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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. Brian

    This is nothing new. If you listen to the lyrics of Reggae music it's straight out of Exodus and Genesis. In some ways Jamaica is a Jewish country. When Spain expelled the Sephardic Jews a lot of them ended up in Jamaica where they founded the newspapers, banks and industry of Jamaica.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Mark Nielsen

      Finally, someone brings the similar mysticism of reggae & Judaism back into the picture, plus some useful historical analysis, including the sad irony of hate coming from within various corrupted religious traditions. (i.e. expulsion of Jews by Spaniards... where the Inquisition was strongest and most sinful... makes me a bit ashamed as a Christian) Thanks! It is possible to both think rationally and to hold beliefs that transcend known science, that recognize Spirit or Essence or G-d as mystery. Where Matis is at on this is a puzzle to me ("free" or just lazy & modern in his practice), but I too have been cautiously optimistic about what he represents and found his lyrics genuinely prayerful and powerful. Whether his new stuff is or will be so, I'd say the jury is out. Change is inevitable, but that doesnt mean it's automatically growth. I cant say Kanye has "grown" since "Jesus Walks", but I hold out hope that a Bigger Plan is operating for Matis, Kanye, and for all of us.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Matty B

    As an Artist ,how can matisyahu neglect to mention the famous Hanukah song from about 15 years ago "light up the nights" by the Miami Boys Choir .I hear it on cbs radio every year ,Amazing song.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  3. Apple Bush

    Akira, are you there?

    December 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Yes. You started posting as me, so I'm posting as you.

      "An eye for an eye"...

      December 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Is that you Akira? No, i never posted as you..just me. Lots of trolls posted as me though.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Yea it is me. Do you promise you weren't doing that?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      How do I know it is you? Tell me something I would only know.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      My real name starts with a "K". And you know I can't say anymore.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Hmmm, I don't believe you. Where is the real Akira? Soooo many imposters. Mud buttttttt.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Whoa, that's weird. My name starts with "K", but yours doesn't. Who is this???

      December 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I'm whoever you want me to be. i'm closer than you think "K".

      December 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira, someone is messin with us

      December 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira, I know this can be confusing, here are my posts:

      9:30 pm 8:54 pm 8:41 pm
      9:31 pm 9:51 pm 9:59 pm

      And this one. 10:02 pm?

      December 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira, beware of the above poster, he's a fraud. I didn't post at those times!

      December 26, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      10:03 pm posting is fradulent.

      I was on page 3 at that time.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Stay away from Apple Bush, goon

      December 26, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  4. Mohammad A Dar

    Fake AB, sounds like a real life great cornholio lol!

    December 26, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Akira

      I like him a lot.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      MAD, you know I loves me some tee pee!

      December 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  5. Akira

    I like to eat poop.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Akira

      RACISM NOT COOL. SAVE IT FOR YOUR KLAN MEETINGS.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Akira

      How very charming; good for you!
      You should probably see a doctor about that, though; that's rather unhealthy.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  6. Apple Bush

    Would the real AB please stand up? This is getting exhausting trying to figure out which apple bottom is real.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  7. Apple Bush

    i only hate sunburns and hangovers. this is just business.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I like them.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  8. Mohammad A Dar

    @fake AB, hey even the bums on streets have names, goon, get your own ID

    December 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Im the real one.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  9. Deacon

    Matisyahu woke up and realized that everything to the extreme isn't productive. I converted to Judaism and my biggest critics were the orthodox movement. To them if you're not born a Jew no matter what you do you're a fake Jew. Orthodoxy doesn't treat their women as equals either. To them women should always just be servants and baby carriers.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Deacon

      Btw brief history lesson for all you "orthodox" Jews, at some point your ancestors were forced to convert to Judaism. Not all of you self-righteous "orthodox" Jews were born Jews.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Just like all fundamentalists.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Paul232

      I'm not a Republcian.....you beat me too it...

      December 27, 2012 at 6:02 am |
  10. Apple Bush

    WHAT'S YOUR QUESTION?????

    COME'ON!

    FEED ME, I AM HUNGARY!

    December 26, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Akira

      Like the country?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      try some crap cake, fake AB

      December 26, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      MY FAVORITE KIND OF CAKE.

      IT COMPLIMENTS MY B.A.

      NOW I'M BUDAPEST.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  11. Laerrus

    Just another Jew pretending not to be so they can sell us more music.

    Amazing how if a Christian artist left the church to find the truth, it wouldn't make it on CNN...

    Sort of like how I did, and have, and have not been...

    Jews don't even have anything to do with reggae, get your own culture!

