“No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey: to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission. Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth.” – Matisyahu, December 2011
On the seventh night of Chanukah I saw Matisyahu perform at the 9:30 Club. I had seen Matisyahu two other times, each six or seven years ago. I remember a Chassidic Jew who literally bounced around the stage while wearing payes, a long black jacket, and a black hat. The way he wove Hebrew and prayer into his music was incredible moving. I had never seen Judaism and pop culture come together in this way.
Last night Matisyahu, formerly Matthew Paul Miller, looked like any other musician. The lyrics were the same and the music was still great. But it was clear to me that he was at a very different point in his life from when I saw him last. During the concert, I began to wonder, What does it mean to say the same words, sing the same songs, and elicit the same emotions from your audience, while being in a very different place on your own personal journey?
The idea of journeys, or Jewish journeys, is discussed a lot these days. Lately, I had been wondering if this concept of journey had lost its meaning. But last night, seeing someone on a very unique, very public Jewish journey, gave the idea new resonance for me. As I prepare to light the candles for the final night of Channukah, I find myself asking, Where am I on my journey? What about me has changed, and why does it matter?
I, and many Jews I know, continually seek different ways to express an authentic connection to Judaism and Jewish life. Unlike Matisyahu, however, we engage in these experiments in relative privacy. Ideally, our family and friends give us space to try different personas and forms of expression as we explore our Jewish journeys.
Because Matisyahu’s Jewish journey has been so public, some have questioned his authenticity. They have said that his more observant persona was an act to sell records. But I have to say, watching him schlep out a huge channukiah and light candles on stage gave me a deep sense of pride and gratitude that he has the courage and strength to let us bear witness to this part of his journey. I hope it will inspire me and others to embrace the messiness of Jewish exploration, and to never feel stuck or pigeonholed into our current form of expression.
So, here’s to Jewish experiments, to Jewish journeys, to Jewish life. L’chaim.
Matisyahu is the Hebrew name of Mattathias, who led the Maccabbes’ revolt against King Antiochus in the 2nd century BC.