50 Shekel, whose real name is Aviad Cohen, 30, made a name for himself with his hit "In da Shul," his spoof on gangster rapper 50 Cent's single "In da Club." Cohen gained popularity with gigs around New York in 2003. At the time, he told Beliefnet he wanted to rap about Judaism. "'In da Club' inspired me to do something with rap," he said. "50 Cent talks about what he knows. I choose to talk about what I know."
Raised an observant Jew in Israel and Brooklyn, Cohen told Beliefnet in 2003 that he was in the process of becoming closer to the Torah and orthodoxy. "Judaism is what made me--all the values and ethics that the Torah teaches," he said. "That's something that's been evident in my life.
But he has now chosen to lead a Messianic Jewish lifestyle.
Messianic Jews, like Christians, believe that Jesus (or as they refer to him, Y'Shua) was the expected Messiah. Though they claim to be following the true Judaism, mainstream Jews are nearly unanimous in rejecting the idea that Messianic Jews are Jewish, and many believe them to be Christians intentionally targeting Jews for conversion.
Cohen says his change of heart was divinely inspired.
"This random morning I woke up to pastors speaking on the radio, and they were speaking about Old Testament stuff," says Cohen. "I didn't set my alarm, I didn't set it to that station."
This experience, Cohen believes, was a sign from God that he should have enough "matzoh balls" to explore Christianity.
After that, Cohen watched Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," and immediately became fascinated with Jesus. It was then, he says, that he "came to faith." "After seeing 'The Passion,' my mouth was wide open for about 20 minutes straight," Cohen says on his website. "I was shocked... Jesus was the messiah! Messiah is moshiach The Anointed One that we've all been waiting for. This movie is not anti-Semitic. I have just fallen in love with God."
Cohen, who has been practicing Messianic Judaism for about 10 months but just let fans know about his new faith several weeks ago, believes accepting "Jesus into his heart" makes him a "true Jew."
"A lot of people are stuck in [Microsoft] Windows 98," he says. "The New Testament is Windows XP. It's 2005. I have no interest in Windows 98. I upgraded. This is where we're supposed to be right now. I am a true Jew on course."
"Jews don't believe in Jesus because he inspired a religion that seeks to cut us loose from the covenant God made with us at Mt. Sinai," he says. "The New Testament rejects the Torah as 'obsolete,' a 'curse,' a 'captor.' That covenant is the grammar of our relationship with God. Without it, we lack the language to relate to Him as Jews. So a Jew who believes in Jesus has given up his relationship with God."
Klinghoffer also thinks there is something strange about Cohen's conversion.
"There are a lot of question marks about his story," Klinghoffer said. "It's not an ordinary conversion. It's not transparent and leaves bizarre questions. It's got to make anybody skeptical."
He says that Cohen's posture is unusual for someone with a Jewish background.
"He puts Jews in a light that only someone who has had very little exposure to Jews could put them in," Klinghoffer says. "It's like it's been filtered through a Christian scrim that Christians are comfortable with if they've had no contact with Jews."
Although Cohen holds that he has had a yeshiva education and an Orthodox upbringing, Klinghoffer, however, is unsettled.
"It would be like someone who went from being a Christian to being someone with a website for all different kinds of citations from the Lubavitch Rebbe," Klinghoffer said, referring to the late-Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidism sect who died in 1994. "There's a level of Christian literacy that I don't see how someone could have acquired within ten months."
Cohen maintains he is still Jewish and says that people who disagree are not following what God wants from them.
He says Jews tend to be more biased against Jews becoming Christians than against Jews who explore other religions.
"If I became a Buddhist, Jews wouldn't care. They would probably think I'm spiritual and edgy," he says. "If I became a palm-reading-astrologer-Kabbalist, they would cheer and think I'm hip. But now that I have come into the arms of God, they are freaking like crazy, cause they know I'm sold out to God and His Annointed Son and no longer sold on 'Judaism.'"
But Cohen's fans may wonder not only what his shift will mean for his religious life and place in the Jewish community, but also what it might mean for his music. In the past, he rapped about praying in temple, with lyrics like "you can find me in da shul, praying after school/ I'm just into making peace, I ain't into causing trub/ so come give me a hug if you're into getting love."
But he says those kind of lyrics don't fit his current belief system. "People love these Jew-pride anthems and that's not what G-d wanted for me," he says. "I didn't want to sell out."
Some of Cohen's new songs, which can be found on his website, embrace his newfound belief. In "Fallen World" Cohen sings, "I was saved by the Son washed away by His blood/ In a fallen world drowned by sin/ No more lost start again now reborn live for Him/ and my life's never been the same."
Cohen believes it is his responsibility to share what he sees as the truth with the Jewish community. "It ain't easy being the true Jew on the block," he says. "I'm a sinner like anyone else, just like Adam from Genesis. Y'Shua was the last sacrifice. I asked Him for forgiveness and my sins were atoned for."
He doesn't seem concerned about his fan base, either. Richard Dukas, the president of Dukas Public Relations, an agency that represents national Jewish organizations that appeal to the 18-25 year old demographic, agreed that Cohen's coming out as a Messianic Jew isn't likely to hurt his career.
"From a pure marketing point of view it seems to be a good move because there's a much larger evangelical/Christian audience than there is a Jewish audience," Dukas said. "The fact that he's become a Messianic Jew could play well in the evangelical community because evangelicals, while they're not all out there trying to bring Jews to their faith, it certainly is part of their mission."
Craig Taubman, the owner of California-based production company Craig n' Co, says that there are other Jewish hip-hop artists to fill the role left by 50 Shekel.
"The hip-hop scene is very alive and well and is not dependent on the whims and fancies of any one artist," Taubman said. "I do not think it is the demise of the Jewish hip-hop scene, or even close."
Taubman is the producer of "Celebrate Hip-Hop" a compilation of Jewish hip-hop worldwide that includes tracks by Mook E., Solomon & Socalled, Etan G. and the Hip Hop Hoodios. "There are plenty of other Jewish hip-hop artists," Taubman said. "I do not think it is a huge loss."
Regardless of the stir Cohen has caused in the hip-hop-loving Jewish world, he still likes to use the Jewish jargon that made him a success. "I just want to Jew the right thing," he says. "And walking with Jesus is definitely Jewing the right thing."