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Rebbe & reggae

Matisyahu uses his CD and club performances 'to expose God.'
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 his faith.

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 Festival.

"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."

Originally published on October 24, 2004

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