Could the real rabbi recruited to be in Drake’s new music video convince the mega-star to do something exceptionally Jewish?
Ari Sitnik thought he’d give it a shot—and that’s why he brought a pair of tefillin when he arrived on the set of the new music video called “Falling Back,” filmed on the last weekend of May at downtown Toronto’s legendary luxury hotel, the Fairmont Royal York.
Should there be a break in the action, Sitnik reasoned, he could politely urge Drake to perform the commandment of wrapping the leather straps of the phylacteries around his left arm and his head: a sign of devotion to God that rabbis of the Chabad movement seek out fellow Jewish men to do.
But a complicated shooting arrangement meant Drake didn’t hang around to chat after he heard his officiant recite his lines, about whether he agreed to be a good husband “according to our values” in this imaginary marriage to 23 women at once.
“The fact that he he just ran in and out was a bit of a barrier,” Sitnik told The CJN Daily podcast in an interview conducted June 17, the day the video was released in tandem with a surprise new Drake album, Honestly, Nevermind.
Sitnik appears for about 30 seconds in the nine-and-half minute clip—which quickly accrued millions of YouTube views. And the gig has catapulted Sitinik out of the obscurity of his stay-at-home job, handling IT support for a global company.
And, while he doesn’t have an agent yet, Sitnik is thinking about hiring one.
After moving from Brazil to the United States to attend yeshiva, Ari Sitnik followed his new bride to Toronto 26 years ago. But once receiving his ordination, he did not pursue the path of other rabbis in the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Sitnik, 52, does attend services at the Clanton Park Synagogue in Toronto, where he is the volunteer secretary.
A couple of times each year, Sitkin does some dabbling in show business—including as an extra, mainly without speaking parts. He was in the 2004 movie Crown Heights, shot in Toronto, which found funnyman Howie Mandel playing a Hasidic rabbi, opposite Mario Van Peebles as a youth leader. The docudrama tried to make a profound statement about Jewish-Black relationships.
More recently, Sitnik appeared in an episode of Nurses on Global Television in Canada, which was picked up for airing on NBC during the pandemic. The episode was pulled from digital distribution after accusations that its portrayal of observant Jews was antisemitic.
Other than that? “Some that were made for TV—but they were all background roles. Somebody sitting, a Jew crossing the street, a Jew in the crowd, a Jew in the synagogue. Nothing major.”
But it was a connection with Toronto event planner Jian Magen of Magen Boys Entertainment that paved the way to Drake.
For several summers before COVID, Magen donned pink tights to wrestle in Slammin’ for Shabbos. The annual event featured a mix of local athletes alongside other performers doing wrestling shtick, but also real WWE professionals like Colt Cabana. Proceeds went to support Tomchei Shabbos, a charity that delivers free food to needy Jewish families for Shabbat.
Sitnik played the rabbi role in the promotional videos—and even took part in the action in the ring.
“At one point, the wrestlers jumped on top of me. We cracked the table. I had to carry somebody to help him kiss the rear end of a camel. It was a ton of fun.”
So, his name was put forward to the “Falling Back” when Drake himself wanted a Jewish officiant—even if the generic ceremony had a floral canopy rather than a traditional Jewish chuppah.
Adam Rodness, the Toronto-based producer of Drake’s video, said he started searching for someone to play the rabbi part. But all the Jewish candidates turned him down because the shoot was scheduled for a Saturday.
After a number of rejections, Rodness resorted to scanning for men who played Santa Claus—until his producing partner Stu Stone mentioned a certain fixture of the backyard charity wrestling events. (Stone is also in the video on guitar behind Dan Finnerty, the lounge-act satirist who massacres Drake’s early hit “Best I Ever Had” during the celebration. Rodness plays bass.)
“I guess whoever else they had wouldn’t either be legit looking or somebody else might have been afraid,” said Sitnik. “And I’m not so afraid.”
What made him comfortable with the concept is that no official Jewish function would be involved.
