Matisyahu Keeps the Faith

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in Rolling Stone, April 19, 2005.

Live at Stubb’s, released today, sounds like the work of a Jamaican reggae star, so listeners may be surprised to discover that its creator is from Brooklyn . . . and that he’s a Hasidic Jew — replete with the signature black coat and hat and beard.

Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) became a fervent reggae fan as a rebellious teen. “I would meditate on the concepts that Bob Marley would sing about,” he recalls. “He was a person who was going against the stream. I would listen to his lyrics and relate them to my own life, my own searching.”

He was particularly inspired by Marley’s “Rastaman Live Up,” which features the couplet “Grow your dreadlocks/Don’t be afraid of the wolf pack/Keep your culture/Don’t be afraid of the vulture.” “At first

I thought that meant that culture is dreadlocks, culture is black — that’s what’s right and cool. But then I realized he was really saying, ‘Figure out your roots, and be true to them.’”

When a friend taught him how to beatbox, Matisyahu was immediately hooked. “I was never focused enough to learn an instrument,” the artist reveals, “but when I started beatboxing, it was the first time I was able to release all this music that was in me that up ’til then I had no outlet for . . . After that, my friends and I would skip school at lunch time and have hip-hop parties. I’d make the background music for everyone freestyling.”

After a soul-searching process that lasted nearly a decade, Matisyahu found himself drawn deeply into the world of Hasidism. Founded by a group of Jewish mystics rebelling against orthodox Judaism in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, this Jewish sect seemed a perfect match. “The concept of rules had never mixed with me — I was always running away from discipline,” he says. “At twenty-three or twenty-four, I was still struggling, not happy, stuck. As I started moving more into believing in God, the idea clicked with me that there have to be rules.”

Within two years, Matisyahu was donning Hasidic regalia and studying Jewish texts ten hours a day in a yeshiva, where he had to give up dating women and taking drugs, among other pastimes. In most Jewish communities, the artist explains, he had at best found people “searching for spirituality that made them feel good, without making any sacrifices. They wouldn’t go the extra step. The Hasidim were going the extra step. I met people who had come from hippie, free backgrounds, but who were wearing black suits and beards. They’d given everything, and that appealed to me . . . In the search for truth and God, Hasidim were the most serious and honest people I’d ever met.”

Now twenty-five and married, Matisyahu keeps kosher, prays three times a day, and observes the traditional Jewish Sabbath from Friday night sunset through Saturday night sundown. During this time of the week, according to tradition, he will not perform, use electricity, answer the phone or otherwise participate in most daily routines.

“He sticks to his virtues,” says D’niscio Brooks, an organizer of New York’s massive summer Reggae Carifest, which Matisyahu will headline. “When I first heard Matisyahu, I was taken aback, just at the thought of a Hasidic Jew doing reggae . . . but he’s so authentic.”

“He can really rip,” agrees hip-hop producer and bassist Yossi Fine (David Bowie, Me’Shell Ndege-Ocello), who is himself part Israeli and Afro-Jamaican Jew. “He’s extremely fierce, jumping around the stage. The only difference between him and a Jamaican rapper is that he takes the lyrics from the Bible instead of from Rasta. He changes ‘Jah’ to ‘Hashem’ [Hebrew for God].”

Tracks such as “King Without a Crown” display Matisyahu’s unique spiritual flow: “Hashem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe/Out of darkness comes light, twilight unto the heights/Crown Heights burnin’ up all through ’til midnight/Said thank you to my God, now I finally got it right/And I’ll fight with all of my heart, and all a’ my soul, and all a’ my might.”

“Normally, Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jews create enclaves of their own, to escape the secular world,” says Aaron Bisman, Matisyahu’s manager and head of JDub records, which released Matisyahu’s first album, Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise. “But he walks proudly in both, and brings a different take on Judaism out into the world — one that has rhythm, a groove, and a message.”

“If this is going to be a real thing, it has to be a lifestyle,” Matisyahu says of his faith, “a constant thing, all the way, completely integrated into everyday life.”

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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