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Q and A with Matisyahu: 'Hasidic reggae superstar' sans the Hasidim
Singer Matisyahu, pictured on a March trip to Israel, is currently on tour in the US.
December 26th, 2012
12:04 PM ET

Q and A with Matisyahu: 'Hasidic reggae superstar' sans the Hasidim

By Dan Merica and Eric Weisbrod, CNN

Washington (CNN)–
It has been a year since Matisyahu, the famed Hasidic reggae star, shaved his beard, separated from his devout following of Orthodox Judaism and said he was ready for a "rebirth."

Since that time, he has produced new music - including a recently released album, "Spark Seeker" - and is ready to stop talking about his big change. Of course, we asked him about it anyway.

In his view, it was his decision to get into Hasidism and it was his decision to get out.

The beardless, but still scruffy, artist is touring the country with a show that included lighting a menorah during Hanukkah. We caught up with him in Washington to talk about his album, his new take on Judaism and how his life has changed in the last year.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Belief: Thanks for having us. Let's talk about the new album, "Spark Seeker." It's incredibly diverse; it jumps from pop to hip-hop to reggae. How is this album different from your past work?

Matisyahu: Whenever I approach a record I don't really have a science to it. I approach every record differently. First record was in a home studio. Second record was a live record. Third record was made while I was on tour. Fourth record was made over the course of like two years in David Kahn's basement. This record was basically - I got friendly with this producer, Kojak, and I started recording with him whenever I was in L.A.

Belief: How does Judaism influence this album specifically?

Matisyahu: Judaism is just such a huge part of who I am. I don't think I could separate that at this point. I spent 10 years sort of really immersed heavily in the practice and in the study of Judaism. This record was made when, I wouldn't say phase out, but when I started to expand and explore and let go of a lot of that. But it's still such a part of me that it's inescapable.

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Belief: Last year, you notably left Hasidism, because you "took it as far as you could take it" and you "started finding other things resonating." What was it about Hasidism that caused that feeling and what else resonated with you?

Matisyahu: I started out in the Chabad movement, and I started pretty closed up, with the idea of there being that "this is it." I bought into that fully. I really explored in depth the Chabad ideology. Then I started to open up. ... I started to explore other types of Hasidism. ... Eventually I began to regain trust into my own intuition and my own sense of right and wrong. I began to realize that there were a lot of things within that lifestyle that were actually holding me back. That were sort of weighting heavy down on me and keeping me from tasting a certain freedom of expression.

Belief: What specifically was weighing on you?

Matisyahu: In Judaism there are a lot of rules - everything from which fingernail you cut first to which side you sleep on in bed, to the way you get dressed in the morning, to actual ideas, like ideas about being chosen people or ideas about female/male and how to interact with people from the opposite sex. So all those things that I tried to mold myself into that never really jibed. When I'm talking about all the heaviness, I'm really talking about the rules. So at a certain point ... I basically said, "I don't need to do all these things. It's my life, I can choose how I want to worship God, what words I want to say. I can say less words." And once I let go of that, just sort of like a freedom that opened up that I began to taste, this freedom in my life that I had been missing.

Matisyahu before and after shaving his beard.

Belief: Was there a single moment when you knew you were going to shave the beard?

Matisyahu: Over the course of years, I was thinking about it, but there was a time when it just came down to this moment where I was like,  "All right, I need to move now, it is time to shift." And I was going back and forth with it, the pros, the cons, what do I believe, this thing or that thing, and I kept going back and forth. Then there was an actual moment where, I remember, I was walking down the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I just realized, it just clicked. "I can let go. It is my life." That was it, "It is my life." And then at that moment it was like a backpack of bricks just came off.

Belief: Your change shocked a lot of people. Why do you think that was their first reaction?

Matisyahu: Because I was a Hasidic reggae superstar. My whole thing was the Hasidic thing. I guess people aren't used to change so much. I've been through lots of different phases, but when I made that commitment and jumped into it, when you take on that ultimate reality, a lot of people don't usually leave from that. That's it. It's ingrained into you. This is the way, and to let go of that takes some chutzpah.

Belief: Did you worry when you shaved it off that you were going to lose that artistic hook as that Hasidic rapper?

Matisyahu: No. Because I believe in my music and I always have. I never felt that I was getting fans because of this. I felt it helped put me on the map and get me attention because I always had that surprise attack element to what I did, because I was a white boy singing reggae music with an authentic reggae patois.

