November 7, 2018Thedreidel
Matthew Miller is a musician and artist whose cultural pride, as well as his Hebrew name – Matisyahu, became his signature and our obsession. We thought that finally, here is an iconic entertainer who we could identify with. Matisyahu, with his traditional payot (Hebrew for the side curls worn by some men and boys in the Orthodox Jewish community), his long and unruly rabbinical beard, and the understated black garb and white shirt – was familiar and…strangely comforting. To others, Matisyahu may seem like any other bloke you’d see on Fairfax in Los Angeles, or walking around on shabbat in Brooklyn. Matisyahu’s look was the antithesis of ‘pop-star imaging’ and seemed to legitimize orthodoxy in modernistic terms.
Then, one day we woke up, and Matisyahu looked more like John Lennon than Hillel the Elder. What happened?
The Dreidel’s Richard Stellar sat down with Matisyahu for an interview that gave us the answers, made us proud to be Jewish, and revealed the turmoil, anguish and joy that has inspired a generation of Matisyahu fans.
What was it like growing up as a Jewish kid in New York?
When I was a kid, my parents sent me to a reconstructionist Hebrew school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays from 4 to 6 and 10 to 12. I knew I was Jewish, but that’s about it. In my town, White Plains, there were very few religious Jews at that time, where today there is an orthodox community. I was in a class that was pretty much all girls from Scarsdale. I was the only boy, and those Scarsdale girls were terrorizing me. I was suffering from a learning disability, and the Israeli teachers were strict and old-school. It was a miserable experience. I would have rather been playing football.
I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t know why I was going, and I didn’t know what the purpose was.
In retrospect though, I’m glad that I had some Jewish education. Because when I did get into it, I was able to read Hebrew. In college, when I started becoming spiritual, I didn’t have to start from scratch. I wanted to pray in Hebrew. I thought there was something important about the Hebrew language – something that was mystical and ancient – that tied me and connected me to my people. Praying in English just didn’t do it for me.
When I prayed, I would pray in Hebrew. My father had given me a talit, which was my grandfather’s talit, and I would take the talit, and I would open the prayer book. Even though I didn’t know what the words meant, because I didn’t put in the time or energy in Hebrew school to really learn the language, at least I knew how to read the language. This was the tool that allowed me eventually to express myself. I remember the days that I came home crying from being terrorized by those Scarsdale girls and the old school style of teaching by the Israeli teachers, and my own learning disability, it didn’t really work for me.
Even in college I would climb up to the roof of my school with a prayer book, and I would pray. At that time I was trying to get sober. I was having a hard time dealing with addiction, with depression, and with loneliness. I felt that somehow God would save me from all that.
After I was Bar-Mitzvah’d I would continue to go to Hebrew school, at least once a week. Then one day someone came and spoke about Alexander Muss High School in Israel. I decided that I was going to go, and everyone thought it was a joke. I was this sad kid who had no connection to anything and was always in the principal’s office and getting in trouble – but I finally decided that I wanted to go. So, I got a scholarship and I headed for Israel.
Was Israel a destination for you to escape to, or did you find inspiration there – or both?
When I was in Israel, when I was 16, I had already found some inspiration in Judaism via Bob Marley. The reggae music, and Bob Marley with all the symbology and references to the Old Testament piqued my interest and I thought ‘whoa, this is not about these girls from Scarsdale, or the Israeli principal, or folk dancing – it’s about something I could connect with. Something ancient and spiritual – something powerful’, and I connected to it through reggae music.
So when I went to Israel when I was 16, I had this new experience of Judaism which was more holistic and much more interesting. By that point I didn’t equate this experience with religion, but what it did was make me think about it.
I remember one time I heard this drumming in the Old City. I was like ‘where’s the drum circle?’ I followed the drum beat through the Old City to this old synagogue, and basically it was like 25 Hassidim in a room, drinking vodka, banging on the bimah, singing and praying. That experience stuck with me.
In college when I was trying to get sober and suffering from depression and loneliness – I started to believe in the idea of ‘God’. I found that there is a God, and that God loves me and God wants to see that there’s something special in me, and that he will guide me and protect me. And a lot of that I got through Bob Marley. I got that understanding through Reggae music and the Rastafarian culture.
