Matisyahu Hits the Stage for First Time Since Rebirth

Fans swarm Hanukkah gig seeking clues on the Orthodox superstar’s new identity, after he recently unveiled a new, clean-shaven look.

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New York - Monday, 8:00 P.M. A long line stretches from the entrance to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which hosts indie music groups daily. The cold New York weather does not scare away the waiting crowds, mostly young people, who were disappointed to discover that tickets to the concert had sold out. The lucky ones who secured a $40 ticket in advance finally entered the hall, and only then do they begin to realize that this is no ordinary concert.

Instead of a traditional flickering strobe light, a disco dreidel that would fit in at any dance party spun in all its glory from the ceiling. And if for a moment you might have thought this was Tel Aviv's Barby Club, and not a club in Brooklyn's hippest neighborhood, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, heh, and shin glittered and lit up the crowd, reminding the Hebrew speakers that "a great miracle happened there" and we are still in the U.S. and not Israel.

Clean-shaven Matisyahu at a Brooklyn concert, December 19, 2011.Credit: Neta Alexander

But the concert Monday night was interesting not just because of the original props, but thanks to the performer about to come on stage: the man who proved over the last decade that you can combine a Hasidic lifestyle and commercial and artistic success, and who created a stir last Tuesday when he wrote on his Twitter account: "No more Hasidic reggae superstar."

This announcement - which ended with a declaration to "get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth" - was accompanied by a photo featuring 32-year-old Matisyahu without a beard or side-curls for the first time since his breakout in the mid-noughties. Initially, one might wonder whether a successful musician shaving his beard or not belongs in the fashion or gossip column. But in the case of Matisyahu, who after a series of interviews and television appearances on the shows of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel became a hero to tens of thousands of youths from the American Jewish community and elsewhere around the world, the decision to be reborn is a lot more than an aesthetic revolution.

"All of his songs are about faith and closeness to God," says Ariel, a skullcap-wearing, 19-year-old New Yorker, who made sure to order tickets in advance and who refers to himself as a diehard fan. "I started going to his live performances in 2005, and I've stopped counting how many I've seen. As an American Jew, it's very easy for me to identify with his songs and messages. As long as his new look is part of a personal journey he is going through, and not a complete disconnect from Judaism, I have no problem with it. But if he decides to stop being religiously observant, this certainly may influence his hard core of fans."

Like Adam Sandler

While the warm-up band Aunt Martha performs songs that are a pale imitation of Fleet Foxes, Taylor Lawrence, 19, from Miami, speculates that Matisyahu's turnaround is actually motivated by commercial considerations. "I really think that it's a move dictated from above, by his managers," says Lawrence, who identifies himself as "an American Jew. As far as musical talent goes, he could be an international star, and his complete identification with Judaism and the Jewish community prevents him from developing in that direction. There is no reason he shouldn't be known all over the world, like Adam Sandler, for example, who is also Jewish but doesn't have a beard. The external symbols really don't change anything. In any case, he is the same person, but now maybe he'll have new fans."

Matisyahu, 2010.Credit: AP Photo / MTI, Zsolt Demecs

At least as far as appearances go, it seems that Matisyahu now has everything necessary to become an international star. After almost an hour of waiting, at 9:30 the lights dim and he comes on stage wearing a brown jacket several sizes too large for him, a white T-shirt, light-green sneakers, large sunglasses that hide the upper part of his face - and a clean-shaven chin revealing a baby face with a disturbing resemblance to Itay Tiran. It's only after three songs that he removes the jacket and glasses and addresses the audience: "Brooklyn, how is it going? It's good to be back home" - the only sentence he will utter to the crowd all night.

But despite the eccentric choice of clothes and the tendency to mince on words, Matisyahu easily reminds you why he manages to fill up a mid-sized New York club for four nights in a row (the last concert in "Matisyahu Festival of Light" takes place tonight ). He opens the evening with "Open the Gates," which appeared on his last album, "Live at Stubb's, Vol. II," released in February.

When, with a smile, he sings the refrain "There's nothing I can't do/ 'cause I believe in you," his ardent fans don't seem to care that their idol suddenly looks like a 16-year-old kid. He continues to belt out a series of songs, including "Chop 'em Down" and "Warrior." When he gets to his 2006 hit "Jerusalem," which topped the iTunes downloads list, he roars into the microphone: "Afraid of the truth and our dark history/ Why is everybody always chasing we/ Cut off the roots of your family tree/ Don't you know that's not the way to be."

