Sojourns: Judaism as Style

Matisyahu_216_1I’ve found myself listening to the much-hyped, Hasidic reggae/hip-hop artist Matisyahu the last couple days. Needless to say, that makes me a confirmed bandwagon jumper. The live recording of “King without a Crown” and the accompanying video shot in Austin TX have been getting heavy rotation. His new CD is due next week and already two shows have been sold out at Manhattan’s sizable Hammerstein Ballroom. Writing this column, I merely join the rubes finally noticing a sub-cultural phenomenon as it percolates up to the mainstream.

Let me say at the outset that I am no aficionado of dancehall or reggae. But for what it’s worth, it does seem to me that the rhythms of toasting and the syncopations of Jewish prayer and song go well together (biddi-bum, biddi-diddi-bum, sounds equally appropriate for Marley or Tevya). And I like the easy translations Matisyahu has made from Jah to Hashem while incorporating elements of Torah, the Psalms, and the like. Still, I don’t really know enough about music to do anything other than listen to it, and so I’ll leave the discussion of the songs to those who can write about them with some expertise. What interests me here instead is the phenomenon of Matisyahu himself. At first glance, he has every appearance of a novelty act, an amusing suturing of Lubovitcher Judaism with West-Indian dancehall. Use whatever metaphor you would like. He’s a jerk pastrami sandwich, Vanilla Ice made from Manishevitz. Except that he’s not. Read over his fawning press, and you’ll see that he’s survived the inevitable skepticism. Indeed, the verdict has come in on the opposite side. Matisyahu is an authentic fusion of two distinct musical, ethnic, and religious cultures: Jewish and West Indian, matzo and roti. He’s a one man, cross-pollinated product of Crown-Heights Brooklyn.

OK, so in other words, one myth has taken the place of another. We are to imagine a yeshiva boy who cut class to run across Flatbush Avenue and spend afternoons spinning and toasting with the boys from the Islands. But that isn’t exactly right either. As is usually the case, the truth is more complicated and more interesting. Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller to a middle-class secular family in West Chester Pennsylvania. Late in his teens, he found God and decided to become Orthodox while staring deeply at the mountains during a camping trip in Colorado. He subsequently enrolled in a Hasidic yeshiva designed especially for converts to Orthodoxy. The young Matthew Miller seems to have had a wide interest in music, but his interest in the particular religious culture of Jewish Hasidism, with its messianic mysticism, its separatist resistance to modern living, and in the particular, Lubavitch sect he joined, its commitment to the charismatic authority of the late Rabbi Menachem Scheerson, was rather late in coming. It is not right to say that he was Hasidic and then found reggae. Rather, the two seem to have fed off each other in a wholesale reconfiguring of his life.

What is interesting about this, I think, is that the intensely religious and observant Judaism that so marks the persona of Matisyahu was something that he chose, not something he was born into. The beard and the side curls, the long black coats and felt hats, the tsitsis and the like, are self-conscious stylings. They are a Hasidic aesthetic, or Hastheatic, if you will. I do not mean to disparage at all the sincerity of Matisyahu’s beliefs. His commitment to the messianic religiosity of Lubovitcher Hasidism is evident in his lyrics and in his life. Even so, the religious persona is clearly as much a question of style as it is of belief. The more so, I would imagine, for his audience. There is something intrinsically appealing about seeing a Hasid perform his kind of music and perform it well. Matisyahu’s Judaism is interesting because it is so visible and marked, so much like the inner city of a mythical old-world. When it is fused with the musical style of his West-Indian neighbors, it is clearly updated to our polyglot and hybrid moment.

Matisyahu’s sudden popularity is owing in part to the role he has taken within a larger resurgence of hipster Judaism in popular culture, a fascination with Yiddishkeit and klezmer and Bar-Mitzvah-Disco and the like.  As it has long been, Judaism is here a sign of urbanity, of knowingness, and of cosmopolitanism. But in this case the urbanity and knowingness and cosmopolitanism dwell in the musical hybridity: the nexus of Hasidism, reggae, and hip-hop as distinct urban forms. Thus I suspect that few of Matisyahu’s listeners are drawn to the religious content of his music, important as that content may be to him. Whether they know it or not, they are drawn to the familiar unity of Judaism and modernity, the ineffably current and relevant something that resonates in the sound of the Yiddish or the Hebrew, the look of the side curls and the tsitsis, when they are combined and overlaid with an unexpected kind of music. So, while there is little in Hasidism one can relate to as doctrine, and even less as a way of life, there is something clearly attractive about it as a contemporary style. So much so that the fusion with reggae and dancehall and hip hop seems not so implausible, and not at all kitsch. Given the alternatives, that is not so bad a use for religion.