From Hasidism to Freedom: Singer Matisyahu Unbound

In his latest album, the beat-boxing reggae star – divested of his beard, his wife and his ultra-Orthodox trappings – compares himself to Abraham and still quotes the Hebrew Bible.

Amir Norman

NEW YORK – Matisyahu’s relationship to Judaism? It’s complicated.

In concert at New York’s City Winery on the night of Purim last week Matisyahu – once globally famous as a Hasidic reggae superstar but today more difficult to label – made only brief mention of the holiday, which celebrates liberation, hiding behind masks and reliance on God.

Yet all of those are woven through his newest album, “Akeda,” in the form of Hebrew prayers and references to biblical figures and themes throughout. Also communicated in lyric form is his frustration with the expectations many fans have of the formerly ultra-Orthodox singer-songwriter.

But in an interview in his sister’s Brooklyn apartment late at night before his City Winery show, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of his breakthrough album “Live at Stubbs,” Matisyahu made clear that he is still deeply tied to Judaism and some elements of Jewish practice. It continues to be a complex journey through Judaism, and life, for the beat-boxing reggae singer.

Now 35, Matisyahu recently published a very personal essay on the drug use that began when he was 14, on his loneliness, and his eventual journey through Hasidic life. As he says in the essay, and in a song, he seems to need to learn things “the hard way.”

When he posted a picture of his newly clean-shaven face on Twitter in 2011, it roiled legions of fans who had looked to him as the quintessential synthesis of religious and worldly success.

Matisyahu on stage at New York’s City Winery. Photo by Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Soon after that, Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller) and his wife of nine years split up. He lives in Los Angeles, where his ex-wife remains part of the religious community, and their three young sons attend Chabad schools. Last year Matisyahu also had a daughter, with a woman from Bend, who is a friend from when he was 18 and participated in a wilderness program after he dropped out of high school in his hometown of White Plains, New York, and followed the band Phish on tour.

The loose, yoga-friendly clothes Matisyahu wears today are a sartorial reflection of the changes in his life. Yet most of his lyrics are as religious as anything recorded when he wore a yarmulke and payot (earlocks), reflecting someone who connects with the deepest part of himself through traditional prayer, but is no longer observant. They show a man still trying to find his spiritual footing.

He named the album “Akeda” because it’s about “the binding and the unbinding [i.e., the story of biblical patriarch Abraham following God’s demand to bind up and sacrifice his son Isaac, and then being stopped by an angel at the last moment], and the walk home. It’s not just about the walk up the mountain. It’s about coming back,” Matisyahu told Haaretz. “This stage of my life is about what you would consider the unbinding. Getting out of the religion, getting out of the marriage, the relationships.”

The first track of the new album, titled “Reservoir,” opens with the morning prayer Modeh Ani, in Hebrew, and continues: “Just wanna talk to you now. This is for the One who kept me alive, and so I thank You So you think you understand What’s pure and unpure You think you know so much, that I’m so out of touch I’m the blood of Jacob, I’ll keep struggling. Like Joseph, my brothers want to sell me out. I had the dream, time to leave the doubt This is for the One, Shehechianu, Hakadosh baruch hu [from the prayer recited on special occasions], What we been through, me and You.”

The closing song, after several dance numbers, is “Akeda” – a moan of longing for a greater capacity to love, to draw near: “Avraham, take your son, take your blade, and approach the mountain of the Lord, you’ve been here before times before, in your dreams, your fantasies, reality, teach me to love. Ayecha [where are you]?”

‘Alone on the mountain’

It has been difficult for Matisyahu to deal with the reaction of those who had been among his most vocal champions when he was totally observant, he said.

“I was feeling like I was doing this very holy work, actually, and all of a sudden all these people are just assuming the worst of me, saying ‘not being religious or shaving his beard is a character flaw.’ Just assuming that it didn’t come from a holy place or a place of avodah [religious service], but rather that it came from some kind of weakness.”

“It was super-intense,” said Matisyahu, who is also no longer strictly vegan. “‘Akeda’ is born out of that. It comes from this place of deep feeling like Abraham, all alone up on that mountain and feeling like all of that work that I did and then having the pain of feeling misunderstood.”

“Then what do you do? Are you supposed to defend yourself to everybody? Explain yourself to everybody? Tell everyone to go fuck themselves? Are you supposed to just live your life and not care what people say or think? I didn’t have a teacher or person along the way guiding me I was kind of all alone. There was no one that had my back, really.”

Matisyahu attends TAO Sundance on Jan. 25, 2015, in Park City, Utah. Photo by AP

But even when he was fully immersed in the Chabad community and being religiously mentored by two rabbis in Crown Heights, it was not an entirely comfortable fit, he says.

