"I just wanna melt away in all Its grace, drift away to that sacred place where there’s no more you and me, no more they and we, just unity." – From "Unity," written by Trevor Hall and Matisyahu
Does Matisyahu dislike Jewish musicians? That was my suspicion recently when I saw an ad for the singer’s Festival of Light performances in New York City, which started on December 10 and continue (with breaks for Shabbos) until December 20. Inventively, Matisyahu has a different opening act on each of the eight performances: Glitch Mob, John Brown’s Body, Dub Trio, Brothers Past, Rana, Kid Koala, Travis McCoy, and Kevin Devine, a mixture of reggae bands, rappers, and earnest singer/songwriters.
All of these acts–with the exception of McCoy, who is the singer in Gym Class Heroes and also works with Fall Out Boy, Cobra Starship and Pink, and dated Katy Perry–are relative outsiders in the music business, lacking the headliner’s major-label support or platinum sales. And also, none of these acts is Jewish, as far as can be easily ascertained. Matisyahu is in a unique position: He’s not the biggest Jewish musician in the world, but he is certainly the biggest Jewish-identified musician in the last 50 years. We might divine Jewish sentiments or perspectives in Paul Simon’s music, or recognize the Jewish references in Leonard Cohen’s songs, but those are only facets of the performers’ fully-assimilated identities. Matisyahu’s musical identity begins with his Jewishness: He performs using a Hebrew name (a variation on his birth name, Matthew Miller) and both lives and performs as a Hasid, wearing traditional garb and declining to perform on Friday nights, when many musicians can command their largest fees. Financially, being in a band and not performing on Friday nights is kind of like owning a bar and closing it on Friday nights. As recently as ten years ago, "Jewish music" usually meant ancient prayers set to homespun melodies and sung earnestly, accompanied by finger-picked guitar. It was about as fun as Hebrew school. Then came our current Jewish Musical Renaissance, with bands mixing klezmer, rock, jazz, punk, and cabaret, and adding witty or provocative lyrics in the tongue of the diaspora. (Some of this music is recorded and released by JDub Records, the label that issued Matisyahu’s first three albums; JDub also now owns Jewcy.) Anyone who has been paying attention could have recommended some of these bands to Matisyahu, who would have found excellent, well-suited opening acts among them. Let’s not forget the specific circumstances here: This is the most commercially preeminent Jewish artist of our era celebrating a Jewish holiday in the very-Jewish Manhattan and Brooklyn, without any Jewish opening acts. Maybe an analogy will help illustrate my dismay: It’s as if Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, at the height of black consciousness in, say, 1969, had gone on tour with Simon & Garfunkel opening the shows. And now it’s time for a little full disclosure. I need to admit than I am not an uninterested observer: I am a Jewish musician. Challenging Matisyahu on this issue exposes me to charges of envy, which I freely admit. I wish my band, Good For the Jews, were opening one of the Festival of Light shows. As Maimonides so often said, "Duh!" I don’t think there’s a Jewish musician in New York, or beyond, who wouldn’t envy the gig, which would expose us to more people in one night than we could normally reach in a week of touring. On Christmas night, 2003, before he’d released an album, Matisyahu opened for my band at the Knitting Factory, a pairing that in retrospect seems as upside down as the 1967 tour that had Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees. Our entirely secular audience, which could never have imagined a Hasid singing reggae, went crazy for his performance. During Hanukkah, many Jews will light their menorah using the shamash, the tallest candle. Over those same eight nights, Matisyahu could have been like a shamash, using his bright flame to create light for other Jewish musicians around him. I phoned his publicist and asked about the Festival of Light shows. She told me there will be Jewish surprise guests, whose participation could not be announced in advance. By then, reflection had turned my dismay into a philosophical inquiry: Does a Jewish musician have any obligation or directive, whether moral or religious or historical, to include other Jewish acts on tour? I’m no scholar, but I think it’s safe to say that Torah and Talmud are equally silent on the question of rock concerts, so I wanted to discuss the question with Matisyahu, who often grapples with how to be both a rock star and a Hasid; he even keeps his rabbi on speed dial, the publicist told me, for circumstances such as these. I emailed the philosophical inquiry to the singer, who did not reply. So maybe I asked the wrong question. To me, as a secular Jew, Matisyahu and I aren’t completely dissimilar: His Jewishness is a multiple of mine. But to him, as to other Hasids, my Jewishness may be a negation of theirs. I see Judaism as a continuum with a limitless number of unique positions (I have ten friends each with ten different customized rules about what trayf they will eat, and when), but other Jews see Judaism as binary. You are, because you keep kosher and obey Sabbath rules; or you don’t, and you are not. In this case, when considering an opening act, my claim to being Jewish would not persuade Matisyahu — to him, I might be as equally non-Jewish as Travis McCoy. Except that unlike McCoy, I’m a shonde, because I’m the descendant of a Jewish tradition I don’t sustain. In my ten years as a Jewish musician, I’ve learned this: There is nothing a Jew hates as much as another Jew with a different opinion. (This is why conspiracy theories can be so comical when referring to "the Jews" as a monolith; do these crackpots believe the ADL and J Street are in league together? Have they ever watched a session of the Knesset? By the end of the day, we’re too exhausted from criticizing one another to actually conspire on anything.) On a Jewish Music message board frequented by fans of frum singers such as Yaakov Shwekey and Mendy Wald, one participant sniffed, "Matisyahu is just a commercial performer who uses his Chassidic identity as a hook to attract audiences." The secular perspective is one of acceptance — Judaism isn’t determined by matrilineal observance or whether you have two separate sets of dishware, but, as with sexuality or gender, by how you identify. This view is antithetical to Hasidim, for whom remaining observant requires second-by-second vigilance. But Matisyahu is a pretty unusual Hasid, beyond the obvious reasons. Raised as a reconstructionist Jew, he became a Baal Teshuva and embraced the Lubavitch sect, which he recently left because he felt they were too restrictive, explaining, "the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself. I felt boxed in." He may have left to skirt reprimands from Hasidic rabbis who criticized him for, among other things, performing for non-Jews. I suspect that Matisyahu isn’t so far removed from my idea of Judaism as something mutable, rather than something static. The sages say–oh, who am I kidding, I have no idea what the sages say. But if Matisyahu can, in defiance of orthodox Orthodoxy, perform for and with Jews and non-Jews alike, he can probably extend his idea of unity to include secular Jews as well.