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June 5, 2012 4:02 pm

Matisyahu’s Public Transformation: What The World Doesn’t Understand

avatar by Elad Nehorai

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Matisyahu. Photo:Twitter.

Six months ago, Matisyahu shaved off his beard. And while it made headlines in the mainstream press, few realized how much this seemingly simple act had rippled through the religious Jewish community. Jewish blogs, newspapers and more buzzed with the news of what Matisyahu had done.

Now, Matisyahu has done something again, and very few people are reacting, especially the mainstream press, mostly because on the outside it’s not quite as dramatic as it was when he cut his beard.

Yesterday, Matisyahu posted a picture of himself not wearing a kippah, and then another one that showed him sitting next to another musician who was smoking a joint.

The world didn’t react, but the Jewish world let out another anguished cry.

There seem to always be two camps whenever Matisyahu does something like this. One is the religious Jews, his biggest fans, who get angry, sad or upset. They react emotionally and often write very personal things to him, usually critical, in public places like Facebook and blogs.

Far larger than the religious Jewish fanbase is the Matisyahu’s wider audience. Non-Jews, secular Jews, etc. These are the people that connect to Matisyahu not because of his religion, per se, but simply as any fan relates to a musician. They love his beats, they love his journey, and they love his deep lyrics. The reaction from the typical Matisyahu fan, when they see the turmoil his actions create in our community, is one of bemusement. Why on earth is this group of people so judgmental, they wonder. How could they react so violently? Can’t they just live and let live?

Here’s what this group doesn’t get: Matisyahu was a hero to us religious Jews not because he was deep, not because he was a good musician and not even because of his beard.

Religious Jews, especially the young ones who, more than any other generation for the last 5,000 years, have felt connected to the secular world, the “outside” world, felt an incredible connection with him. He wasn’t just a role model, the way a president is, or anyone else. He was a brother. Someone who had a connection with us no one else could understand. And he represented our culture to the entire world in a way that the world could finally understand and connect to who we were.

When Matisyahu realized the power he held, he took it on with gusto. Every time he would do a show, he would come eat Shabbat meals with us on our college campuses or our synagogues like he was one of us. If you lived in Jerusalem, you stood a good chance of running into him on the street, not surrounded or hounded like he might be in America, but walking around like any other religious Jew. He was one of us.

And then there was the music. It might be hard to understand if you aren’t a religious Jew, but there was an amazing joy that we got out of finally being able to dance, to sing, to music that was connected to us and our beliefs. That we no longer had to compromise and listen to music we felt didn’t represent us or our values just because we liked the beat. Now we could like the beat, and connect to the music. We could even let our children listen to it. You have no idea what a blessing that is.

When other, more judgmental, religious Jews criticized him, attacked him even, we stood up for him. If he slipped, if he didn’t do things exactly the way we wanted, we understood he was human, we understood he was someone on a journey. He didn’t grow up religious, and he deserved the ability to make mistakes. It didn’t matter, because in the end we knew he wanted the best for us, just the way we wanted the best for him.

And then he cut his beard.

No matter whether we defended him, as I did, or attacked him, the truth is, we all reacted the same on an emotional level. This was what was so hard for people to understand from the outside. People saw some of us judging him, point fingers at him and attacking him. And they saw others sympathizing, saying we should understand where he was coming from.

But the truth is it didn’t make a difference how we acted. We were all mourning. We understood that this was it. He had taken off the mantle of leadership. He had “left” in a public way, in an insensitive and humiliating way. And we were broken hearted. No matter how much I defended him, I couldn’t help feeling as if this was the end of an era.

But the truth was, even then, most of us still loved him and held out hope it would all work out in the end. He was still our brother, and he had affected us all so positively that words could not express our gratitude. We loved him no matter how much he hurt us, no matter how much he talked down about religious Judaism from then on, even when it was in public, no matter how much he rejected us.

And then, yesterday, Matisyahu posted two pictures of himself. Not wearing a kippah. Sitting with someone who’s smoking pot.

