Left: Nathaniel Solomon at Chabad House Berkeley (Photo/Andrew Esensten). Right: Obi Clark at Temple Beth Abraham. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Left: Nathaniel Solomon at Chabad House Berkeley (Photo/Andrew Esensten). Right: Obi Clark at Temple Beth Abraham. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Meet two local Jews whose paths to Judaism went through Rastafari

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Rastafari is an Afrocentric religious movement founded in Jamaica in the 1930s, following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as emperor of Ethiopia. Rastafarians identify as descendants of the ancient Israelites, worship one God (Jah) and feel a special connection to Zion — which will sound familiar to Jews. But unlike Jews, they consider Selassie (known as Ras Tefari Makonnen before his coronation) to be either the messiah or a prophet.

Rastafarian scriptures include the Bible and the Kebra Nagast, a 14th-century Ge’ez epic containing stories about the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. There are an estimated 1 million Rastas living around the world, including in Jamaica and in southern Ethiopia on land that Selassie set aside for the movement.

Of course, Rastas are also known for wearing dreadlocks and popularizing reggae music. To mark the release this week of “Bob Marley: One Love,” a biopic about perhaps the most famous Rastafarian, J. spoke with two local Black Jews who found their way to Judaism through Rastafari.

Obi Clark: “Growing up Rasta, I already had some affinity with Judaism”

Every time Obi Clark has experienced a hardship in life, the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers has helped him get through it.

“When I was growing up, Bob Marley was looked up to as a prophet — not even just as a Black man, but as a higher man and a man that strove to be on a higher vibration in life,” says Clark, a chef and community organizer who lives in Oakland. His favorite Marley song? “Exodus.”

Raised in West Oakland by a Rastafarian mother and a Black Sunni-Muslim father, Clark spent his childhood immersed in Black pride. He attended school with the children of Black Panther members and joined African drum circles at Lake Merritt.

“It was a whole fusion of Black culture that I grew up in,” he says. “Rastafarianism is what I gravitated to out of all of that because I’m musically inclined.”

In the late 1990s, Clark began to sell drugs and then spent six years in a California prison for his involvement in a robbery. While incarcerated, a Tunisian Jewish cellmate taught him about Judaism. Though he wouldn’t formally convert for another 15 years, Clark began identifying as Jewish and had an Eritrean inmate tattoo a Star of David on his chest.

“I considered myself a Jew, regardless of the fact I wasn’t halachically acknowledged yet,” Clark says. “Growing up Rasta, I already had some affinity with Judaism because that’s what we’d talk about. We’d talk about Zion. We’d talk about righteousness.”

Clark, 39, has been free for 17 years now, but like many formerly incarcerated people, his journey since has not been easy. He has battled addiction, experienced homelessness, raised a child with special needs, gone through a divorce, been a single dad and struggled with mental health issues.

Eventually he found his calling as a chef and attended culinary school with help from the Bread Project, a job-training organization in Berkeley. Then, in 2017, he relapsed. He had to stop working in the restaurant industry and got a job as a custodian at Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative congregation in Oakland. It was a refuge for him, he says, and helped him get his life back on track.

Obi Clark at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Obi Clark at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“I was ashamed because I was still fighting my addiction,” Clark says. But everyone at the synagogue, including Rabbi Mark Bloom and his wife, Karen Bloom, are “the best because they accepted me for who I was, even before I got myself cleaned up. Temple Beth Abraham means everything to me because I went from cleaning the toilets and cleaning dishes to being considered a Jew and carrying the Torah on Shabbat.”

Clark formally converted through Beth Abraham in 2019. In the years since, he has returned to his career as a chef. He has also worked on different creative projects, hosting a music podcast that features upcoming artists from around the world and recording a spoken word album.

In January, he helped launch a new Oakland branch of Herut North America, a pro-Israel nonprofit that promotes aliyah and works to unify Zionists in the U.S. through educational programs and activism.

