The Messiah may come as soon as
Matisyahu's next gig.
"The Rebbe told me that one act of goodness could tip
the scales to bring Moshiach," says the 25-year-old
Hasidic singer, who hopes that act is his music.
Once an ambivalent suburban child and later a
troubled, drug-addled runaway, Matisyahu - born Matthew
Miller - eventually found peace in Orthodox Judaism.
Now he's released a reggae album - "Shake Off the
Dust ... Arise!" - that will help spread the messages of
Though he can't perform on Friday nights (in
observance of the Sabbath) and won't wear glasses on
stage (in case his audience includes scantily clad
females), his faith's strict lifestyle hasn't prevented
Matisyahu from cultivating a strong fan base.
He played the Hook, in Red Hook, Saturday night and
is on tour in Minnesota this week.
"People have certain feeling about Hasidism, a
prejudice about the [constraints of the] lifestyle,"
says David Baugnon, whose short documentary "Matisyahu"
won the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 God on Film
"But once you see this Hasidic guy chanting and
beat-boxing onstage, is doesn't matter who you are, you
just want to rock."
Growing up a Reconstructionism Jew in White Plains,
Matisyahu never connected to his faith. "Being Jewish
was not cool," he says.
As his friends began to drink, smoke and party,
Matisyahu felt even more out of place at home. He turned
to the music of Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead for
comfort. At 16, he spent a semester in Israel, and while
in Jerusalem, stumbled upon a room of praying Hasidim.
"They were praying so fervently they were rocking,"
he remembers. "Their payos [sidelocks] and beards were
flying, their hats moving with their heads, their faces
contorted. I thought, 'Ah. This is what Jewish is. They
have a connection to God.'"
It would still be years before Matisyahu found his
connection. At 17, Matisyahu fled to Burlington, Vt. He
panhandled, lived in parks and cars and followed the jam
band Phish across the country.
When he returned, months later, no closer to feeling
peace and strung out from his journey, Matisyahu checked
himself into a therapeutic wilderness program in Oregon.
While on the West Coast, he started a band, beat-boxing
and rapping to other people's music.
He eventually moved back to New York and enrolled at
the New School, rapping and singing in his Manhattan
apartment to reggae instrumental tapes from Canal
Street. One day, he spontaneously went up to a rooftop
and tried to pray.
"It was crying out to God and something about it felt
right," he says.
His exploration led him to the Chabad-Lubavitch
community in Crown Heights. He studied for 14 hours a
day, and stopped listening to music, shaving, talking to
women, going out with friends and seeing movies.
"There was no doubt that it was hard, it was sad
because you were giving your self up," he says.
But now he has found a way to fuse his love for music
with his love for God.
"Now I see what it means to be awake, alive,
connected to God," he says. "In a world that is covering
God, I am trying to expose God."
published on October 24, 2004