Photos by: Brandon Jones
Born Matthew Paul Miller, Matisyahu rocked the music world as an ultra–orthodox Jew with a passion for reggae and Chassidus alike—he’s essentially a unicorn. But after years under the spotlight as the Jewish claim to fame, a shocking shave and subsequent departure from Orthodox Judaism had fans turn to haters.
Fast forward five years: Matisyahu embarked on a tour across campus Hillels with rapper Nadim Azzam of both Jewish and Palestinian background to promote dialogue and unity through music. Last week, Hillel representatives (and us) sat down with Matisyahu and Nadim for guac and good conversation before their World Cafe Live show.
Then, Street caught up with Matisyahu—former Hasidic reggae superstar, current spiritual, musical powerhouse—about music, having the balls to change and that thing called God. He showed us that it’s okay to ask questions, that it’s okay to change (Ed. note: Looking at you, pre–meds). And the people who support you along the way? Those are your the true fans. I don’t know about you, but after our talk, Matisyahu, I’d like to think I’m one of them.
Street: How has this tour changed your perspective on Israel and Palestine and the conflict? I know you guys were talking about changing the conversation and addressing both sides. How do you think your music addresses that?
Matisyahu: I have a song called ‘Surrender’, and in some ways, my music is about that. It’s about not forcing something, or not trying to push something. But actually surrendering to something bigger, and I think that concept is in the music. Not to say that Jews or Israel should surrender, but the idea that surrendering your ego to understanding and compassion, even if it means getting hurt in the process.
Street: Can you tell me about your progression with your music and how you draw from your religious background, between your older work when you were more associated with Lubavitch, to now when you’re on your own path?
M: When I first started out, I basically used all the chassidus I was learning as the canon to be the content for the songs that I was writing. I had my life experience that I included in the songs, and I also had this whole canon of works of literature and ideas from the Old Testament, from all the different Chassidus, the Kabbalah and all that. So, I used those ideas that I was studying as the backdrop for the songs, for the content. On Akeda, which is the most drastically different record, I still use those concepts, but not so much like I would reading in a book and I would be like “Oh, from the forest itself comes the handle for the axe” (Talmud Sanhedrin 39b) –that’s a cool line, let me use that as a chorus for a song – but more about that the stories and ideas that have become deeply internalized in myself and now for that album, I’m writing songs about personal experiences—divorce, being a father, religion, breaking away from religion, dealing with people’s perceptions or ideas of what you should be, how to break away from that, how to follow after yourself—and the emotional content behind all that. What it feels like to go through these things. What it feels like to deal with addiction and all kinds of, you know, just my life, everything in my life. It’s written from a much more personal standpoint, it’s written from a much more emotional place as opposed to intellectual. And then the Torah, or the ideas and the stories, or the Avos (Patriarchs) and the Imos (Matriarchs), all became very real to me as opposed to these distant ideas. I can now relate to Jacob, or to Abraham bringing his son up on to the mountain and making the sacrifice. What does Abraham have to deal with after that? The walk back. How does he reintegrate into the world, after he’s sacrificed everything that he built? And what is he dealing with—he’s dealing with a dead wife, a son that won’t talk to him anymore, and basically a village of people that think he lost his mind.
I try to approach things from a different angle, not necessarily the same angle that it was taught to me in yeshiva. From a much more real perspective, with the social context and the historical context.
Street: Who would your religious inspirations be now, after you’ve broken from the Lubavitch, kind of Kabbalistic ideas? Any that you carry through with you?
M: I was really into Chabad in 2001, 2, 3, 4. I started studying Rabbi Nachman, I got into that, 2005,6, 7. Then I started really studying deeply the Baal Shem Tov Chassidus and Kabbalah.
2008, 2009, 2010. Then I expanded into studying all different smaller sects of Chassidus and then I started studying psychotherapy a lot – R.D. Lang, Theon, Mike Igan, Winnicott. Then the major works of philosophy.
Street: What do you pass on to your kids? How do you want them to develop their Jewish identity?
M: I think it’s important for kids to have a strong sense of who they are. I think so many American Jews don’t have that. They either look down on their Judaism or ashamed of it or don’t fully understand that. They don’t really know what it means.