Belief: How did you react to the negative responses from the Hasidic community?

Matisyahu: I tried to stay off the Internet. I had moved out of Crown Heights (neighborhood of Brooklyn). I didn't want to confront the people over there. I think that most Hasidic people that I know, that I am actually friends with or that are acquaintances, all say that they think I seem like a happier person now than I was then, and they respect my decision. There were times, late at night or whatever, where I would go online and I was interested or I would check it out, but it always came back to bite me in the ass because you read those comments that are just mean and it hurts.

Belief: Did it bother you that people may have initially gravitated to you because of your appearance as an outwardly religious Jew?

Matisyahu: It didn't bother me, I represented different things to different people. At a certain point early on in my career it became obvious to me that the majority of my fans at my shows, that were buying my music, most of them had no idea what Hasidism was. A lot of them had no clue I was even Jewish. Or they knew that I was Jewish, but that wasn't the main thing for them. It was my music, it was the lyrics, it was the music that was inspiring and empowering people. And then there were people that it was more about, "OK, here's this Jewish guy who is making Judaism cool, representing Judaism to the rest of the world," and for them, a lot of that was very much tied into my look. So I didn't really care, I was proud to do that. I was proud to represent for the Jewish people. I figured, who else should do it if not me?

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Belief: You have three children. How do you approach Judaism with them?

Matisyahu: In terms of the religious aspect, I tell them nobody knows the way. Yeah, there are teachers and people will tell you there is a way, this is like the Torah from God and these rules are from God, but I tell them that you have to decide in your life what's real for you. I take the things I feel are enriching and meaningful and those are the things that I focus on. But I'm not like running around the house telling them to throw on your yarmulke and telling them to say this blessing or that blessing, or to study this thing. I feel like it will come to them as they get older.

Belief: Do you consider yourself the Jewish pop star and the answer to the Christmas albums that we see dropping this time of year?

Matisyahu: I just wanted to make Hanukkah songs. Hanukkah is the (Jewish) holiday that is the most mainstream in America. I felt, I am the Jew who is the most mainstream, who is giving people a glimpse into Judaism via my music. I felt a real strong connection and still do with Hanukkah. So it started out by doing concerts on Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights tour, and then, yeah, let's make some Hanukkah songs. Let me make a Hanukkah song that kids can listen to, party to and get the spirituality of it, because it is not just about dreidels and having fun. There is a depth to the holiday. So I tried to combine those things into a song.

The Belief Blog's Hanukkah kitsch gift list

Belief: Why are there so few notable Hanukkah songs?

Matisyahu: The Jews were too busy writing Christmas songs. All of those songs are written by Jews - Irving Berlin, "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" - all those songs are written by Jews. ... The Jewish people are smart, they know where they can make a buck or two.

Belief: Do you look up to other artists who have made Hanukkah songs?

Matisyahu: It is not "other," it is just one - Adam Sandler. He wrote one Hanukkah song, it is the only Hanukkah song in my book that has ever been written. It made us all feel great and, whatever it was, 10, 15 years ago, Jews felt good when that song came out.

Belief: Does it bother you that his song is "the only Hanukkah song that has ever been written"?

Matisyahu: I feel like, let the Christians have their time. It is Christmas, there are a lot more Christians in this country than Jews. For us, for Jews, it is not the biggest holiday in the world. It is not the most meaningful one. It is good, but who cares. We don't have to be always equal with them. We are a smaller people. Our impact on the world is tremendous. We don't need people recognizing all the time.

Belief: Two years ago this interview would have been very different. In a year, if we were to talk again, where would you see yourself, what do you hope to be doing?

Matisyahu: In a year from now I hope to have another record out. I don't see myself as making any more drastic changes. I think I just hopefully keep growing, keep evolving.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Judaism • Music

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soundoff (267 Responses)
  1. NoGr8rH8r

    He should have stayed with the beard.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  2. Dread

    Great worshipful music. Jesus was a Jew. Early Christians were Jews. It's all good. God will bring all back into His fold when this earthly experiment is over.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  3. Star

    When someone looks at it as rules, and inhibition... then to begin with, he never really appreciated relgion at all! and its not sucha shame that he left, because in essence he left something that never existed... The same way we have rules how we cannot jay walk, or shoot someone who hurts us, and we do not see it as taking away our freedom.... religion is the same thing, it gives us healthy emotional and physical lines to show us how to nurture our happiness, family and relationships... To simply break it down as rules is a tragedy of the highest degree, shows how shallow he is, and how he never got it in the first place..