When I seriously started to question ‘who am I?’ – I discovered that I wasn’t Rastafarian. For me to represent myself as a Rastafarian didn’t add up, just didn’t feel right, and didn’t do justice to who I am.
So I started praying on my own in Hebrew, and I started to explore Judaism. I did that by being in New York City and going to different neighborhoods, and experiencing Shabbat in these neighborhoods. That was my introduction to Orthodox Judaism. I eventually found myself at the Carlebach Shul, and that place really resonated with me – the music of Shlomo Carlebach and the style of the prayer. Then I took a class and discovered Yitzhak Buxbaum and his books and story-telling. That was my introduction to Orthodox Judaism. So one day, I put on a yarmulke. It gave me depth and dimension to my persona. I eventually took it up a step further and became Orthodox. I became Hassidic.
Rastafarianism was the trigger point that made Judaism resonate with me.
When I became famous, I was the most Jewish thing in America! I was representing Hasidism. That’s who I was. I was an Orthodox Hassidic Jew who happened to be an artist . Bob Dylan was an artist who happened to be Jewish.
So that was a cultural irony. Did that personae keep you from being taken seriously as an artist?
The first time I was on TV, Jimmy Kimmel had me on to make fun of me. They wanted to give me a haircut, until they saw me perform at sound check. Here was a funny looking guy with a beard and payot, dressed in a conservative suit. What they found out was that I was ‘the real deal’ . That helped me tremendously because it was like, all of a sudden, it was the last thing you’d expect. A surprise attack! I became the Hassidic Reggae superstar.
People were like ‘what does a Hassidic know about reggae’? And I showed them.
Now that you’ve achieved this high level of fame, it seems that you’ve modified your image away from Orthodoxy.
Even though I came out as a Hassidic Reggae Superstar – I’m an artist. I never saw myself as being one thing. Life is a journey for me. At some point, it wasn’t just about self-expression. I felt this very strong connection to being Hassidic. I found that all the rules and laws of that lifestyle was becoming a hindrance and it was starting to choke me. I felt that I needed to explore life outside of that box.
There was a notion of stripping back my identity. I can’t lean on this identity anymore. I couldn’t lean on the beard, so I shaved it off. There’s the notion that shaving is an exercise in spirituality – it’s like losing your identity. When I became religious and I took on this Hassidic look and lifestyle, it was an act of self-expression. On the other hand, it was an act of humility.
And now, I had to start over again, and I couldn’t lean on who I was 5 years ago or 10 years ago. I had to ask ‘who am I now?’, and I had to express myself in what felt authentic.
Did you get any blowback from Orthodoxy when you progressed to this different stage?
I got blowback from a lot of people. Basically what it was on many levels was the concept of shaving. Who were the fans of my music and my lyrics who were moved and touched and used my music as a tool in their life to help people, to connect to people – and there were the people who were on the fringe, thinking “okay, there’s this Hassidic guy, and he represents us, and whatever”. Those people weren’t really fans of my music, didn’t understand what I’m doing, and they left.
I asked Matis what was next, and he joked, laughing “so you’re asking am I now going to be Christian or Muslim? Am I now going to do Fiddler on the Mosque?”
People should listen to the Akeda album. I recorded it a couple of years ago and that record is really meaningful to me in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of Jewish content and other content in it.
I listened to Akeda, and was moved. There’s a song, Reservoir, that resonated with me. As a disembodied voice intones to ‘trust in the Lord and do good’, Matisyahu sings
Welcome home, just stick to the plan
But how can I be like the stars and sand?
It’s only man who commands
He put this one in our hands
The duality of dogma was never as evident to me, and if Matisyahu is able to do anything as an artist, it is to present faith as symptomatic of humanity, as opposed to humanity being symptomatic to faith. It was Lennon’s ‘Imagine no religion’ argued in a spirit that imagining that there is religion exposes questions that forces us look within.
I had grown up Jewish, as Matisyahu did and millions others. What Matisyahu reminds us is that we are still growing – and if we are faithful to the message that a higher power enables in us, it is to question, celebrate and elaborate through our lives that which is not explainable, and is only supported through the evidence of our own belief. He sings that song.
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