The cry is quieter this time. It’s not as vocal and intense, but it’s deeper.

Although the beard cut was more shocking, these latest pictures are a clear and outright rejection of his values, and also as his position as a leader and role model for us religious Jews who still want to be a part of secular culture.

It’s not about pot. It’s not about the kippah, even. It’s about the message he’s sending. The way these pictures didn’t even come with an explanation. As if our relationship with him didn’t even exist.

Words cannot describe what it is like when your brother, the person you looked up to and admired for so long, rejects everything you hold dear. It used to be that we loved him for the great good he did for us and the world, for the way he proudly represented who he was, without any apologies and with a full heart. He was our spokesman, our ambassador and mentor.

Now he’s just our brother. A person we’ll always love, but who has, nonetheless, broken our hearts.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Elad Nehorai is a writer living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Five years ago, he became a religious Jew in the Chabad Hassidic community and has since written about his experience extensively, most recently in his blog Pop Chassid. You can find him on Twitter as @PopChassid and Facebook.

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  • Why do we always see religion as a limiting factor when its purpose is to unite people? Aren’t there far more essential things than religious differences? The man has an amazing musicality which unites different people. Why can’t he be just that?

  • Chava

    I can not tell you how dissaponted i am after reading this article. As a Mayanot alum who experienced the bt journey, lived in israel and in crown heights, i feel that the foundation of this article is extreamly biased. “Matisyahu, we only accept you as long as you act in a way we approve.” You call Matisyahu your brother over and over in your article, but are you really that close? I agree its awesome when you can be a fan of a mysician and his lifestyle is similar to yours, but I dont think Matis ever called you and asked you to make him your Mashpia. I really dont think that Gds plan could be altered by Matisyshu making a personal decision. But because hes a public figure, and he used to dress like you, pray like you and live in your neighboorhood, it makes you feel like hes your brother? Maybe you and Matisyahu even kiked it a few times and you really looked upto the guy, but when he chooses to be a bit different then you, you feel like he owes you an explination? Last time i checked you, nor i were his wife, parents,mentors, cowrkers.. That means, we dont deserve anything other than what he chooses to share with us in any package it comes. I usually dont respond to things like this, but ur better then writing articles based on false premises. Especially about other Jews, even if they are public figures.

    • Dani

      Its funny that people are so quick to defend matis. His goal was to represent a frum jew who could relate with all people while still keeping to a high level of orthodox faith and he failed. He came way to close to the cliff and he fell off. I feel bad for him and i would love to talk to him and try to help him. i am a orthodox jew my self living in isreal, born in queens. I too am what u would call a bal tshuva. one need to understand when becoming religuos u have to realize that people are not perfect. Many jews are great and some are not but thats with all religions. My problem with him is that if u want to build ur carer around ur faith so either stick with or quit because when u represent or think u represent the jewish people u have a large responsibility. If u dont want to be frum thats ur own choice but once u act as a poster boy for all jews (which was his goal) then u got to quit ur job and live a low key life and figure ur life out on ur own, dont take down all the good people who work hard every day to act a good as g jews and make a good impression on people. This is co ing from the bottom of my heart please quit for get out of the puplic eye and figure ur life out and take care of ur family. May hashem bless u .

  • Jill

    Maybe he felt he was only representing the Orthodox and Hasidic. Maybe he thought taking off the Kippah, he would represent all branches of Judaism. I mean, look at Jewish Musicians like Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman, Rabbi Joe Black, Julie Silver, Sam Glazer and Rick Recht. They don’t wear Kippahs when performing, yet they touch and represent ALL branches of Judaism. Stop being so critical of Matisyahu and like others have said before me-just worry about yourself. And just enjoy Matisyau’s music. :D:D:D

    • Simcha Ben Avraham

      I like your comment Jill, but to us jews, this isn’t a matter of whether or not he looks like us, its a matter of whether or not he is doing what he is supposed to be doing as a Jew. imagine if the quarter back of a football team, took off his uniform, the team would feel upset yes? Matisyahu is a roll model to many including myself as both an chassidic jew, and as a musician, I always listen to his music still, and I’m not quick to judge him, he is on his own spiritual journey, and it is my prayer that he, as well as I,and all of the other jews, are led in the right path, the path of Torah and mitzvos.
      Many young Jews today look up to him, and if the roll model turns from the path, G-d forbid those young jews take off their kippah and call it quits. hope this makes sense 🙂

      • Steven

        Your post takes the stance that there is only one correct path to being a Jew. This exclusionary approach to Judaism is harmful to the entire diaspora.