One of the things he loves best is praying. Even in the past, he found his community or worshippers in more extreme Williamsburg, in the Hasidic Pinsk-Karlin and Toldos Aharon congregations.

“I didn’t like davening in Crown Heights, I would ride my bike to Williamsburg every morning,” he said. “They were very cool to me. I’d bring my bicycle in, I didn’t have the white socks, I had my beard and yarmulke but it was obvious I wasn’t one of them. They let me come in, they didn’t make a fuss, they didn’t know who I was but let me do my thing. That’s where I learned how to daven.”

“The first time I came across this style of davening, slow, screaming, everyone singing their own melody, organized chaos, was in Mea She’arim [in Jerusalem] on Rosh Hashanah. I was in Israel that year and when I came home I searched for a similar shul. The one I found was Toldos Aharon, which a break-off of Satmar, in Williamsburg. I would go there or to another shul close by. I was usually the 10th man [in the minyan] and it was a beautiful old small shul with an old rebbe with a white beard and blue eyes who could barely make it in.

“I liked that shul mainly because of the ba’al tefillah [prayer leader]. He was a real deal holy Hasid. He’d wake up at tikkun chatzos, which is a tradition which started with King David, who would wake up at midnight to recite Psalms. This guy would learn all night and daven in the morning and his davening was fire! He was screaming, singing, soulful. It was really special. I would ride my bike from Crown Heights even in snow and winter months and [go in the] mikveh [ritual bath] right after the old Hasid dipped. Then I’d daven with either group and then bike into Manhattan to the studio to work on the record ‘Light,’” he addsed, referring to his 2009 album, which included the hit “One Day.”

Today — though he no longer observes all religious customs — Matisyahu prays nearly every morning he is in L.A. On Shabbat, it’s with a Hasidic minyan. During the week it’s in a regular Orthodox synagogue.

“I put on my tefillin [phylacteries] but I don’t feel bound by any of the rules. So during my Shemoneh Esrei [the Amidah, lit. "standing prayer"] I don’t stand, I’ll walk around. I don’t use a siddur [prayer book]. I just want to be in a shul with other Jews, and it’s a holy place. It’s this incredible thing, this crazy idea that in the middle of L.A. the idea that there’s this room where all these Jews come and talk to this invisible being, you know, God. And everyone has their own idea of what God is and their own relationship to it. It’s such a trip to me, that shuls exist, that Jews exist.”

Listening to God’s voice

The voice he listens for most, beyond his own intuition, is God’s, he says.

“When I became religious in my early 20s and was talking to God on the roof [of his college] and saying, ‘What do You want? What do You want me to do?’ – I thought this whole religious thing was what God wanted, what I was supposed to do. That was like sacrificing that part of myself for God,” Matisyahu told Haaretz.

Matisyahu performs in Tel Aviv in 2005. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik

“Once they feel like God spoke to them and told them what to do, most people close the door and don’t want to go back to that experience of not knowing. There’s a certain comfort in having the answer and feeling like you have this inner secret into what ultimate truth is, and what God wants.

“To open the door again, still ask God: ‘Are You sure? Is this what You want?’ And maybe that changes but this is in the public eye for me, I’ve been out there defining myself as something pretty specific to a lot of people, and a lot of people have been following that lead. Then to come back and say, ‘Oh no, I got it wrong...’ or that I’m keeping the door open to this universal question mark.”

Citing the Shema Yisrael, Matisyahu added, “the basis of our whole religion is listening. [Avraham] didn’t just do it [and kill his son], he kept questioning, he kept listening. He didn’t get stuck. He was able to flow and to move and to keep listening even as that voice is shifting.”

This summer he plans to travel to Poland with his former therapist, Ephraim Rosenstein, who co-wrote the lyrics on “Light,” and an ambient music composer named Rafael Anton Irisarri.

Matisyahu performs at Tel Aviv's Barby club in 2009. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik

“We’re going to go to about five or six different rebbes’ graves, me and Ephraim will study the Hasidism of this particular rebbe and make songs, like an EP of Hasidism,” Matisyahu said. “And each of those rebbes has very different ideas about God, very contrasting ideas about the existential relationship between human and God.”

For now, Matisyahu is looking ahead, to Pesach — a holiday he feels very connected with.

“When Jews are in Egypt they’re in constraints, they’re in restriction. When God takes them out of Egypt is when they get to know God, through freedom, through getting out of that narrowness,” he explained. “My God, the God that I pray to, is the God who takes me out of that narrowness. It’s funny how Judaism became so rule-based, because to me that’s the opposite of what God is.

"I find that in my own life when I come to this awareness that I don’t have to be bound to this thing – those are the moments when I feel most in touch with God.”