Shorn Matisyahu Takes Different Path

For Reggae Star, Shaving Beard Signals Shift in Career and Life

New Path: Matisyahu had fans pleading for his hits at a recent New York gig. But the reggae star is moving in a different direction after shaving his beard and giving up on the Hasidic lifestyle.
Derek McCabe
New Path: Matisyahu had fans pleading for his hits at a recent New York gig. But the reggae star is moving in a different direction after shaving his beard and giving up on the Hasidic lifestyle.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 13, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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
Derek McCabe
Matisyahu

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.