  • Johana Nadler

    Could it be that Matisyahu wanted to bring his chasidim faith into the 21st century without all its restraints? Maybe he wanted to balance the core value of his faith with the reality of living in the 21st century. It is very hard and oftentimes wondrous to see that Chasidics want to maintain and follow their tenets from eons ago into the 21st century without any balance with the society they live in. It is good to have faith and be religious but it is also good to respect the values of the country that harbors you and respect their holidays (not religious of course) but secular ones and not ignoring them blatantly by organizing religious activities on those days: i.e.: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, June 6th (D’Day) and so on.

    No matter what he is a man of extraordinary talent and an inspiration to many. G-d bless him in all his future endeavors.

  • Meir

    I met Matisyahu on the eve of his first ever European concert to interview him for a Jewish magazine.

    He was a sweet guy, a Baal Teshuvah still enthralled by the structure and meaning Chassiduth gave to him after what appeared to be a meandering, secular lifestyle and little higher education. That latter aspect was what struck me, as Matthew is highly intelligent and he jumped head-first into the Chasidic/Lubavitcher lifestyle. As he would get to better understand and re-assess that world against his personal beliefs and personality and get the ‘full picture’ this move away was always likely to happen. On another note, Marijuana use did come up in the talk and though he disavowed it personally, he was not going to judge others. He had smoked plenty himself before his return to Yiddishkeit.

    Furthermore, the investment in this guy was always going to be unhealthy. It’s more a reflection of the insecurities of the communities themselves and the inhibitions they have than a reflection of Matisyahu himself. Matisyahu was never scared of the outside world – he brought it into the Chassidic/MO universe but the insecurities remain….

  • Victor Eli Morris Levy

    As the grandson of a Rabbi and being rock n roll musician living a life my grandfather would NOT approve of, it seems to me that the true disappointment being felt is not about the transformation of an individual.

    His distancing himself from that which connected you represents a source of doubt where once there was certainty. Your disappointment is in yourself – that you are no longer on a spiritual journey. You have reached your spiritual destination and think you need no more journeys. By resuming his spiritual journey in a direction that is unexpected (and clearly not approved), Mat has sewn the seed of insecurity in those who disapprove.

    After all, the acts of another person (Jewish or not) should not cause you to question your own beliefs. But, in questioning a person with whom you felt such a connection, you are actually questioning yourself…

  • Itzchak

    Here you have a talented singer who became religious, didn’t learn that much Torah but became a real symbol for many.
    I question putting so much of your hopes and expectations on him.
    Not a good focus for one’s spirituality.

    • Meir

      This is indeed a likely correct observation re: insecurities.

  • Steven

    You write, “It used to be that we loved him for the great good he did for us and the world, for the way he proudly represented who he was, without any apologies and with a full heart.”

    Isn’t that exactly what he is doing now? Representing who he is without apologies. It seems that you are much more invested in who you want him to be, then who he is. Is that any way to treat a “brother”?

  • Joy

    Only fairly recently having become a “sometime” part of the local Chassidic community (emphasis on the “sometime!!”), I don’t quite understand or even sympathize with all the rules & regs – but I do respect them; and I admire those who DO “live the life” and “walk the walk,” etc. They are straightforward and honest to themselves, their families & their communities. It’s a very real and full way of life for them.

