No one noticed Matisyahu when he climbed onstage at a downtown Manhattan concert venue in early January, drinking a cup of tea under dark red lights.
It wasn’t until the onetime Hasidic reggae superstar took off his fleece cap, revealing a velvet yarmulke, that fans connected the gaunt, stubble-faced man with the yeshiva boy who became an instant sensation in 2005, when he beat boxed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” wearing a Lubavitch fedora and an untamed beard.
“I didn’t even recognize him at first,” said Keith Dumont, 22, after the Rockwood Music Hall show. It wasn’t just the beard that was missing. The set Matisyahu and his band played at the late-night show didn’t sound much like reggae. And though the crowd begged, he didn’t favor them with one of his hits, or even an encore.
Matisyahu is still a superstar. He holds two spots on Billboard’s latest top-10 reggae album sales chart — the entire Marley clan only has three spots among them — and plays hip venues around the country
But the world of the 32-year-old Jewish reggae artist is in flux. In 2010, the major label Sony dropped his act. He recently moved to Los Angeles from a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn and is now pursuing acting jobs. And in mid-December, Matisyahu shaved his beard, abandoning the visual hook that had helped separate him from the mass of white reggae wannabes.
For his friends and fans, these personal decisions carry heavy spiritual implications. In shaving and moving away from the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Matisyahu appears to be signaling a shift from the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Judaism that brought him his artistic success. Matisyahu declined to speak to the Forward for this story. But while some fans say his struggles make him more relatable, others worry about the most prominent ultra-Orthodox ba’al teshuvah, or nonobservant Jew who embraces Orthodoxy, losing his way.
Matisyahu’s first Tweet on December 13 was a nod to his masseuse. His second, issued eight hours later, included a phrase from one of his own songs — “When the tide comes in I lose my disguise” — and two tinted photos of himself, newly beardless.
In the images, Matisyahu looked small and tired, even sick. Black sacks hung under his eyes. The beard was gone, and the shorn artist was unrecognizable. His plain white shirt, buttoned at the neck, looked like the burial shrouds some Jews wear on Yom Kippur.
Days later, during a concert in Brooklyn, Matisyahu apparently lost his temper, breaking a camera wielded by a photographer for Paper Magazine. The photographer, Rebecca Smeyne, writing on Paper’s website, said that she had taken a dozen shots of Matisyahu onstage. “[T]he next thing I knew, Matisyahu’s foot was on my face and I fell to the ground,” Smeyne reported. Matisyahu went on to “deliberately” damage the camera, according to Smeyne, and a representative of the artist paid damages on the spot.
Matisyahu later apologized on Twitter, saying that he had found the flash on her camera distracting.
Matisyahu’s history is, by now, familiar. A onetime Phish fan named Matthew Miller, he grew up in a non-Orthodox home before growing interested in the ultra-Orthodoxy of Chabad. Matisyahu turned into an observant Lubavitch Hasid, studying at a Crown Heights yeshiva. In an interview with Rolling Stone, recorded shortly after he cut his beard, Matisyahu said that he stopped shaving and started wearing tzitzis just days after putting on a yarmulke for the first time.