There was no breaking of the glass, and no prayers recited. The only other slightly Jewish reference in the video was when Drake held a napkin while he danced with his brides. At one point, Drake put the napkin in his own mouth.
“That was all Drake, he wanted to do stuff that hasn’t been done before,” said Rodness, in reference to the post-nuptial party with laser lights that had the groom twerking on the dance floor.
While criticism from observant Jews who encounter this video is inevitable, Sitnik insists there was nothing Jewish about the gig.
“I think I made us all look good and in a positive light,” he said. “And the rest is Drake’s problem.”
‘Good for the Jews’
Moreover, he thinks that the decision to feature a rabbi rather than a priest or other clergy is ultimately good for the Jews.
“There wasn’t anything that portrayed Judaism in a negative light,” Sitnik added. “It just made it look a little nicer than what we are usually seeing in the media.”
By contrast, the Nurses episode in which an actor playing a religious Jew refuses a bone graft because it might have come from a pig or an Arab, is something that Sitnik found offensive. (He was unaware of the script until he watched to catch his own brief appearance at the end.)
Aubrey Drake Graham was born to a Jewish mother—Sandi, who also appears in the new video—and an African-American father, Dennis Graham. He grew up celebrating Jewish holidays and other traditions including a bar mitzvah at age 13.
The coming-of-age ceremony provided an inspiration for Drake’s prior music video channelling of his Judaism: “HYFR” was filmed at a synagogue with a cast of fellow rappers throwing a raucous party.
But officials at Temple Israel of Greater Miami later distanced themselves from the project, whose acronym stands for “Hell Ya Fucking Right.”
Behind the scenes
As for his latest turn before the cameras, Sitnik’s willingness to participate meant his part in the filming was moved from Saturday to Sunday, to accommodate observance of the Jewish Sabbath. The producers even arranged for kosher catering for him alone. It involved a delivery from a North York restaurant, The Chicken Nest.
The rabbi showed up wearing his own clothes including the traditional black hat and white shirt and black suit. But the wardrobe crew didn’t like his tie or shoes, so those things were replaced. (“I have one pair of Reeboks, that’s it.”)
They also arranged his long white beard for the filming—to make it look rounder.
Then after a quick discussion with producer Adam Rodness and director Julien “Director X” Lutz to work out how to improvise his lines, Sitnik found himself rehearsing the camera angles together with two stand-ins: one for Drake and the other for the Instagram model who would play the bride.
Or rather, the first bride on screen before 22 more are revealed after the rabbi calls out, “I now pronounce you husband and wives.”
While polygamy is not illegal in the Old Testament under certain circumstances, it is throughout Israel and many other countries.
Sitnik wasn’t present when the groom placed the 23 rings on his brides’ fingers. Hypothetically, that could have posed a sticky problem under Jewish law if one of the brides was Jewish themselves. (They weren’t).
Stinik recalled a case where the late American scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had to rule on whether a real wedding had taken place during the performance of a high school theatrical production of the play Children of the Ghetto, based on the book by Israel Zangwill. The actors had recited the ritual Hebrew words “Harei At Mekudeshet Li” and the actor slipped a ring on the bride’s finger, which made them married according to the religious rules.
Sitnik’s first peek at the finished product came on the same day as any other Drake fan, and he watched eagerly to see himself.
“I did not listen to the lyrics,” he insists, having the accurate hunch that some of the content wouldn’t pass muster in his circles.
While not personally a hip-hop fan, Sitnik says he knew who Drake was through his Canadian wife—who told him about the rapper getting his start in show business on the teen series Degrassi. The couple’s four kids also think the gig is cool—but they also only found out about it after it was released, due to a non-disclosure agreement.
Adam Rodness praises Sitnik for pulling off his global debut despite having no experience on this level, describing the rabbi’s arrival on the set as “kind of like a deer in the headlights”.
The producer has also not received any negative reaction from Jewish circles about the video. Nor does he expect any.
“We weren’t going for an Orthodox Jewish wedding. We were just showing a Jewish man getting married.”