And indeed, the family tree of Matisyahu, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as Matthew Paul Miller, has brought him far. After he completed a Jewish heritage study program while in high school, he began the long process of returning to religious observance, at the end of which he became a Chabad Hasid.

Spiritual journey

At the suggestion of a rabbi, he changed his name to Matisyahu and over the last decade has maintained a religious way of life and made sure not to perform on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. In 2004, he married Talia, a Jewish film student. They met when she asked him to appear in a documentary she was directing about men and women who observe the laws barring physical contact between men and women except in specific circumstances. The two moved to Brooklyn's Crown Heights, a neighborhood associated with the Chabad movement.

Even though Matisyahu left Chabad for the Karlin Hasidic movement in 2007, he continued living in Crown Heights with his wife and their children because of Talia's affiliation to the Chabad community.

Matisyahu's personal spiritual journey - from a Conservative family to Chabad and then to Karlin, and from there to a new path whose connection to Judaism is still unclear - provides a partial explanation for his albums' success. In addition to the musical genius and the catchy hits that helped him break sales records and be the warm-up for the likes of Sting, Matisyahu's zigzagging between different kinds of lifestyles as a believing Jew are what attracted a core group of fans, young Americans, many of whom are dealing with similar feelings of lost identity.

This loss of identity was referred to quite amusingly in Williamsburg when he performed "Youth," the title song of his successful 2006 album: "You have freedom of choice/ you better take the right step." Ironically, while the band (which included a guitarist, bassist and drummer ) played the chorus, Matisyahu was entranced by a vigorous dance involving center stage leaps, and did not notice that his yarmulke had fallen off his head. For a long time, the man who until a week ago was the world's only "Hasidic superstar" pranced on stage like an excited kid at a trance party. Basically, only after Matisyahu went back to singing did he notice the yarmulke, pretty much flattened by his feet, and put it back on his head.

This little scene actually provides a possible explanation for the latest switch in the life of Matisyahu. It seems that the belated and indifferent response to the loss of the yarmulke can be seen as part of Matisyahu's general message: it doesn't matter whether you have a beard or not, if you wear a yarmulke or a hat, if you belong to Chabad or Karlin - the only thing that is important is faith. That's why it's not surprising that Matisyahu's songs have become unofficial anthems at Reform movement summer camps and conferences in the U.S. As Matisyahu acknowledged in a 2009 interview, he himself has a hard time defining his American Jewish identity: "That's been an issue for American Jews for a while. We try to figure out are we Jewish, are we American? What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it our religion, is it our culture? I mean, for thousands of years we were defined as Jews, and we were told - whether it was through the Holocaust or the Inquisition - and now we live in a totally different time where there isn't that kind of force against the Jewish people, and therefore there isn't this kind of feeling to maintain our Jewish identity."

This openness also provides an explanation for the diversity of the crowd at the concert, which included not only men and women, but also yarmulke-wearers alongside people wearing hipster hats from Urban Outfitters, Afro-Americans next to Asians and whites, and young people next to older people. In the best Brooklyn tradition, nearly every segment of the population was represented.

Those who hoped Matisyahu would deliver a fire and brimstone speech about his new look, or at least tell the audience something personal, did not get what they were hoping for. But even without an emotional monologue, Matisyahu managed to convey his message through his choice of songs, primarily the decision to close with the hit song "One Day," which was played at the 2010 World Cup final and made him the most successful Hasidic star in the world.

The official music video features a bearded Matisyahu popping up in different places, filmed in black and white but infused with color. In the seven-minute concert version, the new-look Matisyahu danced ecstatically with another man in Hasidic garb, who came on stage in the middle of the song.

Although according to the original set list he was supposed to come back for another encore and sing "Miracle," a new song that fits in with the frightening disco dreidel and the spirit of Hanukkah, Matisyahu opted to leave his fans with the saccharine and universal message of "One Day" - a song in which he prays to God to merit a long life and see the day when there will be no more wars in the world and all children will be able to play in the streets. Ultimately, this message is more reminiscent of Rastafarian reggae - the musical influence from which Matisyahu derived his style - than it is of his Jewish identity.