Ultra-Orthodox Bob Marley
Video: Not too many concerts draw a mixed crowd of black-hatted Orthodox Jews from Boro Park to dance alongside dreadlocked Rastafarians from Greenwich Village. Even fewer reggae stars consider Israel "home" and believe that Ariel Sharon's government will be the last before the Messiah comes. Meet Matisyahu, the first ultra-orthodox reggae singer and one of the hottest names in the world of American pop
Video: Webster Hall in Manhattan was sold out, but that didn't stop people hoping to score a last minute ticket from a scalper from milling around outside.
Religious Jews from Boro Park lined up next to punk rockers from the East Village, pregnant women with wigs beside African Americans with heavy Rasta hair. The security guard's eyes alternated between tits and tzitzit.
Video: Shai Rosenzweig
A list of Matisyahu's accomplishments (the Yiddish form of Matityahu) is impressive by any standard. His first two CDs sold around 150,000 copies, making an impact. The repercussions of the surprising success were felt even in the air conditioned offices of Sony. The recording super-power hastened to recruit the 26 year old religious man into its ranks and next month it will issue the third album, "Youth."
Last year Matisyahu became the wandering Jew: after a tiring concert tour (50 appearances in seven weeks across the United States) the Jewish reggae singer set out to play Europe. Last month he appeared on and was a candidate for the MTV "Discovery of the Year" award, and next week the ultra-Orthodox meteor will give several concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
His visit is likely the last opportunity to see Matisyahu before he releases his new album and the yeshiva boy from Crown Heights becomes a superstar.
Like many Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, Matisyahu says he feels a strong connection with Israel.
"From my perspective, every visit to Israel is like a trip home", he says. "It is hard for me to describe my feelings, but there is no place that I want to visit more than Israel. I imagine the concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will have a special energy. I know several Israeli musicians; maybe I'll even get a chance to work with some of them. I just hope I will have some time to pray at the Western Wall, visit Tzfat, and eat almost anything I want."
In his appearances Matisyahu does not forget to shout the Chabad slogan "Moshiach (Messiah) Now". He is certain he, and all Jews, will leave the diaspora and come to Israel following the man on the white donkey: "This is the last generation of the exile. All that is needed is for people to rise above the material world, become attached to one another and to God. Once this is done, we will be ready."
Are you aware of the changes and political happenings in Israel? Have you heard about the early elections?
"I am up-to-date on the main details, but I didn't know about the elections. Who is the present prime minister?
"Rabbi Kidder, a well known Kabbalist in Tzfat, says that Sharon's party will be the last party to serve in government before Moshiach comes".
"So is there a specific date?"
"Less than two years, although as Jews we need to expect him every day."
Matisyahu was not always the darling ultra-orthodox man of America. He was born 26 years ago as Matthew Miller, and grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in White Plains, NY.
"I tried to be cool as a teenager even though I was Jewish, not because I was Jewish," he recalls. "I went to a Reform Jewish school a few times a week, but I wasn't really interested in Judaism and I did not understand why they were sending me there. Around my Bar Mitzvah it was nice to be Jewish because of all the presents, but in general I was much more interested in playing football.
"Only when I learned in high school and traveled to Israel the first time the Jewishness that was dormant in me was aroused."
Miller's notes in the Western Wall did their job, and Matthew returned to New York, met a Chabad rabbi, and set off on a journey to discover his faith. Matthew became Matisyahu. Dreadlocks in his hair became side curls and he grew a thick beard. He got married, and he and Tahli two moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the center of Chabad's world-wide operations.
Matisyahu takes pains to stress that the merger of Jewishness and reggae was planted in him even before his desire to be religious was aroused.
"The music I create is the result of influences and my musical areas of interest. I have always been interested in the Jewish elements in reggae music. The Rastafarians (the Jamaican movement that gave rise to Bob Marley and the reggae movement) was always influenced by the Old Testament. They sang about Zion, about King David, and the lions of Judea.
"My music is only a natural stage in a form in which my love of reggae developed, hip hop and Hasidic music," he says.
Inspiring the punkers
Matisyahu's music is rich, replete with self-composed texts that talk about his personal transformation and (of course) religious themes. Until Matisyahu, the average American thought of Jewish music as "Fiddler on the Roof." Now, even the punk rockers in the crowd shut their eyes and imagine the vision, "Our teacher Moses divided the sea in two." And where else will you hear a reggae hit dreaming of Third Temple?
In concert, he seems to want to get down and dance, fair enough for an up-and-coming music star, but he always remembers to restrain himself, like a good yeshiva student from Crown Heights.
"The combination of my personal life and musical career is not simple," he says, "but I try to remain focused all the time. I have music to share with people and I want to raise their spirits, even if they are not connected to Judaism or aren't even Jews. Even though success affects the ego, I try to concentrate on my studies, on God's holiness, and my family.
"I remind myself all the time that this is what God wants me to do, that this is His mission for me. I have a way to influence people and raise them up. To forego that would be to go against God's will."
How do you observe the commandments when you are on tour?
"It isn't really as tough as it sounds. Of course I don't play on Shabbat, I need kosher food, and ideally I'm able to go to synagogue to pray. My managers make all that clear from the outset. We've lost an appearance date here-and-there because of my requirements, but usually club owners are understanding and accepting.
"When I am on the road I try hard to devote as much time as possible to Torah learning, but it isn't easy. In practically every city I play in I find the Chabad House where I can spend Shabbat, with a rabbi, kosher food and a minyan (prayer group) people to pray and sing with. It's just like home."
How do your Chabad friends feel about your career? Don't they have a problem with the fact that you appear before mixed crowds?
"According to Jewish law, there is no prohibition against a man appearing in front of women. Some rabbis would prefer I appear in a hall with a screen separating men and women, but Jewish law does not require this, and I want the halls where I appear to have an atmosphere of freedom, and to welcome everyone who wants to come."
What do you think about Madonna (Esther) and her activities with Kabbalah?
"In truth, I have not gotten around to listening to her songs so it is hard for me to express an opinion. I don't totally rule out what she is doing in her Kabbalah mission, I just need to find the opportunity to listen to her songs"
Matisyahu will play the Barby Club in Tel Aviv Dec. 6-7 (Info and tickets at 03-5188123) and the Ma'abada Club in Jerusalem Dec. 8 (Info and tickets at 02-6292000)