LONG BEACH, Calif. (JTA) – By the time Matisyahu loped onstage for what had been billed for days as a surprise appearance at Jewlicious, it was a surprise only to festival organizers.
They had worried until the last minute that the Chasidic reggae superstar, whose onstage passion contrasts sharply with an offstage diffidence, would be a no-show at their fourth annual learning and cultural weekend aimed at college and post-college students.
The guy is notorious for doing what he wants – from switching record companies (in 2006 he dumped the indie JDub Records for the big boys at Sony) to breaking last fall with Chabad-Lubavitch, the movement that gave him the Chasidic street credibility that helped jump-start his career.
But there he sat Sunday afternoon, perched on a high-backed stool in his trademark black sweats and Nikes, blue button-down shirt and black hoodie, peering out through small, rectangular spectacles at more than 200 people who had crammed into the cafe at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center to hear him.
After opening with a niggun, or Chasidic melody, which segued into his early hit “Close My Eyes,” Matisyahu addressed the crowd in his trademark quiet voice, which has lost the adult onset Yiddish inflection that marked it even a year ago.
“OK, so I was supposed to talk about spirituality,” he began, breaking into a sardonic half-grin. “But I realized I’m not so good at that, so I’m going to sing a couple more songs.”
Matisyahu, aka Matthew Miller, is still very much a work in progress. He’s the first to admit it.
Now 28, he grew up Reconstructionist in White Plains, N.Y., and has only been frum, or religiously observant, for eight years.
A musician who combines reggae and dance-hall music, it was only when he emerged from yeshiva four years ago in full Chasidic regalia, incorporating Chasidic melodies and references to Hashem and Jerusalem, that his meteoric rise to fame began.
“I know that in my life, when I really gave myself over completely to God, He really blessed me,” Matisyahu told the Jewlicious crowd.
Since his 2004 debut, “Shake Off the Dust … Arise,” Matisyahu has released half a dozen CDs and DVDs, toured North America, Europe and Israel, and graced TV talk shows and magazine covers. He was Billboard’s 2006 reggae Artist of the Year, an unlikely title for the soft-spoken young man still feeling his way through the Chasidic world.
At Jewlicious, the annual festival organized by Beach Hillel at the Long Beach JCC, Matisyahu has taken on an almost Dylanesque mystique. He was there all Shabbat with his wife, Tahlia, as they were two years ago.
But the some 600 individuals gathered for a weekend of Jewish workshops, worship and music carefully left him alone. However, when word spread that he was going to teach a workshop on Jewish spirituality Sunday, the room filled up quickly.
After the self-deprecating opener, Matisyahu spent an hour singing some of his better-known songs accompanied by Adam Weinberg on the guitar. He also delivered a d’var Torah on Jerusalem and answered questions with disarming candidness.
Matisyahu spoke about his struggle to keep his music grounded in faith.
“Sometimes I fall into the trap of relying on my music,” he said. “If you spend your life trying to fill up the hole inside of you, when the music comes, there’s no emotion behind it, there’s nothing going on.”
He paused, then added, “I’m talking about myself.”
Asked how he manages to “stay pure” in the face of his new wealth and success, Matisyahu acknowledges the struggle.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said, adding half-jokingly that he is working on it with his therapist. “I feel I’m doing an OK job, better maybe than I was a little while ago.”
The singer talked about why he is no longer affiliated with Chabad, a break he announced last fall in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
“When I first became religious, a lot of it had to do with my desire to be connected with God,” he explained. His first mentor was a Chabad rabbi, who started teaching him Chabad chasidus, or theology, which he still studies and which he found “very important” in helping him “get beyond myself.”
But once he was able to “push myself over the edge,” as he put it, he felt it was “time to return to myself a little bit.”
It’s not a matter of rejecting Chabad, Matisyahu added quickly, but of “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”
He still lives in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where his wife has strong ties to the Lubavitch community, but he prays in a Karliner shul in Borough Park, also in that New York City borough. Last fall in Jerusalem he started hanging out with the Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume.
“Prayer is basically boring,” he told the crowd, which laughed appreciatively. “So I just try to make it exciting as much as possible.”
Describing the Chabad approach to prayer as “trying to intellectually grasp God as much as you can,” Matisyahu said he feels “there are times for that and there are times for just screaming to God. And that’s what I want to do every morning.”
That’s how his current minyan prays, he said, adding with a grin, “It’s a lot of fun.”
But it’s also serious, he continued, related to the passion with which generations of religious martyrs died with the Shema prayer on their lips.
Imitating the polite, sing-song Shema melody used in the typical American synagogue, Matisyahu contrasted that – in an exaggerated stage whisper – with the way Karliners in his new minyan scream every word “as if there’s a firing squad in the room, and they’re saying it with their last breath. That’s the way I like to kick off my morning.”
Matisyahu talked about moshiach, hinting that messianism within Lubavitch – the belief that the late rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is God’s promised Messiah – was one of the things that pushed him away from the group.
He told the crowd he discovered reggae at age 14, “when I started smoking pot,” adding quickly that’s something he no longer does.
Matisyahu even offered dating advice – “find someone that you like” – and admitted that he might have known “in my subconscious” that the Chasidic dress helped his career.
But most of what he shared had to do with the connection between music and love of God, which he sees – like any good Chasid or reggae musician – as inextricably linked.
“I feel being Jewish and being able to express myself through music, there’s definitely a connection,” he mused, nodding to himself. “Yeah.”
That prompted one young man to ask Matisyahu how he felt about being able to make a living from his music.
“It’s f–-ing awesome,” the star responded, with a huge smile.
As the students cheered uproariously, he added somewhat ruefully, “Oh, I’m going to be hearing about that.”