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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. Albert

    I always liked his name, it sounds like Matthew. He's right, in the sense that legalism is difficult, but not impossible. Christianity AND Judaism are 1. If Judaism disappeared so would the meaning of Christianity. We need each other. One love.

    December 30, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • hawaiiii

      judaism and Christianity today are polar opposites. One is pro jesus one is anti jesus. End of story. Remember jesus called the jooish leaders sons of the devil.

      January 6, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  2. brian

    Love the article and the music. One minor correction... Jingle Bells written by a Unitarian, not a Jew, FYI. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingle_Bells

    December 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Jingle Bells was written by J.P. Morgan's uncle.

      December 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  3. Apple Bush

    Fake AB, is it your intention to ruin my fun and sever my friendships with the likes of Akira, MAD, sam, Tom Tom, GOPer, and many others? Why? What sadness do you harbor that creates suck a prick as you?

    December 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  4. empresstrudy

    Matt Miller is still Orthodox he's just not chassidic anymore. The not so subtlety of that is lost on CNN readers.

    December 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  5. Apple Bush

    For the record, I have not posted anything on this blog in two days and it looks like I need to change my name

    December 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Ergh? Like, who is keeping record.

      December 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I am. And I will tell you why. The blog is enjoyable and for grown ups. There is a trust. You are a violator. A bad person. No one can tell another what to do. But to misrepresent is vile.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  6. PraiseTheLard

    I can't decide if religion is pandering to the ignorant and popular "music" is exploiting the ignorant or vice versa...

    December 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Hur

      The third option is you are the ignorant one.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      It's religion pandering to the ignorant, as usual.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Dovid

      More like, it is religion appealing to the spiritual thirst of our culture.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • DSK

      Just because it isn't real for you, doesn't mean it can't be real for others.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Hur

      You can quench my spiritual thirst with your dads mouth.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  7. Luis Wu

    All religions are nothing but ancient mythology and primitive superst!tions. They should be avoided like the plague.

    December 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Dovid

      Every culture in humankind hasreligions to express their spirituality. It is a reality of human experience. Chinese civilization has always had their cultural religions as well... you seem to be an abberation of this reality.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  8. Junaid

    I'm a 33 year old white guy that was born and raised Muslim here in the U.S. Matisyahu, I love your music and I think you are on the right track. Implementing a self-imposed rule of continual self improvement is the best spiritual cornerstone anyone can build from.

    Keep writing that next rhyme!

    December 27, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  9. melvin

    when will madonna shave off his beard

    December 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Baphomet

      Wun it.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  10. Dovid

    VladT. This guy lives a public celebrity life and makes sure his personal life is public knowledge. This opens him to public scrutiny. Your arguement is flawed.

    December 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  11. Dave

    All you people on here crying this or that and complaining. What have you done? Are you a world wide artist? Are you living your dream? If not stfu and do something. Better yet, be.

    December 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  12. ReligionIsBS

    Keep questioning Matisyahu, you seem to be on the right path. Its good to see you noticing that you can live a good life without a book telling you what to do every step of the way.

    I never really listen to your music much. Didnt really get into it, plus it usually being religious and me being an atheist and all. But that song miracle is a catchy tune and I cant ever get it out of my head. "Doooooo you beleieeeeeeeeeeve in the miracle" No I dont, but MAN thats a good song.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  13. Martha Raymond Clarke Thompson Adidas the III Esq.

    "The Jewish people are smart, they know where they can make a buck or two."

    And there lies part of the resentment of jews around the world.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Michael

      that makes no sense? Because they are racially known to be good businessmen we should resent them? Have never understood that sentiment, it just seems like prejudice to me.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Howandwhyman

      Yeah, Jews are smart and prosperous. There's a lot to hate there. Really, it's called jealousy.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Berman

      So you resent people who are smart? Wow. Never heard someone admit to being a hater before.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Mark Nielsen

      His honesty and simplicity about this –about "holidays" as a marketing/entertainment phenomenon starting in the early 20th century– is fine and refreshing. But that's not to say he isn't using stereotyping a bit too, just out of laziness. Yes, some Jews have written holiday or Christmas songs (e.g. Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas, as well as God Bless America, btw), but not the majority of them. Including Jingle Bells, written by a Christian minister from Boston in the 1850s (see here:http://www.carols.org.uk/jingle_bells.htm). Same goes for movie industry and tv... Jews are all over that industry from a money/power perspective, and as a Christian I don't mind, I don't ascribe it to anything Jewish or negative, and smart business practice need not have any religious overlay to it. But the lines get blurry pretty quick, especially with Christians giving in to the temptation that equates Christmas with consumerism, or love with how much money one spends on Junior's Xbox360 habit. -signed, The Once and Future Mall Santa Claus (who we've forgotten was originally...um... a charitable saint and a bishop, and Turkish!... catch more Christmas critique like this at http://markingtime4now.wordpress.com)

      December 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      The stereotype is not that they know how to make a buck, but that they're stingy and value money over everything else. I remember a joke about it –

      Q. How was copper wire invented?
      A. Two Jews found the same penny at the same time.

      Not saying that stereotype is true, but it is a common characterization of Jewish people.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  14. Reality

    And some 21st century reality from 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis: (only for the new members of this blog)

