We were on the first day of a two week car trip through Europe. My wife Jody and I and our three kids had packed the rented Nissan Almera full of our gear and were settling in for the three hour drive from the Milan airport to our bed and breakfast in Italy’s picturesque Lake Garda area.
We hit the Autostrada and, after the initial excitement of all those “foreign” road signs ( “What does ‘Uscita; mean?” and “Can we really go 120 on this road?” ), everyone quieted down as we realized that a highway is a highway…even in Italian.
“Can you turn on the radio?” fourteen-year-old Amir commanded and I readily complied.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to listen to the radio in Europe, but it is a truly dreadful experience. Nothing but station after station of Euro disco garbage, pardon my snooty American/Israeli attitude.
“Does this car have a CD player?” Amir asked. “Because I have a disc that Safta gave us. Some guy named…” (he looked at the disc)…“Matisyahu.”
Amir and his twelve-year-old sister Merav had spent the summer in California with their grandparents before meeting the rest of the family in Italy for our vacation together. The Matisyahu disc had been a parting gift from Jody’s mom.
“Hand it over,” I said excitedly. But as I took a look at the cover of “Live at Stubb’s,” I quickly lost my optimism.
The man going by the very Ashkenazi-sounding name “Matisyahu” ( with the “s” in the middle rather than the more Israeli pronunciation of “Matitayu” with a “t” ) was decked out in traditional ultra-orthodox attire: black hat, black coat, bushy beard. A little experience told me that the music on this CD would more likely lean towards old world cantorial-style or the type of bubbly “simcha” music heard at weddings and bar mitzvahs rather than hipper, more modern Israeli world music we generally favor: Idan Raichel and HaDag Nachash, that sort of thing.
I steeled myself for an hour of “oy va voys” and “we want Moshiach now.”
Imagine my surprise as the first track started to play: a reggae and rap-influenced number inspired more by Bob Marley and 50 Cent than Dudu Fisher or Tevye the milkman. The next track, “Chop ‘Em Down,” had us rocking in our seats with its mix of religious lyrics and jam band riffs. Matisyahu, it seems, has traded in the “oys” for some authentic reggae “yo’s”
Or as Matisyahu might say, “yiggy-ay-ay-yo.”
By track five – “King without a Crown” (which I later learned had been released as one of the singles from the CD) we were hooked.
“One more time,” Merav begged when the disc concluded.
Why not, I figured. We still had another hour until we got to our destination.
Over the course of the next two weeks, we must have listened to that Matisyahu CD at least 35 times. Through three European countries, past the craggy peaks surrounding Lake Como and the snow-covered Alps towering above Grindelwald, over more than 600 miles of road tripping from Venice Italy to Freiberg Germany, we had the continuously repeating soundtrack of Matisyahu innovative rhymes:
“If you’re cup’s already full then it’s bound to overflow
If you’re drowning in the waters and you can’t stay afloat
Ask Hashem for mercy and he’ll throw you a rope”
“Exaltation, my G-d of salvation
The field and there in will be filled with jubilation
The lord’s name will be proclaimed amongst the Nations
We don’t have no time for patience”
Not surprisingly, when we got back home to Israel, I felt like I had a very intimate relationship with this mystery man. But who was he? I only knew his lyrics and the one black and white stencil drawing on the album cover. Was he frum – that is, religious – from birth? If so, where’d he learn his rock and roll chops?
The first website I surfed to when I booted up my computer after a two week absence was HasidicReggae.com where I learned that Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller in 1979, that he grew up in Berkeley CA and White Plains NY, attended Hebrew School a couple of times a week but had a penchant for disrupting lessons and was frequently threatened with expulsion.
By the age of 14, he fell in with a “Dead-Head” crowd, grew dreadlocks and played bongos in the lunchroom. He also started “beatboxing” – a type of musical street smarts involving a sputtering of seemingly inhuman noises that lie somewhere between imitation of electronic percussion…and spit – that is a highlight of his musical performances to this day.
