Clean-shaven Matisyahu at a Brooklyn concert, December 19, 2011.
Fans swarm Hanukkah gig seeking clues on the Orthodox superstar’s new identity, after he recently unveiled a new, clean-shaven look.
New York - Monday, 8:00 P.M. A long line stretches from the entrance to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which hosts indie music groups daily. The cold New York weather does not scare away the waiting crowds, mostly young people, who were disappointed to discover that tickets to the concert had sold out. The lucky ones who secured a $40 ticket in advance finally entered the hall, and only then do they begin to realize that this is no ordinary concert.
Instead of a traditional flickering strobe light, a disco dreidel that would fit in at any dance party spun in all its glory from the ceiling. And if for a moment you might have thought this was Tel Aviv's Barby Club, and not a club in Brooklyn's hippest neighborhood, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, heh, and shin glittered and lit up the crowd, reminding the Hebrew speakers that "a great miracle happened there" and we are still in the U.S. and not Israel.
But the concert Monday night was interesting not just because of the original props, but thanks to the performer about to come on stage: the man who proved over the last decade that you can combine a Hasidic lifestyle and commercial and artistic success, and who created a stir last Tuesday when he wrote on his Twitter account: "No more Hasidic reggae superstar."
This announcement - which ended with a declaration to "get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth" - was accompanied by a photo featuring 32-year-old Matisyahu without a beard or side-curls for the first time since his breakout in the mid-noughties. Initially, one might wonder whether a successful musician shaving his beard or not belongs in the fashion or gossip column. But in the case of Matisyahu, who after a series of interviews and television appearances on the shows of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel became a hero to tens of thousands of youths from the American Jewish community and elsewhere around the world, the decision to be reborn is a lot more than an aesthetic revolution.
"All of his songs are about faith and closeness to God," says Ariel, a skullcap-wearing, 19-year-old New Yorker, who made sure to order tickets in advance and who refers to himself as a diehard fan. "I started going to his live performances in 2005, and I've stopped counting how many I've seen. As an American Jew, it's very easy for me to identify with his songs and messages. As long as his new look is part of a personal journey he is going through, and not a complete disconnect from Judaism, I have no problem with it. But if he decides to stop being religiously observant, this certainly may influence his hard core of fans."
Like Adam Sandler
While the warm-up band Aunt Martha performs songs that are a pale imitation of Fleet Foxes, Taylor Lawrence, 19, from Miami, speculates that Matisyahu's turnaround is actually motivated by commercial considerations. "I really think that it's a move dictated from above, by his managers," says Lawrence, who identifies himself as "an American Jew. As far as musical talent goes, he could be an international star, and his complete identification with Judaism and the Jewish community prevents him from developing in that direction. There is no reason he shouldn't be known all over the world, like Adam Sandler, for example, who is also Jewish but doesn't have a beard. The external symbols really don't change anything. In any case, he is the same person, but now maybe he'll have new fans."
At least as far as appearances go, it seems that Matisyahu now has everything necessary to become an international star. After almost an hour of waiting, at 9:30 the lights dim and he comes on stage wearing a brown jacket several sizes too large for him, a white T-shirt, light-green sneakers, large sunglasses that hide the upper part of his face - and a clean-shaven chin revealing a baby face with a disturbing resemblance to Itay Tiran. It's only after three songs that he removes the jacket and glasses and addresses the audience: "Brooklyn, how is it going? It's good to be back home" - the only sentence he will utter to the crowd all night.
But despite the eccentric choice of clothes and the tendency to mince on words, Matisyahu easily reminds you why he manages to fill up a mid-sized New York club for four nights in a row (the last concert in "Matisyahu Festival of Light" takes place tonight ). He opens the evening with "Open the Gates," which appeared on his last album, "Live at Stubb's, Vol. II," released in February.
When, with a smile, he sings the refrain "There's nothing I can't do/ 'cause I believe in you," his ardent fans don't seem to care that their idol suddenly looks like a 16-year-old kid. He continues to belt out a series of songs, including "Chop 'em Down" and "Warrior." When he gets to his 2006 hit "Jerusalem," which topped the iTunes downloads list, he roars into the microphone: "Afraid of the truth and our dark history/ Why is everybody always chasing we/ Cut off the roots of your family tree/ Don't you know that's not the way to be."
And indeed, the family tree of Matisyahu, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as Matthew Paul Miller, has brought him far. After he completed a Jewish heritage study program while in high school, he began the long process of returning to religious observance, at the end of which he became a Chabad Hasid.
At the suggestion of a rabbi, he changed his name to Matisyahu and over the last decade has maintained a religious way of life and made sure not to perform on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. In 2004, he married Talia, a Jewish film student. They met when she asked him to appear in a documentary she was directing about men and women who observe the laws barring physical contact between men and women except in specific circumstances. The two moved to Brooklyn's Crown Heights, a neighborhood associated with the Chabad movement.
Even though Matisyahu left Chabad for the Karlin Hasidic movement in 2007, he continued living in Crown Heights with his wife and their children because of Talia's affiliation to the Chabad community.
Matisyahu's personal spiritual journey - from a Conservative family to Chabad and then to Karlin, and from there to a new path whose connection to Judaism is still unclear - provides a partial explanation for his albums' success. In addition to the musical genius and the catchy hits that helped him break sales records and be the warm-up for the likes of Sting, Matisyahu's zigzagging between different kinds of lifestyles as a believing Jew are what attracted a core group of fans, young Americans, many of whom are dealing with similar feelings of lost identity.