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    December 27, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • j

      typical drivel from a hate fulled moron.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      If stating the scientific evidence is drivel then that makes you the hate filled moron

      December 27, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • MS

      Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

      If you state this. there is nothing to your Judaism. You have thrown out the whole basis of the religion. No wounder you do not keep any commandments because they are meaningless.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Dovid

      Conservative Judaism is a religion that was concocted by Jews in the late 1800's that were seeking intellectual arguements to excuse themselves from observance of traditional normative Judaism. Their entire arguement is constructed to justify this departure from observance of traditional Judaism. It is nothing new to see another unfounded claim against the foundations of historical traditional Judaism. The survival of this break-away sect, Conservative Judaism, depends on perpetually generating this pseudo-intellecualism to attract the gullible. This article is just more of the same old, same old.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Reality

      From amazon.com

      For added information on the New Torah for Modern Minds:

      "Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Hardcover) $58.00

      ~ David L. Lieber (Editor), Jules Harlow (Editor), United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (Corporate Author), The Rabbinical Assembly (Corporate Author)
      4.7 out of 5 stars (15 customer reviews)

      "The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is the primary organization of synagogues practicing Conservative Judaism in North America. It closely works with the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.[1]"

      December 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Reality

      Many OT, NT and koran thu-mpers are actually thu-mping the rules and codes of the ancients like King Hammurabi and the Egyptians who wrote the Book of the Dead and who did NOT need revelations from angels or mountain voices to develop needed rules of conduct for us h-o-minids.

      "Hail to thee, great God, Lord of the Two Truths. I have come unto thee, my Lord, that thou mayest bring me to see thy beauty. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the 42 Gods who are with thee in this broad hall of the Two Truths . . . Behold, I am come unto thee. I have brought thee truth; I have done away with sin for thee. I have not sinned against anyone. I have not mistreated people. I have not done evil instead of righteousness . . .

      I have not reviled the God.
      I have not laid violent hands on an orphan.
      I have not done what the God abominates . . .
      I have not killed; I have not turned anyone over to a killer.
      I have not caused anyone's suffering . . .
      I have not copulated (illicitly); I have not been unchaste.
      I have not increased nor diminished the measure, I have not diminished the palm; I have not encroached upon the fields.
      I have not added to the balance weights; I have not tempered with the plumb bob of the balance.
      I have not taken milk from a child's mouth; I have not driven small cattle from their herbage...
      I have not stopped (the flow of) water in its seasons; I have not built a dam against flowing water.
      I have not quenched a fire in its time . . .
      I have not kept cattle away from the God's property.
      I have not blocked the God at his processions."

      "The Book of the Dead was written circa 1800 BCE. 2 The Schofield Reference Bible estimates that the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt and the provision of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai occurred in 1491 BCE., some three centuries later. Many religious liberals, historians, and secularists have concluded that the Hebrew Scripture's Ten Commandments were based on this earlier docu-ment, rather than vice-versa."

      December 27, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  15. Mark

    "Matisyahu" was a gimmick from the start. There is NOTHING "authentic" about his patois. It's not even a well done approximation. Before becoming a "Hasidic reggae-singer" the guy was following Phish around. Give me a break. I'll end with this quote from him: "The Jewish people are smart, they know where they can make a buck or two."

    December 27, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  16. Dovber.

    Mattisyahu was a good friend of mine in yeshiva back in Brooklyn. I miss him very much and hope is doing well. I strongly disagree with many of his actions and statements, but I can relate to them and understand him. Many people who become religious later in life often find that their inspiration fizzles out after a few years. Where I think mattisyahu made a mistake was, that when he started having some question and difficulties, he chose to explore other routes instead of talking more with his friends about his concerns. I almost never spoke with him after he got married. I think that this is a problem for many people that they forget that their friends and family got them to where they are and look for different paths.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  17. Sarah

    Adam Sandler did NOT write the "only" Hannukah song. Check out:Peter, Paul, and Mary's Light One Candle (because it is awesome,) then swing by Amazon and note the hundreds of results in the Music section for the word "Hannukah." To say nothing of the hundreds of traditional pieces of music regularly played at Hannukah.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  18. maxmaxwell

    all I can say is wow! atypical of this type of breeding. hahahahahahahahahahahahah

    December 27, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  19. whitbev

    The great thing about a musical star is that you just have to look at their lyrics to really see what they feel is important. it is easy to make things up to criticize people about, but the majority of these comments just demonstrate that the criticizer hasn't even bothered to look at Matisyahu's work. I am a Christian and an Elder in my church, but I find his lyrics deeply religious and compelling. In my opinion, he is the first reggae star since Bob Marley to make deeply spiritual reggae music.
    The way he has now fused reggae, hip hop and pop is unique and very good. Good example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JShdnOiKHeU
    I went to the Electric Factory concert in Philly and he invited fans onstage for the last song to dance with him. The last verse he sang with a complete stranger as she recorded it on her iPhone.
    He seems to me like a very spiritual, very talented, down to earth guy and I wish him the best.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  20. Louie

    Ive been a big fan of this man. His music was a much needed spirtual road map I needed at the time. I can relate to every song and am always waiting for the next. Listening as a Christian is goes beyond "religon" this is a man who earnestly seeks the face of God like king David and myself. Please keep up the good work Matt. Enjoy the journey.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:31 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.