Matisyahu discusses spiritual, musical journeys

 Photo: Mark Squires

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

Late last year, the former Matthew Miller of Westchester, Pa., proclaimed to the world, with tongue perhaps somewhat in cheek: “No more Hasidic reggae superstar. Sorry, folks, all you get is me.” 

And with that, the artist known as Matisyahu had shaved his beard, cut his payot, cast off the garments symbolizing a decade’s immersion in Lubavitch Hasidism and “reclaimed my identity.” 

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Matisyahu, 33, is touring behind the evocatively titled “Spark Seeker,” his fifth studio recording. Although the CD reflects Matis touches such as snippets of prayer – including the Shema – and Middle Eastern chants, it’s a little more street than shul and more LA hip-hop than reggae. 

In addition to his critically acclaimed music career, Matisyahu has also begun acting. Earlier this year, he was seen playing a Jewish exorcist in the horror film, “The Possession.” The role of a Hasidic mystic leaving his protected community to help a young girl, an outsider, was a role that in some ways mirrored his own spiritual journey. 

Matisyahu will perform a mix of new and back-catalogue songs backed by the Dub Trio when he performs in St. Louis on Nov. 14 at the Pageant. He’s not giving away much about the show, but he did have one piece of advice for fans: “Bring your earplugs.”

Reached by phone at a post-Hurricane Sandy tour stop in Charlottesville, Va., Matisyahu talked about his life and the depth of his enduring faith. 

It’s been about a year since you shaved the beard and took off the kippah. A lot happened since then, you’ve had a new CD and the movie came out. How has fans’ and critics’ reaction changed in the past year? 

I am not really sure. I am not really that aware. … When the appearance change happened, there was a lot going on online, and I think people have gotten used to it by this point. Right now, I’ve been touring for the last four months. … I think to the real fans, it wasn’t really to much of an issue to begin with.

You immersed yourself in Hasidism after some substance abuse problems when you were younger. Can you take me through the progression a little bit of what you were feeling and thinking at that point? 

I was in college, and I became interested in Judaism. And I was looking for a way to get inspired and to bring meaning to my life. I always felt a connection with God. I was having some issues and feeling stuck in my life, and so I began by praying, really. And I did it in a Jewish form, you know? Had it happened today, when there’s a yoga center on every corner down there where I went to school, at the New School in (New York’s Greenwich) Village … at that time for me it was more a personal journey, and it was about connection with God. 

And then I just progressed through it. As I got more into it, I started to take on more and more, and it was very inspirational at first for me. Eventually it became something that I felt was bigger than myself. … I went full force, sort of sacrificing using my own logic, my own intuition, my own understanding at times in order to try to acquire some spirituality and a stronger connection with God. I moved to Crown Heights (a Brooklyn neighborhood with large Hasidic community), started studying Torah and I got married and all of that. 

Was the attraction as much the intellectual and spiritual as it was the discipline and the ritual? Did you need the discipline and the ritual to explore the spiritual? 

For me, initially, it was a creative act. I mean, wearing tzitzits and the yarmulke and growing the beard and wearing my regular clothes, combining this ancient tradition with my own sense of self, and the mitzvahs that I began to do gave me a certain sense of person – saying blessings on food, or eating only certain foods, praying, going to synagogue. I found a very spiritual synagogue, the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side, I became attached and began studying the stories of Shlomo (Rabbi Carlebach Shlomo, a famous writer, teacher and musician).

So first it was very much creative and very much inspirational, and it gave me a sense of finding an identity that felt good to me. Because my whole life, I had felt a connection with God, with spirituality, I felt I was a searcher, a seeker. And I felt, in essence, that’s what being Jewish is kind of all about. And to represent that physically through beard and yarmulke and all that was very exciting and fresh and felt very good to me. 

Then there was the intellectual aspect of it, learning the Tanya, learning the Chabad Hasidism, the ideas. … They’re awesome. Awesome ideas about God and the Torah and all that. 

[From Lubavitch Hasidism, most commonly presented through its organizational arm, Chabad, is an international movement with headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement formed from the writings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who published the Tanya in 1796. The Tanya contains the key to Jewish mystical and spiritual awareness, according to Chabadniks. ]

And yes, there was the aspect of me wanting to become a different person, a different version of myself, to become the utmost, righteous, spiritual being that I could be. And you know, when you’re 24 or 25 years old, you have that kind of intense drive that can send a person beyond. 

Did you learn anything about yourself that surprised you?

Man, I’ve learned a lot. Let’s see. It’s hard to sum up 10 years worth of learning, 10 years worth of searching and growing into a sentence of what it was. 

Let’s take it one more step. What led you to shave the beard, and come back to the secular world? 

I wouldn’t really say that I came back to the secular world. I mean, Judaism became like a real living force inside of me, my knowledge, my understanding, the questioning, the life, the rituals, the halachas [the body of Jewish law supplementing the scriptural law and forming especially the legal part of the Talmud], all of that knowledge. 

It’s not that I’m not a part of that anymore. To a certain extent, yes, I reclaimed my identity. In a certain sense, I let go of certain things, but it’s a choice. Judaism is a freedom of choice, and that means that we choose, and we should be choosing. And doing things that are hard or rough (lead to) the connection, the intimacy that a person feels with God, the awareness, the knowledge of themselves that they gain. 

“Spark Seeker” was somewhat of a change as well– less reggae, a little more LA hip-hop. Did that mirror any of the personal changes you were going through? 

When it comes to music, I think everything mirrors, but it wasn’t in a conscious fashion, it wasn’t necessarily a planned thing. But when you’re making music as an art form, as an expression and not just commercially, it’s a reflection of what the artist is going through. 

Your character in ‘The Possession”: Did you find any parallels in your own journey? 

Certainly, he’s caught between two worlds there, in his greater sense of helping humanity and then the fear, of protecting (his world). And so he’s basically stuck in the middle. But in the end he pays the price for it, doesn’t he? He pays with his life. Interesting.