'There's still a sense of togetherness'

Back in Israel for two shows, rapper Matisyahu says it’s nice ‘to feel the love’

Following recent antisemitic experiences in the US, singer will perform in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with special guests including his son Laivy and singers Omri Glikman and Jimbo J

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Singer Matisyahu will perform on April 2 and April 3, 2024 in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (Courtesy)
Singer Matisyahu will perform on April 2 and April 3, 2024 in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (Courtesy)

As protesters poured into Jerusalem this week for four days of demonstrations against the government, locals posted selfies with American rapper Matisyahu, who is in Israel for two performances — in Jerusalem on Tuesday and in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

In every picture, Matisyahu, often known simply as “Matis,” smiled broadly, wearing a large gold chai and Bring Them Home hostage solidarity tag over his mint-green T-shirt.

“I’m back now, and it feels like the completion of a cycle,” said the singer, speaking to The Times of Israel during a Monday afternoon soundcheck.

It’s been a rough few months for the formerly ultra-Orthodox rapper who was last in Israel in January to witness the scenes of the October 7 destruction.

At the time, he performed for nearly anyone who asked, including soldiers on duty, evacuees from the north and south, and those who had been injured, while posting it all on social media.

Back in the US, two Matisyahu shows in February were canceled — one in Tucson, Arizona, and another in Santa Fe, New Mexico — after management for the venues said they couldn’t guarantee security due to anti-Israel protests planned outside the concerts.

Singer Matisyahu will perform on April 2 and April 3, 2024 in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (Courtesy)

According to Matisyahu, it was the staff and crews of the venues who were unwilling to work at the show.

In early March, a performance of his in Chicago was also canceled due to the threat of protests.

Matisyahu wrote on Instagram that while he and his fans were hurt by those incidents, they would not “cower to these bullies and the pressure they exert.”

Now, back in Israel, Matisyahu said, “I’m not gonna lie, it feels nice to feel the love. It feels wonderful.”

The singer, 44, who spent a period of his adult life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew and who currently lives in Rockland County, New York, an area with a large Haredi population, said experiencing antisemitism after years of traveling around the US and playing in small cities made him feel “very isolated, and just kind of weird, to be honest.”

But coming to Israel after those experiences “felt incredible,” said Matisyahu. “I felt welcomed and at home.”

Matisyahu will be onstage Tuesday night at Jerusalem’s Zappa Club and then on Wednesday at Zappa Ganei Yehoshua in Tel Aviv, for 90-minute shows produced by Zappa Productions with promoter Carmi Wurtman’s 2b Vibes.

He will perform hits including “King Without a Crown,” “One Day” and “Jerusalem,” along with new songs from his next album. Special guests Omri Glikman of Hatikva 6 and rapper Jimbo J will each perform two songs with Matisyahu during the Tel Aviv show.

Matisyahu’s son Laivy Miller, 19, who is currently living in Israel, will open each performance.

He’s looking forward to a sense of community, spirituality, unity and love and connectedness, he said.

“That’s always my vision, but I don’t have expectations, and I’ve learned in life to let things happen organically,” said Matisyahu. “Israelis don’t always know what to make of me, they’re like, ‘Who is this dude?’ but they’ve responded to my songs over the years.”

It’s a different kind of trip than in January, which felt like more of a mission, said Matisyahu. At the time, he wanted to witness personally the destruction wrought by Hamas terrorists on the kibbutz communities of the south and at the Supernova desert rave.

“I gathered all the information and the inspiration and the hope and put them out into the world,” he said.

He used the footage he gathered during that visit for the video that accompanies his newest song, “Ascent,” released last week but written after the antisemitic remarks made by Kanye West last year. It also features footage from October 7, including videos of the abductions of Noa Argamani and Shiri Bibas with her children Ariel, 4, and Kfir, then 8 months old.

“You still captive to the poison all around you, infected brain, no one to blame but the Jew. Are you insane, this is not new,” sings Matisyahu in “Ascent.”

The song’s title refers to the Bible’s Psalms of Ascents.

Matisyahu said he wrote the song with very little prompting, review or revisions.

“I wanted to incorporate all the different stuff I’m seeing and making the connection to October 7 and Nazi Germany and antisemitism,” he said. “I wanted to release that song right away because I felt it was so powerful, and it deeply connected to what we’re going through as a people, and then October 7 happened.”

During his January trip, Matisyahu posted videos on Instagram of himself performing for an intimate circle of Golani soldiers, wishing them good luck as they headed north. He tagged their company and commented, “It was an honor to breathe the same air as you tonight.”

Some of the singer’s American followers responded by telling him never to return to their cities in the US, and that they would block his show and shut it down if he did.

On Sunday, Matisyahu received an award from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, presented by Minister Amichai Chikli, for his work since the beginning of the war for Israel and the Jewish people. Actor Michael Rappaport, speechwriter Aviva Klompas and pro-Israel news influencer Stefan Tompson were also awarded.

On March 31, 2024, singer Matisyahu received an award from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs for the singer’s work since October 7, along with actor Michael Rappaport, speechwriter Aviva Klompas and pro-Israel news influencer Stefan Tompson (Credit: Midnight Infinity Photography / Matan Harush)

There’s something about being back in Israel, said Matisyahu, despite the protests going on outside the Knesset that demonstrate the divisions in Israeli society, the hostage situation and the ongoing war.

“There’s still a sense of togetherness, that we’re in the same boat,” he said. “It’s that sense of connection. Like when you get on the plane, on El Al, you’re with the Jews.”

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