My kids go to day school. They grow up knowing that they’re Jewish. It’s such a strong part of their identity. I notice in the kids and people that I meet that my favorite people are the ones who were raised religious that are no longer religious. I just like those kids.
Street: And why?
M: I happen to like them. They have a strong sense of who they are, but yet they’ve taken their life into their own hands and have the balls to not just go along with what their parents gave them, but they have a strong sense of themselves versus, not saying every kid, but in general. So, I want my kids to have a sense of who they are, but also not to be pinned into one-sided thinking or closed mindedness.
Street: How has your relationship with them changed through your religious transformation?
M: It’s pretty good. When I’m home, they live with me. I live in a house with 3 boys. Bibi guns, video games, so we have a good time. I’m really close with my kids. My kids are really important to me. But we struggle – especially, like my oldest son who had the most life experience with me being religious. He has a little bit of a tough time with it, you know? But he’s trying to figure it out for himself too.
Street: So, what’s the inspiration behind your name, being Matisyahu, and you picked that name for what reason? And how has it shaped your identity?
M: That’s the name I was given in Hebrew school as a kid, because my name is Matthew, so Matisyahu. When I became religious, it’s one of the things to go by your Hebrew name. And I liked that. I liked the idea of really coming into my identity as a jew, in terms of the way I felt, but also in terms of the way the world looked at me, and I liked the idea representing Judaism and Jewish-ness in full, not just in my mind or in my thoughts, but actually down to the way that I look, you know, it’s my expression and the name went along with that.
The name correlates to the story of Hanukkah—Matisyahu and his sons, the rebel army, and his fight against the hasmoneans, and then the rededication of the temple which was completely desecrated.
You look at the metaphor, a person’s body is like a temple. Even when you get to the lowest of the low, and you’re down, there’s still the canister of oil from the high priest from that part of yourself—the yechida, the neshama, the highest part of the soul, which no matter what, stays in contact with God and is uncontaminated. From that place you can rebuild and tap into light even from that darkness. I relate to that in my personal life and I relate to Matisyahu.
Street: What’s your relationship with God now? Is it communal, personal, spiritual?
M: It’s complex. In some ways it’s like you take these things, you assume these things, but at a certain age you may be struggling or whatever and then say ‘I believe in God’, and then you attached yourself to this idea and won’t ever let yourself think outside of that. Then you pray to God and do all these things for God, but you basically stop asking the question. It’s like being with a human being, like “ok, I know this person. And that’s what they are to me in my life.” And then you stop actually investigating who that person really is. You stop asking questions. You become stuck in a ‘thing’.
Now I try to come to the place where I think God is probably so fucking fed up with all of us projecting our shit on to him, and saying “Ok, you’re god, you’re this, you’re this, you’re this, you’re this.” So I try to approach God from a place of not knowing really which is the Jewish concept of God, that’s why we can’t have an image of God. Jews can’t have an intermediary, we always talk about that. That’s why we don’t have Jesus or the idols or anything, because God is the unknown, the complete unknown, the mystery. But yet we try to assume we know God. I try to approach God now from a place of not assuming and just it’s because when you talk to God, God doesn’t talk back. Maybe in your life you see things, you feel yourself in the flow sometimes, like I’m in God’s flow right now, because you feel everything kind of connecting, you might feel the universe grinding up and you say “oh, this was supposed to happen”, “Wow I’m really connected to God”.
But you never get to hug God, taste God, see God. We really don’t know God. And for me it’s about coming to terms with the idea that I don’t know God and that I can pray to a God I feel like I know and that I feel close to, but at the end of the day I’m asking the question, who are you? One big question mark.
Street: Has there been any moment of clarity, or in “God’s flow” as of recent?
M: I had a moment recently when I was involved in some things, and then I broke away, and put myself in check and then I just realized that really, this hunger that I have, this desire for things, it’s always been the same. It expresses itself in different ways.
But at the end of the day, at the etzem of my being, the core of my being, I just want to talk to God. I want to pray. That’s always been. That’s from before I was religious. And not force myself on God, but really talk to God, really feel that connection and have that conversation. That was a pretty cool moment for me, because I still pray, and stuff like that. That’s really what I’ve always been about, the communication and the interaction with this thing called God, you know, whatever that is.