July 2, 2009
Matisyahu and the Jewish Future
I have seen the Jewish future — it’s loud, and hypnotic, and it reeks of pot.
Last week, for two nights, I became a groupie. The singer Matisyahu came into my life just when I needed him most, and I followed him, like a Deadhead after Jerry Garcia, for two days and two nights.
I’d read about the 30-year-old Chasidic reggae-rapping crossover-singing sensation for years — I’d even edited some of our stories about him. But I had never experienced him.
Then, last week, a friend got my wife and me tickets to his show at the Wiltern Theatre, down the street from The Journal’s Koreatown offices.
Funny how a few good tunes can shift your perspective: Madoff, Iran, Obama-Netanyahu — it’s too easy to get so immersed in one crisis after another that soon all the oy veys of Jewish life start to become Jewish life.
But then he comes on, this tall, thin man in a black frock, smoke-colored T-shirt and dark slacks, a Giacometti Chasid, and his band kicks in, the lights come up, and suddenly Judaism itself comes back to life.
The crowd: I look behind me and they are dancing, clapping. Blond girls whose belly shirts lift just over their tramp stamps, a Latino dude with the Virgin of Guadalupe on his rail-post of a forearm. Korean party girls doing a three-across bump. Discreet clouds of marijuana smoke form and disperse, scenting the hall.
Matisyahu sings: Jerusalem, if I forget you…. And the balcony, packed to the rafters, echoes the last line: Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.
In front of us, two Orthodox couples, the men holding cups of beer, yelp and dance. Their young wives wear sheitels — sheitels! — and they give their guys stern looks when the beer slops over, but they can’t stop bouncing and screaming — careening into three young women in ankle-length skirts from a local yeshiva who have their hands raised as Matisyahu slips into his next song: “Hashem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe ...”
He doesn’t move much, or smile. His long fingers grasp the mike; his head is bent and I can just see his lips moving beneath the beard and mustache. His tzitzis, the four thin, knotted cords religious Jews wear at all times, dangle at his sides, leaping a bit as he goes into a deft beatbox and his left hand slaps time against his thigh.
It’s a rock concert and yet the lyrics are straight from Jewish text and liturgy, from ancient Jewish dreams and exhortations. It’s a prayer service and yet the music is reggae or hip hop, and the crowd is hardly Jewish.
If you take seriously the idea that “the Torah will go out from Zion,” you have to marvel at how effective a messenger Matisyahu is. From Bob Dylan to Barbra Steisand, all great Jewish performers have been by-the-way Jewish — you had to dig into their past to understand the roots of their message and values. But Matisyahu is unselfconsciously Jewish — and the audience embraces him not despite that, but because of it.
By the time Matisyahu gets to his newest song, an anthem that fuses Bono’s “Beautiful Day” to alav hashalom, Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” to the prophecies of Isaiah, the crowd is joined like a shul at Hashiveinu, swaying and chanting as one:
and I pray
don’t take me soon
’cause I am here for a reason.”
Backstage after the show, I see a pared-down version of the crowd’s diversity. Two blond fans, in jeans tighter than a Torah cover, chat up a young Chasid, part of the singer’s entourage, angling for autographs. A Hollywood producer tries to calm his 12-year-old daughter, who can’t wait to get her picture with him. A young Orthodox man approaches us and asks if we can join a post-concert minyan, Matis wants to daven maariv.
He emerges, freshly showered, this time in just a T-shirt and dungarees. Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller in White Plains, N.Y. He was raised in a secular home, followed the Dead and Phish, searched for his way. On a high school study program at the Alexander Muss Institute in Israel, he drew closer to Judaism, joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and found his voice.
“King Without a Crown” hit #28 on the Billboard charts. I’ve played his new release, “One Day,” a hundred times now —I predict Top Ten.
Matisyahu shakes hands, shy and soft-spoken in the way it seems a lot of people who sing in front of raving crowds often are. The young men in his entourage, many of them baalai teshuvah like him, call him Matis. I ask one of them how he deals with the many restrictions between men and women that Chabadniks and other devout Orthodox observe.
“He’s not really Chabad,” a friend of his says.
“What is he?” I ask.
I need to see more. Two days later, my wife and I drive to Ventura, where we watch him perform at a much smaller venue. The L.A. concert was full of Jews. In Ventura, it was surfer dudes and chicks, black men in dreads, college kids from Camarillo, a guy who looked like a skinhead grinding into his petite girlfriend, whose skirt hung a lot higher than a pair of tzitzis, singing every word of every song:
I give myself to you from the essence of my being
An’ I sing to my God, these songs of love an’ healing
I want Mashiach now, so it’s time we start revealing ...
Matisyahu was looser that night. He jumped on the giant amps. He knelt at the edge of the stage and invited fans to touch him. And in one surreal moment, he took a running leap, spun ‘round and let the crowd catch him, arms outspread, face beaming.
I turned to my wife. “I think I just saw a flying Chasid.”
If you don’t think Judaism has a future, if you don’t believe it will morph and evolve and find new expression in the next new age, see Matisyahu. As the song says, he’s here for a reason.