Matisyahu: I ‘loosened the knots’ of my Judaism

As his new album debuts, the renegade religious rapper tells The Times of Israel why he drastically changed his lifestyle

Matisyahu's new outlook. (photo credit: Howard Blas)
Matisyahu's new outlook. (photo credit: Howard Blas)

Sitting backstage at Matisyahu’s concert in Stamford, Connecticut five days before the July 17 release of his new album, “Spark Seeker,” his father Bob Miller is smiling. Warm up band Moon Taxi has left the stage (as part of the Summer 2012 “Alive@Five” Festival), the sun is going down, the Stamford Town Center is packed and the crowd is cheering.

Matisyahu dances during his set at a summer concert in Irvine, Calif., in this May 2006, file photo. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello/FILE)
Matisyahu dances during his set at a summer concert in Irvine, Calif., in this May 2006, file photo. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello/FILE)

Matisyahu, best known for performing in traditional hasidic garb — black kippa with tzitzit (ritual fringes) swinging under his white shirt — is now dressed in a white T-shirt, black faded jeans, fashionable white sunglasses and green Nike sneakers. For most in the audience this is their first in-person look at his handsome, clean-shaven face. Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, no longer looks like a Lubavitcher. And he no longer embraces a hasidic lifestyle.

On December 13, 2011, Matisyahu shocked the Jewish world by posting a beardless picture of himself on Twitter, with additional commentary on his website.

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter.
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. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry… you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.
— Matisyahu

Many articles and blog posts have pondered the question of who is this new Matisyahu? Many wonder if he is “still religious.” Father Bob confidently reports, “He is the same person he always was. He has always been searching, and he always will.”

Mother Rochelle was also backstage at the Stamford concert, along with their daughter and family friends which included Matisyahu’s fifth grade health teacher who danced with her former student on stage. Ms. Miller was happy that Matisyahu was performing a short 27 kilometer drive from their home in White Plains, New York.

Rochelle enjoys the concert but shares more motherly concerns: The 33-year-old Matisyahu, wife Talia, and sons Laivy (7), Shalom (5), and Menachem Mendel (1), recently moved from Crown Heights, the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, to the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

“I am extremely sad. I have been to Los Angeles five times since their move in September. Maybe they will move back after two years there!”

The soft-spoken, very forthcoming Matisyahu respectfully notes, “My wife took me there. She wanted to go. She wanted the weather. She’s from New York.”

At first, Matisyahu reports, “I wasn’t necessarily interested in leaving,” but he soon realized, “I wasn’t tied to one place.” Matisyahu consented and the family relocated.

Perhaps an additional benefit of living in Los Angeles is the proximity to Hollywood. Matisyahu will appear in the horror movie, “The Possession,” set to open August 21. Ironically, the now clean-shaven Matisyahu plays Tzadok, a rabbinic exorcist. The movie, which stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is the story of a girl who buys an antique box at a yard sale and is unaware that an evil spirit lives inside. For Matisyahu, acting is a return to his second love — he reportedly always had a passion for acting and was in plays in college.

Matisyahu is still best known for his first love, music. His musical styles include reggae, beat boxing and rap. His current tour, which ends on September 29, will take him and his band across the United States, Canada and Portugal. He continues to play such well known songs as “Jerusalem” and “King Without a Crown,” as well as cuts from his upcoming “Spark Seeker” album.

Matisyahu spoke candidly with The Times of Israel pre-concert from the back of his van, en route from the Stamford Marriott to his tour bus outside the Stamford Town Center. The musician spoke openly about a favorite song on his new CD, his family, and his recent transformation.

How is this different from past tours? Who is your audience?

How is anything ever the same? I go for deep. I have a hard time answering simple questions. The audience is different. We are on tour with the Dirty Heights. It is a younger crowd.

Your new CD “Spark Seeker” comes out on July 17. Are you excited about the release? Do you have a favorite song?

Of course I am excited. I don’t have a favorite song but one I have been performing lately, we’ve been staring off our shows with and the one my record starts with is “Crossroads.” I don’t even remember recording it to be honest with you. And I don’t remember writing the lyrics, but I did feel that when I listened to it, especially after all the changes, and everything that has been going on — I just felt like that it really sums up a lot of what I was feeling.