    However, when I read how much so many have invested in this one human being – and a very real and flawed one at that – I’m reminded that G-d has often admonished us NOT to put all our faith into one person! It’s a vanity that does NOT please G-d!! Even my mother expressed to me many times (and, of course, I didn’t have a clue then to what she was really referring) that she had to ask G-d to forgive her for doting on me – her precious little princess – as much as she did!! She knew that we must never put all our faith & love in another human being – not even our own flesh & blood! But reserve the greatest love for the Lord our G-d!

  • Josh R.

    Judgments about people or things that are unKNOWable come from fear that G-D’s plan is not perfect. Acceptance and love are much higher forms of consciousness. Giving in to fear is easy. Trusting the heart that G-D gave you takes much more faith and discipline. Create a personal connection with the divine rather than cliquishly joining the jeering, judgmental, and fearful who claim to speak on behalf of the almighty. Trust in Love.

  • Zev Mo Green

    I think people should grow up and worry about themselves. Each person can determine, for themselves, what roll their spiritual (or lack thereof) connection will take. Just because he doesn’t fit your narrow definition, doesn’t make it a tragedy.

    BTW, Moses didn’t wear a velvet kippah, black hat, bekeshe, and a gartle, either. And the history of many kabalistic powerhouses were known to do drugs, but I guess the single-malt kiddush is just A.O.K….

    Stop the L”H and worry about yourself.

  • Alex P

    Hey, Bob Dylan had an orthodox stage too. Each person is on their own path (or should be on one, imho).

  • Dan

    No one should be surprised that a Jew pursuing goyim naches would wind up not acting like a Jew.

    • Joker

      Goyim naches…shouldn’t you be avoiding the internet at all costs as you’ve been instructed by your spiritual leaders? You could potentially see an advertisement that’s offensive to you – that would challenge your lack of self control.
      I’m so tired of the “orthodox” hypocrisy.

    • Meir

      Please tell me how he is ‘not acting like a Jew’ – unless you count the overwhelming majority of global Jewry to be in this category as well.

  • You say that Matisyahu has broken your heart, but what about him? When I see his “transformation” what I see is not his rejection of Judaism, but his growing and waning as a yid. I was also caught up in the kiruv movement; living in the vibrant community of Orthodox Judaism. But as the years went on, I realized that it was all too superficial. There were too many issues with acceptance and understanding. There was a constant strain between what the community saw as acceptable, and the reality of my life. For example, relations with my secular family. The expectation is that you’ll give up all you know and love for the Torah. However the frum community is not willing to come anywhere close in regards to replacing that void. So to me, Matisyahu is simply returning to himself. In spite of his looks and acquaintances he can still be observing and maintaining love for the Torah. G-d knows this is the case with myself. Although many would argue that it is impossible because I opted to pursue a relationship with a non-Jew after years of being passed up in the shidduch world. Aren’t we as a community responsible for each other? (Food for thought.)

    • Amy

      Interesting…my husband and I have become more observant and were always guided to keep the relationship with “secular” family members as close as ever. We feel strongly that this is our journey that we can not impose on anyone else (as hard as this can be sometimes) and to give as much love as ever to our family regardless of their religious affiliation. I am sorry you had that experience—I can see how that would be very off putting.

  • Just exactly how I, my children, and my grandchildren feel. It’s very sad.

  • a concerned person

    a Chapter of thilim will do more good then critics so let us all say a kapitel thilim for him.

  • Reuven B

    I fear for his family. Can the temptations of Hollywood and a rocker lifestyle lure him away? For his childrens’ sakes, I hope not. But many strong people have succumbed.

  • Mike W

    I watched some youtubes of him during one of his concerts. Still had the beard and the kipa. Threw himself into the audience. I knew it was over.

    • Joker

      That’s great that you watched a YouTube video. He’s been throwing himself into crowds for at LEAST the past 10 years which is the first time I saw him live. It was all fine then though because he had a beard, right? Because he was a mascot for the orthodox community….

  • Well said…..:(

  • Nathan G

    Call me a prophet but, one day, Matisyahu will want to come back and ‘repent’… his brothers will look wary – is this another publicity stunt as the first one was?