Matisyahu might have been the first Hasidic Jew to perform inside MTV’s studio, but he wasn’t the first Orthodox Jew to be an American music superstar.
Yossele Rosenblatt immigrated to America in 1912, at the age of 30. He was soon singing Hebrew prayers and Yiddish songs at benefits for Jewish charities. The director of the Chicago Opera happened to be at one of these events, and offered Rosenblatt a leading role with his company at $1,000 per performance–an unheard-of amount in those days.
Rosenblatt ultimately turned down the offer, as it would have conflicted with his job as a cantor. But, eventually, he came to perform regularly at Carnegie Hall, singing opera arias and cantorial tunes to largely secular and non-Jewish audiences.
Financial troubles eventually forced Rosenblatt to take up vaudeville and less-prestigious gigs. Even then, Rosenblatt held fast to his beliefs. He turned down a major role in the film The Jazz Singer, since it would have entailed performing the Kol Nidre service in a non-religious atmosphere. In the end, the film’s producers wrote in a cameo where Rosenblatt appeared as himself–and, once again, he was a star on his own terms.