Jewish Reggae 101

By Marc Tracy

Published June 16, 2006, issue of June 16, 2006.

Rapper Matisyahu already has ridden his unique blend of dancehall reggae and Lubavitch Hasidism to the top of the charts. Come this summer, his music will head somewhere new: a college classroom. In July, students at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University will be able to decode the singer’s biblically inspired rhymes and rhythms in a one-credit Judaic studies course.

Rabbi Ely Allen, FDU’s Judaic studies coordinator, conceived of the class and will teach it. A Matisyahu fan since he first saw the rapper two years ago — “he started beat-boxing and we were all blown away,” he recalled — Allen described the class as a way to spread Torah.

Matisyahu’s music, Allen said, is intimately intertwined with the key Jewish texts. When Matisyahu sings, “One day the trees will stand and clap hands,” he is referring to the end of days as prophesied by Isaiah; when he describes “water from my soul,” he is employing a talmudic phrase used to refer to the Torah.

“He’s bringing in spiritual overtones from Hasidism,” Allen told the Shmooze. “And someone who doesn’t know Hasidism may not get it at all.”

Meanwhile, Matisyahu will perform Sunday at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee. Publicists have invited concert attendees to join the rapper, who does not sing on the Sabbath, for a Saturday evening havdalah.



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