“I had no idea that my life would end up at this point in time, but I’m not surprised,” says Clark, who wears his hair in dreadlocks. “And really, I’m relieved, because I knew my life had a purpose. But I just didn’t know when it was going to manifest itself. And I see now, on HaShem time. Now my time has come.” — Lea Loeb

Nathaniel Solomon: “I like davening with the frum community”

“Sometimes you’ve got to stumble a few times to fall into the right path,” says Nathaniel Solomon, a yoga instructor who lives in the East Bay. Today, as a self-described “lover of Torah, mitzvos and HaShem,” he feels he is on that path.

Solomon grew up in Virginia and was involved in D.C.’s alternative music scene in the 1980s. He met Rastafarians who were also involved in that scene and started growing dreadlocks at 15. After moving to the Bay Area in his 20s, he befriended an acolyte of Ras Pidow, a Jamaican-born member of the reggae group Rastafari Elders. Solomon and the friend studied the Bible and the Kebra Nagast together.

“I rejected the Bible when I was young,” says Solomon, 51. “He helped me start to read the Bible from a place where I was receptive.”

In the spring of 1997, Solomon traveled to Jamaica to visit Bob Marley’s birthplace and connect with the Rastas there. One of the highlights of the trip was the Nyabinghi, a traditional gathering where “they light fires and beat on drums and chant Bible verses,” he says. “It was a good time.” Solomon demurs when asked about the use of ganja, or marijuana, as a sacrament in Rastafarian culture.

Nathaniel Solomon (left) at the Bob Marley Church and Mausoleum in Nine Mile, Jamaica, April 1997. (Photo/Courtesy)
Nathaniel Solomon (left) at the Bob Marley Church and Mausoleum in Nine Mile, Jamaica, April 1997. (Photo/Courtesy)

His interest in Judaism was piqued by a former girlfriend who introduced him to her family’s Jewish traditions and taught him the alef-bet. He completed his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, studying Near Eastern history and Hebrew. One year, during the High Holidays, he dropped in on a service hosted by Chabad at a Berkeley hotel. He says he woke up the next day with Avinu Malkeinu stuck in his head.

“When I got around the Hebrew energy and the tunes, it was very moving for me,” he says. That set him on the path to converting and embracing an Orthodox lifestyle. “I like davening with the frum community,” he says. “There’s a spirit there that is right and true. They’re on target.”

His love of reggae, with its messages about the Exodus and returning to Zion, inspired him to make aliyah with his son in 2011. He was accepted into a rabbinic program in Jerusalem and explored the local reggae scene.

“Reggae is big in Israel,” he says, noting that Marley’s son, Ziggy, is married to an Israeli woman.

Ultimately, Solomon decided to leave his program and move back to the U.S. His experience in yeshiva, where students sit for long periods of time engrossed in text study, and his own health challenges motivated him to take up yoga.

“If you don’t have a healthy body, you can’t keep the commandments like you want to,” he says. He became a licensed instructor in Kundalini yoga, a style that incorporates chanting and breathing exercises, and has taught around the Bay Area. He currently offers private yoga, meditation and sound healing sessions.

A regular at Chabad Berkeley, Solomon feels grateful to Rabbi Yehuda Ferris and his wife, Miriam Ferris, for embracing him and his son, Hodi, who celebrated his bar mitzvah last year. Solomon no longer wears dreads — he cut them off during the Covid-19 pandemic in hopes of a fresh start — but he says he still has a lot of love for Rasta people and listens to reggae. His favorite Bob Marley songs are “Zimbabwe” (“Every man got the right to decide his own destiny”) and “Iron Lion Zion.”

“The message is very inspiring and uplifting for me,” he says, “especially during these times when things are so balagan,” the Hebrew word for messy. — Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.

Lea Loeb
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lea Loeb

Lea Loeb is engagement reporter at J. She previously served as editorial assistant.