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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. BIg Man

    And and suppose jews wrote Oh Christmas Tree and Silent Night. What an idiot. Jingle Bells was composed by james Pierpont – he ain't jewish. Christmas songs speak of universality, goodwill towards others, beauty of nature – that's why their are plenty. Also, the reason why there is a (real) dearth of jewish holiday songs.

    December 27, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Dida3468

      So he made a mistake but that being said, Irving Berlin IS jewish and DID write White Christmas.....

      December 27, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Sean

      Christmas Waltz, Silver Bells, Winter Wonderland, Santa Baby, Sleigh Ride, I'll be home for Christmas, White Christmas are all examples of Christmas songs written by Jews. He was not implying there were nto great songs written by Christians, but that a lot of Jews tended to write Chistmas songs vs Jewish Chanuka songs as they sold more. I

      December 27, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • BIg Man

      Right Sean – focus on large, lucrative market and profiting off the feelings of a nation during WWII(for many of songs). What else is new.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  2. Sarah

    I love the way he talks as if he's the first guy to discover that following rules is hard and doing whatever you feel like is liberating. What a genius!

    December 27, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Walter

      I love the way you don't talk as if you had a brain in your head.

      December 27, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  3. Matt

    I wonder how much of his leaving the Hasidic community had to do with the fact that women typically throw themselves at rock stars, and this reality pushed him from his religious practices.

    December 27, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  4. peter pook

    Matisyahu

    You sound like a pretty cool, calm guy and an excellent father. Teaching them to explore and care for others are the true keys to happiness. Life is full of wonderful small and big surprises. Keep writing/singing from the heart.

    An old happy grandfather

    December 27, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  5. NewtoEarth

    would someone be kind enough to post which god/deity they refer to in this article? They just keep mentioned god in singular form but never give IT a name, which god is it please?

    December 27, 2012 at 3:51 am |
    • VladT

      Cthulu!

      December 27, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Paul232

      He says in article : "In terms of the religious aspect, I tell them nobody knows the way."

      So basically he is saying he is not sure what or "if" God 'is"...

      December 27, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • JosephPreistlyUU

      yahweh, the hebrew god...the same guy as the Christian god.

      December 27, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Dovid

      The G-D. The Creator. The Eternal. there is only ONE. The G-D of Israel.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  6. sigmond seamonster

    Just be yourself dude, with the beard and everything. Who cares.

    December 27, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  7. sigmond seamonster

    Reggae's version: Vanilla Iceberg

    December 27, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  8. sigmond seamonster

    Vanilla Icemann

    December 27, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  9. AGrey

    "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"

    Well who doesn't like christmas? Can you really think of another holiday as fun and as whimsical as christmas? Probably not.

    December 27, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Avi Steinberg

      Channukkah

      December 27, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • sigmond seamonster

      "Silent Night" is an example of a Christmas song. A song about The Birth of The King of kings. Jesus Christ...The Power that shattered the power of The Tax Collector. Who confused the Tax Collector with the simplest equation: 1 + 1 + 1= 3. The Divine Trinity. Father Son and Holy Ghost....the equation which beat the Tax Collector at his own numbers game and drove him into perpetual and infinite rage. Peace to You and Love. Kneel and worship your King

      December 27, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  10. Catalysis

    Beatbox master

    December 27, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  11. Rabbiaz

    How ironic.Hanuka is the celebration of Jews fiercely keeping the tenets of their beloved religion. The Hashmoneans wouldn't
    Give in on the details. The metaphysical implications of our actions exist and our actions matter ....even which order we cut our nails. That might seem like a heavy burden to some but it is a realization that what we do really matters...man is more important than some believe. Those who seek to "free" themselves from these misperceived chains are truly chained by their
    Desire to live with impunity. Too bad for him.

    December 27, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Yechi-nevermind

      Take your close minded zealotry back to 770.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • Dovid

      I second this response. Those that enter into Torah observance find true spiritual expression and freedom by voluntarily bringing their animal passions in line with Torah. This is known as "The Yoke of Torah". Unfortunately, Mattisyahu had his perceptions warped by forgetting this and taking upon himself the very mindset that the Syrian Greeks were trying to force on the Jewish people in Hasmonean days. Fortunately for us, the Jews in those days fought with all their might to resist this or we would not be a people today. My sincere condolences to Mattisyahu for doing such a thing in the eyes of the whole world and then trying to justify his error.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  12. RasD

    I saw a review on his new album at http://www.reggaedownload.com and had a chance to listen to it the album, it's cool and has many musical styles.

    December 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  13. Ben

    hey. maybe that guy did really baptise his seven little yiddles.

    i got baptised when i became a jew. it's a jewish tradition to get baptised. but it's not called baptism.

    i also got baptised as a kid in a very frum christian church in new jersey. my family was totally straight up. good people, witnessed a lot, into doing the right things, and being honest with yourself, changing your whole life when you find something out that changes your whole life. and trying to be true about truth. so that worked out well! they're aweome, and it took a little time, but we get along and are still tight.

    i'm a jew now. we don't know all the answers, but we certainly have a lot of questions. it's part of this finite world. G-d is beyond all of us, and i'm sure there are a great deal of eye poppers waiting for every single one of us on the other side of this life. and we've got eternity to enjoy it, be'H, hopefully, eventually.

    there are things that bother me about orthodoxy, but most of it i think stems from people's behavior, when it is actually outside of the core values we do say we stand for. like integrity, kindness, love, harmonious integration with the universe. it really eats away at your faith when the people fail, and fall, and aren't what you hope they'll be. that drives me mad. when i get cut off in traffic by another member of the tribe, a cousin, a brother really. ugh. not what i signed on for. but it was, really, because my rabbi told me, i would have to live with jews. and he said, that's not easy all the time.

    when you can't get away from people, situations, i find myself being forced to reconcile, being forced to grow up about certain things. and i do need to embrace those values. and harmoniuosly integrate and love.
    one day... one day.

    thanks for the music matis. we love you.

