Ari Lesser has been writing and performing songs since he was a student at Cleveland Heights High School.
The singer, songwriter, rapper and spoken-word artist has performed all over the world and has written hundreds of songs on a wide range of subjects. But in recent years, Lesser’s focus and passion have been making music based on the Torah.
“After college, someone gave me a book of the psalms, and when I started to read through it, I thought they would make pretty cool raps,” the 2004 Heights High graduate said in a telephone interview from his home in Phoenix.
“But the more I worked with them, the more it connected me with G-d and with my roots and made me more interested in Torah. So I definitely credit the psalms and King David, creator of the psalms, with bringing me closer to Yiddishkeit, Judaism and Torah.”
Lesser, 29, will be the featured performer at the Jewish Unity Concert at 2 p.m. Feb 14 at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood.
A 2008 graduate of the University of Oregon, where he majored in political science, Lesser is the son of Susan Wolpert and Raymond Lesser, owners of the Funny Times, a humor newspaper based in Cleveland Heights.
Now an Orthodox Jew who is affiliated with Congregation Zemach Zedek in Cleveland Heights, Lesser said he was raised as a Reconstructionist and attended services at Kol HaLev, now in Pepper Pike.
“With my music, I focus on the content first and then work out the music,” he said. “I write all the lyrics, but I don’t play any instruments, so I collaborate with other people on CDs, including my dad. He plays guitar and banjo, and we have recorded a couple acoustic CDs together.”
Lesser’s best-known song is “Boycott Israel,” a 2013 rap song that has received more than 400,000 views on YouTube. Here Is Israel, a group dedicated to stopping the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Israel, commissioned him to write it.
“It’s a really hot-button subject right now, especially on U.S. college campuses,” he said. “There’s a big movement to paint Israel as the villain, and the BDS movement has become a very well-known and powerful voice against Israel.
“I have been to Israel and I have seen so much good there; it’s such an incredible place. So I find it hypocritical that there is this enormous movement against Israel, which has one of the best governments there is, yet there is no international movement against so many of these nations that are so much worse.”
At the Jewish Unity Concert, Lesser said, his performance will include “a good mix of stuff related to Torah, prayer, Israel and maybe some raps about animals.”
“I hope to provoke some thoughts and share some of my ideas and have a lot of fun, too,” he said. “I hope it will inspire people to appreciate their own roots and look deeper into their own tradition.”
Lesser and his wife, Miriam Emuna, have a son, Shimshon Moshe, 1. He said they plan to move back to the Cleveland area by this summer.
WHAT: Jewish Unity Concert featuring Ari Lesser
WHEN: 2 p.m. Feb. 14
WHERE: Mandel Jewish Community Center, 26001 S. Woodland Road, Beachwood
COST: $10 adults, $5 children. Part of proceeds to benefit Cleveland Torah Recovery Center.
INFO: Attendees asked to enter via the door closest to Stonehill Auditorium.