Jewish Ledger Reports on Matisyahu

The following article appeared in The Ledger, an independent Jewish Newspaper. The article follows Matisyahu’s journey through life, including his relationship with The Shliach of Washington square Rabbi Yakov Bankhalter, and Matis' recent rise to stardom.

05.10.2006 3423 (0)
Jewish Ledger Reports on Matisyahu

The following article appeared in The Ledger, an independent Jewish Newspaper. The article follows Matisyahu’s journey through life, including his relationship with The Shliach of Washington square Rabbi Yakov Bankhalter, and Matis' recent rise to stardom.

He’s yeshiva-educated, keeps kosher and wears the beard of a traditional Hasidic Jew.

He also makes a living as a touring reggae singer and beat boxer, using his voice as percussion instrument.

So how does a Hasidic Jew become a reggae artist?..

Matisyahu wasn’t always as committed to Judaism as he is now. Born Matthew Miller, he grew up in a secular Jewish family in White Plains, N.Y. His adolescent years were unfocused.

He embraced the dreadlocks-and Birkenstock-wearing lifestyle of a would-be hippie. He goofed off in class and more than once almost got himself thrown out of Hebrew school. After causing an accident that nearly burned down his school’s chemistry classroom, Miller knew he had to make some changes.

He sought solace in nature on a camping trip to Colorado. There, the Rocky Mountains inspired him to believe in the existence of God, he said. A trip to Israel bolstered this newly-found faith and awakened in him the desire for a deeper understanding of his Jewish heritage.

Once returned to White Plains from Israel, however, he again felt disconnected from his Jewish roots. He dropped out of school and followed the rock group Phish on a U.S. tour.

His parents, desperate to put an end to his erratic behavior, packed him off to a wilderness program in Oregon, where he discovered reggae.

Finally, he was more focused, and he completed high school.

It was after Miller returned to New York to attend college at New School University that his transformation from wayward adolescent to devoted Hasidic Jew gained momentum.

“Eventually I started to pray and I took classes and something was pushing me toward the Jewish aspects (of my background),” Matisyahu said.

“So I put on a yarmulke and I walked out one day. Eventually, I came to find Chabad-Lubavitch.”

Miller ironically foreshadowed the day he met Rabbi Yaakov Bankhalter, director of Chabad on Washington Square. While in college, Miller wrote a play, Echad, that tells the story of a Jewish boy who grows in his faith after meeting a Hasidic Rabbi in Washington Square Park.

Some time later, Bankhalter was celebrating Simchas Torah, dancing in that park with other Chabad affiliates. Miller appeared from nowhere and joined in.

“To be honest, I thought he was a pretty wacky guy,” Bankhalter recalled of his first meeting with the young man. But the two spent time together and eventually, Miller’s spirituality deepened and he adopted the Hebrew name he uses today.

Then one day, Matisyahu decided to share his affinity for reggae with his Chabad family.

“I remember that we were at the Shabbos table and Matisyahu said, ‘I have a little something to show you,’ and he just started singing,”

Bankhalter said. “We were all a little surprised. We all wondered where this came from.”

And many audiences today still do. Matisyahu’s merging of Orthodox Judaism with the secular allure of a reggae star is clearly, well, unorthodox. However, Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy allows for any number of unusual life paths for Jews.

“Our philosophy is to embrace the world and use the world for serving God, one mitzvah at a time,” said Rabbi Aryeh Kaltmann, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio Chabad. “We believe you have to take every God-given talent and use it for serving God. What I like about Matisyahu is that he incorporates his God-given talents in a very productive way.”

The lyrics of Matisyahu’s songs borrow heavily from Torah and Jewish history. Some of them convey a quest to find a path through life, while others express the soul’s longing for God,and others the yearning for Moshiach.

Finding one’s path

Matisyahu’s ultimate message, however, is that finding God and living a religious lifestyle means finding one’s path, one’s personal truth.

“To me, there was a spiritual truth that was missing from school,” he said. “It bothered me, because I didn’t know what that was. I felt in Chabad there was some truth that I didn’t see anywhere else.”

It was what Matisyahu experienced as the spiritual truth of reggae that led him to embrace this particular mode, blending the sounds of the late reggae pioneer Bob Marley and the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who brought the power of prayer to the public through songs.

“(Reggae) music itself lends itself to spirituality,” Matisyahu said. “I can get across that there’s something deeper that the physical. In Hasidic philosophy, there’s an idea that everything in life has an inner life force and that everything in the physical world has a spiritual source. There are things you find in music that sort of tap you into the idea that that everything in life has a rhythm.

“Reggae music can put you into a trance somehow. The instruments are very simple, there’s a lot of space. It can allow a person to ‘zone.’ It takes you out of yourself and shows you something more divine.”

Matisyahu’s friends and collaborators believe that the widespread appeal of reggae will help the singer change public perceptions of Judaism, and especially Orthodox Judaism.

“He reaches a certain part of society that no one else would reach,” Bankhalter said. “Everyone has heard about Madonna’s following Kabbalah and changing her name to Esther. Now there’s another Jewish element that (the secular world) is hearing about. He’s emphasizing a new element of Judaism. It’s pushing Orthodox Judaism out into the secular world. People are getting more of an experience of that.”

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