    December 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • shaul

      how do we think G-d feels? the temptation to just wanna wipe out all those pesky humans– but we have rainbows, promise, hope, music like matis' and we keep breathing long breaths with the Source- one day 🙂

      December 27, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  14. Mohammad A Dar

    I've reported Akira. Let's just say he won't be posting here anymore. Muwahahahahaha!

    December 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      stay away from my name, skunk, secular s, denier of truth absolute GAWD, you touch my name and I kick your Hind, filthy goon

      December 26, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Apple Bush? You too?

      December 26, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Akira

      And there you would be wrong, MAD.
      I cannot see the precceding page, so I have no idea what went on...

      AB: if you were the real AB, you would use ©.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Very funny. Akira, can you really not see page 2. Don't worry, I will let Apple Bush know it wasn't you. He is confused by your ramblings.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  15. JR

    i don't think he is a phony: he was young and like most young people, he is on the journey of life...which takes twists and turns. We are allowed to change. He became popular not so much because he had a gimmick, but because he is talented. Personally I think he looks 100% better without the beard....and I'm sure he is not finished changing yet.

    December 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  16. Mohammad A Dar

    Hey AB, what about this Matisyahu guy? Is he cool?

    December 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Akira lot about you, too.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  17. Samuel

    It is a natural spiritual journey to Christianity and to accept Jesus Christ as our savior !

    My wife and I were both raise in the Hasidic community as devout Jews. Like so many Jews, our spiritual journey followed the only logical path, to accept Christ as our Savior ! We cannot begin to explain the unbelievable feeling of love and completeness when we baptized our 7 sons and now raise them as Christians.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Truth

      Amen and God bless! Peace be unto you and your family!

      December 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Yeah..... I'm going to call bulls.hit on this one. I do not in any way believe you were chasidic

      December 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Truth

      Chuckles,

      You really are sad. You believe that anything that doesn't fit your preconceived notions isn't true. Biased much? Funny how the atheists are actually the least open minded of all.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • YeahItsMe72

      > our spiritual journey followed the only logical path

      Haha, I got a good chuckle out of this line. But hey, I'm not here to hate. Glad you found something that works for you.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • aravah29

      Leading others to apostasy is NOT a good thing. Preying on those who are weak in their faith and teachings is tragic and dishonorable. OUR Messiah won't be divine, won't be a "savior" and won't be worshiped.

      Am Yisrael Chai!

      December 27, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • sigmond seamonster

      So cool....The teachings of Christ mean Peace....Peace be with you and your family.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Chuckles

      @Truth

      Interesting.... right as you see a story you think is great because it follows YOUR preconceived notions you think anyone who is skeptical of said story is sad and bias. I grew up surrounded by hasidic jews, I know the community and was a jew myself. I also have an uncle who is a born again christian (much to the rest of my family's dismay) and I'm calling bulls.hit on this story, not because it doesn't "fit my preconceived notions" but because it sounds like a fat old lie.

      Funny how a christian can howl at the atheist for being closed minded and then go on hating everything not christian. Hypocrisy runs very deep in the christian tradition.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Dovid

      xtian missionaries will go to any length to try and convert Jews to their religion, even lie. this samael guy is using a pretty little made up story to try and convert Jews here online. Jewish people reject yeshu as messiah because he simply never did what our sages and prophets told us true messiah will do. yeshu failed the test. and messiah is a man used by G-d like Moses. Not some little g-d with 2 other g-ds sitting together. don't be fooled by liars like this.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  18. Just Sayin...

    He kicked a woman in the face...lmao.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Lol.

      December 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  19. Derp

    I can't stand the fake Jamaican accent / dialect this guys sings with. It sounds so phony and silly.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • sigmond seamonster

      The song "Send in the Clowns" is much better

      December 27, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  20. Paul

    He used the Hassidic way of life as a way to be unique and propel himself in his career. Then when it was no longer compatible with his needs he ditched the whole way of life. But It didnt stop him from forcing his wife and kids to live in a repressed Hassidic lifestyle for many years. Then all of a sudden he tells his family its ok to stop being Hasidic. Always have felt this guy is a bit of a phony. Still feel that way.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • empresstrudy

      Coming and going in and out of Hassidim at different stages of one's life is fairly common. I'm sorry you're so ignorant/jaded about that. Go bang your head on a wall.

      December 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • VladT

      Paul – such insight into someone I am sure you don't know.

      Can you help me with my life problems as well? My real name is Daniel, I am 30 years old.

      Ok...GO!

      December 27, 2012 at 5:40 am |
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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.