    As the detective told the boy running away in catch me if you can, " Look around frank, nobodys chasing you..."

    If it was all done cuz you feel you had to, you simply never got it, we do these "rules" only to enrich our lives, and for those who understand the real reasons, they are truly happier and have more enriched lives, than wild hippy maniacs like Mathew Miller.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Dovid

      That's all fine and good for you to say that the rules enrich your life, Star, but I am willing to bet you aren't an Orthodox Jew who had to cut her fingernails in the exact same order every time, or worry about which shoe got tied first, or had to say prayers before using the toilet (and after), and sleep only one one side of the bed, or not touch things your wife touched when she has her period or for seven days afterward, etc.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • star

      ps I am an orthodox jew!

      December 26, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  4. Libor

    Matisyahu is the man! I love his music, I've been a fan forever.

    Rock on Matis and keep the good vibes coming!

    Merry Christmas amd God bless to all!

    December 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  5. TootDoc

    Malvina Reynolds also wrote an amazing Hanukah song. By the way, she also wrote "Little Boxes".

    December 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  6. Porg

    Let me just go ahead and be the first to post a relevant comment here... Ok, so
    I've been a big Matisyahu fan for several years now, and I'll be honest, the reason I started listening to him was because of a beatbox track on one of his live albums. It was awesome! It wasn't until much later that I found out that he was Hasidic. I was pretty stunned, but also intrigued. I did some more research on his background and discovered details of his past. This man is true success story. It is never easy to escape a dark history, and much less to do so in the way that he did. Many people in this world (and by the looks of things, on this forum) could learn a thing or two about peace and harmony by following his example. It's quite upsetting to hear about all the hate directed his way because of the decision to take his life down a different path. Solidarity brother. Shalom.

    December 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • rhondajo3

      Thank you for a great honest comment. I agree.

      December 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Jacob

      Matisyahu doesn't have a "dark history". I grew up with him, he was a normal kid in a rich white suburb.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Ur a clown

      @jacob,

      You grew up with him? Haha sureeeee you did. Even if you actually knew him, it's not like you know everything about his personal life. You make me sick you pathetic piece of shlt.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Jacob

      Not sure why you're so mad, but yes I went to school with him for many years and knew him quite well.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Lol

      Jacob,

      What was he like in school?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Jacob

      He was a deadhead, pretty normal kid. He left school for a bit and followed Phish around on tour making hemp necklaces or something like that, but he wasn't the only person who did that. Smoked a little pot and probably took some various other drugs at concerts but he wasn't really a druggy or a troublemaker.

      December 27, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  7. peick

    Mr. Matisyahu, you make me sad. The Jews are the chosen people, but Jesus came to free you all from the heaviness of the ceremonial law. You can have the God of the Torah without all the rules. But you certainly cannot decide for yourself what is right and wrong, because that makes you God. (Hint: you're not.)

    Give the whole thing another look, and remember that the law was fulfilled once for all time by Jesus.

    December 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Akira

      He didn't leave Judaism.

      December 26, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Jack

      You're an idiot. You decided which rules to follow, too. A Muslim will give you the same spiel you just gave Matisyahu. Good God religious people are dumb.

      December 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • stu

      LOL. A religious nut is the same whether a Jew, Christian or Muslim. Big eye in the sky is watching YOU!!!

      December 26, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • sbp

      I had a beer with Jesus down at McNultiy's bar a few hours ago. He told me to tell you to shut up. If he needs to say something, he can do it himself. He doesn't need some dope pretending to speak for him and getting it all wrong.

      PS: He also said he's sending you to hell.

      December 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Dovid

      "But you certainly cannot decide for yourself what is right and wrong, because that makes you God. " And yet YOU decided all by yourself that Christianity is better than Judaism and that it is acceptable to give up Judaism for a fake Messiah. Give me a break! Talk about playing G-d!! No Jew on earth believes that. In fact, every last Jew on earth knows it to be a lie!

