews and blacks, especially in the younger Generation X and Y demographics.
Tragically, Yoseph Robinson was taken too soon, heroically giving his life to protect another during a robbery. However, he will never be forgotten.
This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.