Matisyahu Makes It Cool To Be Jewish

He lives in Crown Heights, the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, but Matisyahu is a rapper.

25.10.2006 10467 (0)
Matisyahu Makes It Cool To Be Jewish

He lives in Crown Heights, the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, but Matisyahu is a rapper. He sings reggae-style and raps about his faith and the world from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. But he's not just talk. On the road, he travels with his wife and child and observes on a daily basis the fundamentals of his faith.

While there are often logistics to work out, Matisyahu said he does not view the sometimes-strict requirements of his faith as an obstacle as the first Orthodox Jewish reggae rapper.

"Journeys are an essential part of Judaism - it's at the core of Judaism," he said in a recent interview. "Being on the road is instrumental to my service to God. It's part of who I am and what I do."

The singer prays three times a day, and each evening after a performance he makes a minyon - a prayer group that according to Jewish law requires a certain number of participants. To observe Sukkot, a harvest holiday in Judaism, the singer had a portable pop-up tent backstage where his family and some crew members ate all their meals.

The singer grew up in White Plains, and though the family was devout, he came to his Orthodox lifestyle after attending an Orthodox Jewish high school. Since then, he said, he has chosen to immerse himself in his faith. His lyrics have proved a draw to teens and college-age students, talking about Judaism and promoting peace and unity.

Matisyahu said he often relies on help from Chabad, a Jewish organization whose mission is to provide a place for Jews to observe their faith and customs no matter where they are in the world. "I try to connect with local rabbis, so they can be a part," he said.

Rabbi Shlomo Hecht, who leads the Chabad center at UConn, met Matisyahu during the singer's previous trip through the state last year. Hecht, who grew up in Crown Heights, attends the same Brooklyn synagogue as Matisyahu. "It's amazing to see him, an Orthodox Jew, out there doing what he does, talking about Judaism," Hecht said. "And the Jewish kids really love it."

While the singer has fans from all faiths, he has become a phenomenon among Jewish youth. Three busloads of Jewish teens are coming to the performance, sponsored by UConn Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Community Center. His first album, "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise," was released in 2004. His latest album, "Youth," was released in March.

"Matisyahu makes it cool to be a Jew," said Josh Cohen, teen director at the Jewish Community Center, who says he has also become a fan. "He's been able to mix Jewish spirituality with hip-hop. When you listen, you hear him talking about Jewish history and prayers, but he does it all in reggae style. It's all in the music."

Curtis Pitegoff, 16, first heard Matisyahu a year ago and often downloaded live performances from the Internet to listen to the rapper. "He's upbeat, but his lyrics talk about the serious ideals of Judaism," said Pitegoff, a West Hartford resident who will attend the show. "At the same time he's going for the mainstream. He is the first to really do that."

By Frances Grandy Taylor, Courant Staff Writer Support