    See some real art by a white person who has tapped into the occluded truth and spirit of Nature; no creepy religious cults here:

    http://www.facebook.com/FigureEight

    December 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • Akira

      I will repeat: he did not leave Judaism.
      Tsk, tsk, such an elitist; where is it said that one cannot sing any genre of music because they are Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • rs1201

      Do I detect a note of jealousy in your post? did you try something and failed at it miserably? just accept it...you're a failure...repeat after me...I am a failure....I am a failure...

      December 26, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      I am a failure....I am a failure...

      December 26, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • Paul232

      Yes, now people will never know he was Jewish, except for, well, everybody.

      You're very smart, lol.

      December 27, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  12. sean burns

    Anyone who spends any time reading the old testament will recognize it for what it is- the myths of a primitive people justifying their killing and taking of the land of the native resident tribes they encounter because god told them he was giving them that land. Hateful, misogynistic, xenophobic, sadistic "beliefs" codified in the ridiculous rules and practices laid down in the book of Leviticus and others. Matisyahu is making a step in the right direction to throw off the stultifying, extreme yoke of orthodoxy. If he keeps thinking and exploring, he may one day rid himself of the entire burden of religion.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Laerrus

      Don't kid yourself, he's still a Jew.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Sean, you are so wise, how did you solve all of lifes riddles in just a few sentences?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  13. Apple Bush

    I occassionally get mud butt.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB. I rarely get mud butt, but it does happen to the best of us.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB's, what question do yo have for me?

      December 26, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Akira

      What kind of fresh new fvckery is this?
      I don't think the AB@8:53 would say that.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      }}}}Akira
      Prove it. Oh, I guess you can't. You believe in myths.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      "report abuse"

      December 26, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Akira

      And what myths would that be, you silly sh!t?
      Fvck off.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  14. Apple Bush

    in the darkness
    people scream help
    because i am killing them

    in the darkness
    people run from me in fear for their lives
    because i am chasing them

    in the darkness
    people hide under their beds and cry
    because i am looking for them

    in the darkness
    people try to stay awake
    because i haunt them in dreams

    i am the nightmare

    December 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AP, nice effort.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake? Who you calling fake?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      My butt.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  15. sigmond seamonster

    Blackbeard used to put cannon fuses in his beard and light them right before he jumped on a ship, attacking its sailors, so that he looked terrrifying, like Satan. A missed opportunity....you know...with how much Reggae is about smoke and stuff.....

    December 26, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    I have no life and am quite pathetic. True story.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AP, explain your comment. You sound like the lifeless to me.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  17. Apple Bush

    I can prove the we exist in a dimension akin to hell and that we are, all of us, asleep and deceived, Ask me any question. Anything at all.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Apple Bush Jr

      Please provide your proof then papa scientist.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I can only speak in parables, can you understand in parables?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      JR, What is your question.

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

      Fake AP, what is your quesion?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  18. Apple Bush

    You say whats the worse time of the day? Well mine is almost all the time I am at home. I do pretty good at work. When I go to work. That's been awhile.

    No I can't PROVE it, sorry. Always with the proof, eh?

    December 26, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, I don't understand your post but I want to. What does it mean

      December 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Riddle my Riddle Dear Watson
      Sometimes it really slakes, sometimes it freezes,
      Darkness, you think? Oh no...

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

      Fake AP, what is your question?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  19. Wow

    Apple bush clearly has some major issues......what a pompous loser.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Wow, what are my issues and what makes you better than me?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Wow

      Did I say I was better than you? Do you always make unfounded as.sumptions based on ignorance?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Yes, that is pretty much what I do.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Real AB, what is your question?

      December 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Define pompous.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Define define

      December 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    For every one good thing, a thousand bad.
    For every spring, a devastating winter.
    For every angel, a thousand monsters.

    This is the darkness. There is no rule that declares this life is the only life. We got the short end of this stick. We life in the muck and the slime.

    Test it yourself. Contrast and compare the good and evil. Evil wins. Always. And going away.

    Goodness laughs at our ignorance. We are the doomed. We are the hell we pretend we can avoid. This is death. Better off next time.

    December 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Lol

      And what is your suggestion to make the world a better place? Or do you feel better about yourself just speaking ignorantly and arrogantly? You're pathetic.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Is dark in my kitchen?

      Is dark in the sky?

      Is dark outside?

      Is dark?

      Is dark...

      Is dark!

      December 26, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      lol, this place can be neither better nor worse. It is our doom.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AP, what is your question.

      December 26, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Fake AB, what is your question? why are you afraid

      December 26, 2012 at 9:30 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.