From under his thick beard, Jewish reggae rock star Matisyahu uttered a single word: “Crap.” His New York Rangers were being beaten across the ice by Brandon from Oregon.
Matisyahu, whose real name is Matthew Miller, played fans last Tuesday in quick games of NHL 2K6, a popular Xbox 360 video game.
The Lubavitch Hasid, whose studio debut, “Youth,” opened at number four on the Billboard 200 album chart, made headlines with his broad appeal to both Jews and gentiles. Until now, Matisyahu has famously rejected promotions that didn’t mesh with his overtly religious songs. In the past he has turned down chances to advertise with Burger King, tour with pop star Shakira and interview with Howard Stern.
Matisyahu had no problem, though, facing off against fans in the fast-paced hockey simulation. Except for a couple of short stints on the tour bus, he claims that he rarely plays video games — and never this particular one. He did, however, turn down an MTV representative’s request to do a promo for a TV show called “Spanky the Monkey,” which is about a belligerent monkey who does crude things in public. “I’ll pass on this one,” Matisyahu said.
After arriving half an hour late (he was praying Mincha), Matisyahu removed his black hat and sat down to play. Placing his hands on the Xbox controller, a mess of about a dozen triggers, buttons and analog sticks, he said sheepishly, “I need to know how to play this game.”
After the controls were explained to him, Matisyahu slowly got the hang of the game. Quickly he went from nonchalance to intense concentration. By the end of the hour-and-a-half event, he was making colorful commentary on his own game: “Good score,” he’d say before grimacing about a bad play. “That should have been a goal.”
Xbox 360, which launched Xbox Live, is Microsoft’s latest entrée into the console gaming market. It has been expanding from video games to rock music with its “Artist of the Month” program. Players can download music videos from the console’s live service, and in the “Game With Fame” sessions they can play against the artists themselves.
Asked about the upcoming Christian video game, “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” Matisyahu expressed confusion. When it was explained that the game is based on the idea of players going around saving people instead of shooting them, Matisyahu responded that if it wants to be realistic, there should be shooting.
Matisyahu plugged Xbox by incorporating it in his message of world unity. “Gaming is a great way to connect with people, and Xbox Live gives me the ability to reach out and connect with fans from all over the world,” he said in a press release.
Despite the unlikely marriage of Hasidic reggae and video games, the fans were satisfied by their chance to play against Matisyahu. They chatted over an Xbox Live headset excitedly about past Matisyahu shows and their personal lives, and gave the reggae singer tips to improve his gaming.
Matisyahu has acknowledged his love of hockey in the past, and in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot he felt it necessary to explain that the lack of ice hockey in Israel would not affect his decision to move to the Holy Land. In the meantime, he was invited to substitute for a hockey team that plays in Manhattan at Chelsea Piers. Unfortunately he had to reject the invitation because of his time spent on the road. But he told the Forward that he intends to start a traveling league and that he is bringing his roller blades along on tour.
*Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for AMP magazine and the New York Press. He is currently the arts and culture editor of the Commentator.