A trip to Israel and a stay at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod HaSharon when he was 16 opened him up to learning more about Judaism in a positive way. “They took us to Mount Scopus to look at the view of Jerusalem,” Miller said in an interview last week in Ha’aretz. “It sounds a little corny, I know, but it totally does the job. You stand up there, overlooking this incredible city, and you sing `Jerusalem of Gold’ and something big moves in your heart. It was the first time that I felt my soul, that I really felt it. I felt God.”
A few years later, Miller was studying at the Chabad yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But his restlessness and his life-long passion for music convinced him that he needed to be on stage. He had already performed at a few clubs before his yeshiva stint. Now he was back with a vengeance.
He hooked up with Aaron Bisman, co-founder of JDub Records (and a friend of ours) and now has two CDs out. With the latest, “Live at Stubbs,” selling over 100,000 copies, Matisyahu is considered the most successful Jewish recording artist ever to “cross over” into the mainstream. He’s even got his own fan club. Now Sony has picked up the enigmatic Charedi reggae-rapper and is investing six figures in a music video alone. His third disc is due out next month in January.
Despite all the success, the cynic in me still couldn’t help wondering if Matisyahu is for real. I mean, if he weren’t a black hatter who inexplicably sounds Jamaican, would anyone take notice? There are plenty of wannabe American Idols clamoring for their chance in the spotlight. And it wasn’t that long ago that Matisyahu was a drop out searching for a purpose.
Could the whole religious shtick be just a well crafted – albeit highly effective – publicity stunt?
Matisyahu doesn’t blame his critics. “If I were them, I’d think that I’m some sort of gimmick too,” he said in the Haaretz interview.
“He’s a gimmick until he opens his mouth,” his producer Bisman added. “But he doesn’t stand on the stage like an idiot in some nonchalant pose. He goes nuts. He’s there because of the passion and the hat and the beard can’t hide that.”
So when I heard Matisyahu was coming to Israel to give a series of performances last week, I really didn’t have a choice…I had to be there, to check this guy out live and on stage.
Matisyahu’s show at the avant-garde Jerusalem performance space The Lab last week didn’t disappoint. The club was sold out and tickets were reportedly being scalped outside for up to NIS 500 ($110) each. Inside, the singer rapped, jumped and gyrated (modestly of course) his way through an hour and half of old and new material. But it was the audience that ultimately won me over.
Matisyahu’s fan base spans an extraordinary spectrum: girls in trashy spaghetti strap tank tops; yeshiva boys with their tzitzit (ritual fringes) flying as they tossed each other in the air as part of a decidedly unspiritual mosh pit; a goodly sprinkling of middle aged hippies; and a twelve-year-old friend of Merav’s – all of them jumping and grinding on the packed dance floor together, shouting out “Mat-is-ya-hu, Mat-is-ya-hu” at the Rabbiniclal-looking figure on stage as if he were Paul McCartney or Axl Rose in a tallit.
Regular readers of this blog know that there is just about nothing I value more than Jewish unity. On this end Matisyahu scored an unquestionable home run.
A few days later, I was listening to one of my favorite Internet radio streams – 99X, Atlanta’s home for “Everything Alternative,” by no means a religious station ( it vociferously promotes its irreverent holiday “Mistle Toe Jam” ), and there was the DJ mumble-mouthing “Ma-sit-ya-su” or something similarly tongue-twisted, and then playing “King without a Crown” with its “we want Moshiach now” refrain.
And I thought: forget about Jewish unity, can world peace be far off?
Does Matisyahu make extraordinary music? Absolutely. Is he the real deal? After 35 listens across Europe and a tour-de-force performance in Jerusalem, I’m still not sure. But he and his cross-generational multi-faith fans certainly seem to believe it. And that’s good enough for me.
Brian Blum is a journalist and entrepreneur based in Jerusalem. He writes the weekly column This Normal Life (www.ThisNormalLife.com). His latest startup Bloggerce (www.bloggerce.com) provides online publishing solutions for budding bloggers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.