After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).
I understand fans' fascination with Matisyahu's religious transformation. After all, he's a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu's transformation isn't unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.
I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered "off the derech" (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he's in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.
His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (aka Matisyahu) wasn't born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, N.Y. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phishhead, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name "Matisyahu." He later left Lubavitch, and in the past year, shaved his beard and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.
Since Matisyahu's religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his "look." Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?
I certainly wasn't going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn't shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes,
"It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu's struggle is very real and very much worth discussing."
Dworken got Matisyahu to open up a bit after an awkward and mostly silent beginning of the interview. The former Hasidic devotee said his transformation into a more secular lifestyle had nothing to do with his wife and admits that shaving the beard was a very personal decision.
"People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed ... but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure."
From Matisyahu's candid responses it appears that he still maintains a kosher diet through his adherence to a vegan lifestyle. However, he seems to have become lax regarding his observance of Shabbat, when religious Jews abstain from electricity.
To Dworken's question about his children's upbringing, Matisyahu quickly responded that he wouldn't bring them up with a traditional yeshiva education.
"There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it ... being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that. ... the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn't happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else's. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question."
While Matisyahu has shed much of his Jewish imagery, he still made the decision to open his new record with the Hebrew word of praise "Yevarechecha" (you should be blessed). Perhaps this talented superstar has realized that his Jewish flavor will survive internally even if there's nary a trace of it on the outside.
Matisyahu's religious transformation isn't unique. He's just in the spotlight. If we learn anything from Matisyahu's very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn't static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu's journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu's look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality.
I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu's courage in making these changes. He's proving that being religious isn't about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It's what's inside that matters most.