      December 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  8. Paysach

    It is sad that a person Jew or non Jew can not have their own view of their religious beliefs. By reading the various comments it shows how ignorant people are. The hate at this time of year against Jews is not surprising to me. unfortunately anti-Semitism has been around for centuries and you only amplify your hate and ignorance l Learn about you own religion before you comment an condemn others.What ever happened to the love your fellow man?

    December 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Johnny

      Cry more crocidile tears please.

      December 26, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  9. Carlos Chino

    Reblogged this on Carlos Chino.

    December 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  10. Angel Moronic

    Entertainment is more entertaining than religion, eh ???

    December 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  11. christian

    reggae super star???please keep your mouth shot....

    December 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  12. Pravda

    But I still can't understand why CNN posted this, it is not their usual article. It doesn't support gay rights, slam Christianity or have anything to do with banning guns... So weird...

    December 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      actually, it IS their usual model. slam christianity? lol. are you kidding? just go back to the last 10 stories here in the belief area and see how many kiss christianity's @ss. slam christianity - what a joke. CNN writes so many pro-religious fluff pieces, it's ridiculous.

      December 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  13. Pravda

    Adam Sandler's Hanuka song was pretty good!

    December 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Mohammad A Dar

    why? why? why? What did we do wrong to deserve this painful interview Mr Merica Mr Weisbrod?

    December 26, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  15. Akira

    Dayum, Apple!
    Are you okay? Or is this another angle you are using for your own amusement?
    I'm worried about you...

    December 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      AB needs anisette, with sugar cubs

      December 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Akira

      MAD, I hope you mean sugar cubes...

      December 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      yes Akira, sugar cubes, add them to your drink and get hallucinated like AB lol!

      December 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    Here is what was accomplished last night while you worshiped yourselves:'

    1. Dead babies
    2. Aids babies
    3. War
    4. More war
    5. Disease
    6. Alzheimer’s
    7. Elderly alone and dying
    8. Dying oceans
    9. Kids dying from flea bites
    10 mentally retarded and abused children and adults
    11. Brown recluse killing
    12. Female castration
    13. Mail castrationF
    14. Obesity
    15.Trans fats
    16. Cannibals
    17. Books 10 years out of date
    18. the projects
    19 gang violence
    20. School massacres
    21. Missile testing
    22. Psoriasis
    23. Skin cancer
    25. Smoking
    26 Crack
    28 tweekers
    29. And the thousand other things god delights it.
    29 slash andF burn
    30 ozone depletion
    31. Random shootings
    32. Autism
    33. War
    34. God
    35. Christians
    36 Muslims
    37. All religions

    December 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      38. Apple Bush (I am just kidding), what is wrong with you AB?

      December 26, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Dovid

      Mail castration? Really? What did you use, a letter opener? Oy, the shame and horror!

      December 26, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  17. Apple Bush

    Just kidding!

    Even I'm not stupid enough to troll Christians in a blog post about Jewish singer. That would be petty and idiotic... even for me.

    Have a happy new year everyone. And please pray for me. I'm sure it is obvious to everyone I need prayers.

    God forbid I try praying myself. Lol!

    December 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  18. Apple Bush

    Christian, how many blessings id you wax poetic to last night while your heart shriveled like a coal burning in litless cave? Who you see in the mirror but a hollowed out sinner heholden only to the deceiver who's cock you suck like a candy for devils?

    December 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  19. Apple Bush

    Christian, tell the wonderful story about the homeless weak and starving you gave all of your little brats gifts too.

    December 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Poltergeist

      My professor doesn't buy her families gifts. She takes them to soup kitchens to serve the homeless instead. In fact many churches offer Christmas meals to the homeless.

      December 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Riffin

      We purchased gifts for families in need.

      We decided to shop less for ourselves and more for others.

      We always donate to the homeless and the under-paid. This is what God asks of us. Bless you.

      December 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • flabbergasted

      Often I feel flabbergasted when I see Christians on this forum evangelizing people. Saying the most horrible things about gays, Muslims, Jews...but the comments from Poltergeist and Riffin remind me about the good in Christianity. Infact, in religion in general.

      When religion motivates people to help the less fortunate, to think for others, to simply be a good person...then it is worth it, and I am thankful for it. If more people were like Poltergeist and Riffin, the world would be a better place.

      December 26, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    Why hasn't God killed us yet?

    December 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • BD

      He made a deal with Noah, but he's been looking for a loophole out ever since.

      December 26, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.