On “Light,” there was that line — “one tiny moment to shine.” [he is referring to the song “I Will Be Light.”] Looking back on the record, I feel like that was the main lyric of that record and I feel like “Crossroads” every night when I’m starting to sing it. I just feel like it’s perfect, I just feel like it’s right . Sometimes you write a song and it has a certain mood in it, and a feeling in it, and you are not always in that mood. Or that lyric doesn’t always resonate. The song that’s definitely resonating for me now is called “Crossroads.” And it feels powerful every night to go out and to perform it.

How do you deal with life in the spotlight?

I don’t know. How do you deal with it? It’s pretty cool.

You change your appearance — that’s one thing! Do people not recognize you these days?

Not even at my own shows!

When I saw you at the hotel, I didn’t even recognize you. You were wearing blue gym shorts, a blue T-shirt and tennis shoes — you just looked like a regular basketball player. People always grow and change and that’s awesome. Why did you decide to make your religious transformation so public?

The question is how do I not make it anything but public? I didn’t think I wanted to mention it. I wasn’t planning on mentioning it afterwards, with the Twitter thing. But I was going through Twitter and I read that quote [“When the tide comes in I lose my disguise”] — a fan quoted that lyric from “Thunder,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect!”

‘Who is to say what the disguise is?’

Sometimes you write lyrics and it can mean one thing for you and then a year later it can mean a totally different thing for you and at that moment I felt, wow, there is something inside of me even at that point that felt that I was in disguise. There was some part of me even four years ago when I wrote that song that felt one day I’m going to take off my disguise and then, on the other hand, you can say, “Who is to say what the disguise is?” Maybe the other one is the disguise. But in that moment, I felt it was time to reveal panim, the face. So then I was thinking, “People will see me at shows and they won’t get that it’s me — I’m gonna have to mention it. People are going to want to know what’s going on.”

How are you navigating your current level of Jewish observance on the road?

It’s kind of a different thing for me now. There are certain things I am still holding on to strongly, like obviously not performing on Shabbos, not traveling on Shabbos. Kosher. Kosher has been easy for me in this run because we have a chef and he is a vegetarian and he cooks just for me. So that one’s like knocked off. So that’s that. Shabbos is Shabbos.

‘There are so many rules in Judaism, and if you get into them and you get obsessed and you have the kind of life that I have, it can make you a very unhappy person’

Everything else, for the most part, I’m not holding myself to it in terms of the rule aspect of it. It is more about an ideal. Ideally I would like to put my tefillin on every morning and daven mincha and daven ma’ariv [two of the three daily prayer services]. And I would like to say brachos [blessings] and all these things. But I sort of stopped holding myself to it. It is a weight off now I do it when I have the time and it feels right. When I make the time, I am a little bit more accepting, a little more patient with myself maybe than I was in past years trying to fit in putting tefillin on with, like, in the morning when I had to be at a radio station at 8:30… There are so many rules in Judaism, and if you get into them and you get obsessed and you have the kind of life that I have, it can make you a very unhappy person. It can make everything complicated and more stressful than it needs to be, so I kind of loosened the knots a little bit.

How was the transformation for your family?

My one-year-old dealt with it. He had to get used to seeing my face. I think the first time I held him, he didn’t recognize me. But it was very quickly that he got it. I think they look in the eyes. And the feeling and the voice. Maybe more than anyone else my one-year-old son got it right away. No judgments, certainly from him. And then, my other two boys go to Chabad school (in Los Angeles), and I had to warn them and tell them that people might say stuff. We had to have a lot of conversations.

‘More than anyone else my one year old son got it right away. No judgments’

I think it’s given them a whole new take on… everything, because they will want to know. That things are not as simple; life is a little more complex. It is not so clear.

We had a conversation with my son on the way up here that was so interesting, where he was saying that… the whole thing with Jews and non-Jews and the differences and all that. I try to open them up and just give them alternatives. Basically, I just tell them, “When you are raised in a religious family, you learn that there is no alternative. That there is one ultimate truth. And you can see it might come in various shades and colors. At the end of the day there is one truth and that one truth is this.”

I’ve had to talk to my kids and explain that maybe that’s not so. Basically what I tell them is that no one can ever be sure of anything — and in this life, your teachers, parents, yourself — you can have your own ideas, your own opinions, intuitions feelings, etc., whatever it is. But never to be too sure of yourself, and never to be too sure of anyone because, at the end of the day, we don’t know. That was a new idea for them. But amazing conversations — me and my sons.

Matisyahu while filming in Israel. (photo credit: courtesy)
Matisyahu while filming in Israel. (photo credit: courtesy)

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