For his friends and fans, these personal decisions carry heavy spiritual implications. In shaving and moving away from the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Matisyahu appears to be signaling a shift from the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Judaism that brought him his artistic success. Matisyahu declined to speak to the Forward for this story. But while some fans say his struggles make him more relatable, others worry about the most prominent ultra-Orthodox ba’al teshuvah, or nonobservant Jew who embraces Orthodoxy, losing his way.
Matisyahu is perhaps the most visible contemporary ba’al teshuvah, and his religious journey has been watched closely. His move away from Chabad in 2007 incited consternation in some religious quarters, as has his decision to shave.
Boxer DmitrIy Salita, a friend of Matisyahu’s and another prominent ba’al teshuvah, said he hoped that Matisyahu’s wavering wouldn’t give other ba’alei l teshuvah an excuse to waver. “Sometimes kids can look at it and see him as a role model and may get discouraged,” Salita said. “But people need to understand, Matisyahu is not a rebbe, he’s not a rabbi, he’s not a religious figure; he’s just a Jew like you and me and many other people, and he’s going through struggles.”
Those struggles may not be only spiritual.
Matisyahu’s life has taken radical turns over the past few years. When Sony dropped him, it left him without major label support. In the meantime, he has launched an acting career. He appears as an exorcist rabbi in “The Possession,” a horror film slated for release in August. The film is based on the story of a box sold on eBay in 2004, purportedly haunted by a dybbuk, a demon from Jewish mythology.