Meeting the New Matisyahu

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, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, 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.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. 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.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. 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. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

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. Personally, 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.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

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(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Jewish Education of Eddie Vedder

Today begins Lollapalooza, the weekend-long music festival. I won’t be attending and I’ve never attended a Lollapalooza festival. However, just hearing the name “Lollapalooza” brings back memories from twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1992, I was a 16-year-old on a Jewish teen trip called USY on Wheels. We were halfway into the trip when we arrived in Palo Alto, California. Our bus of 42 teens and four counselors pulled into the parking lot of our hotel and we immediately realized that we weren’t the only tour bus in the parking lot. There were rows upon rows of fancy luxury tour buses with beautiful designs covering their entire exterior. It was only when we entered the hotel to check in to our rooms that we learned that all of the performers of Lollapalooza were guests of the same hotel.

Waiting for the elevator I encountered Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I talked to him for a few minutes in front of the hotel elevator, until he explained that he was losing his voice from all of these back-to-back shows and needed to get some hot tea and go to bed. I remember laughing at the fact that this hard rocker with a reputation for partying was going to call it a night around 11:30 pm.

One of the other members of the Chili Peppers turned to our group and told us not to do anything stupid at the hotel. Not thirty seconds later did we attempt to pack as many of us as possible into one elevator only to find ourselves stuck between floors. Fortunately for us, our bus driver’s husband was a firefighter and managed to save us before the local fire department arrived.

That Saturday morning following our Shabbat services, a number of teens from our group met Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder by the hotel pool. Pearl Jam would soon become my favorite rock band (which it is to this day), but back in the summer of 1992 I hadn’t even heard of them.

Some of the teens in our group from New York had already become devoted fans of Pearl Jam and immediately recognized Eddie Vedder. Vedder and his girlfriend at the time, who had purple hair, were on their way to the tennis courts to hit some balls. While it was a USY policy not to use cameras on Shabbat, some of the teens in our group took pictures with Eddie Vedder. Some even had him autograph their paperback prayer books.

When one of our counselors saw what was transpiring, things got interesting. The counselors explained to Eddie Vedder that we were a Jewish teenage group that was not supposed to be taking photographs on the Jewish Sabbath. Vedder pointed to his girlfriend and told the group that she was partially Jewish and that he respected our religious observance.

One of the counselors told him that he and his girlfriend were invited to join us for our afternoon study session. (It is a tradition in the summer time to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, on Shabbat afternoon.) The teens who had their prayer books autographed were reprimanded and then Eddie Vedder went on his way.

If the story ended there, it would have made for a great anecdote of my summer experience. But twenty minutes into our study session in walked Eddie Vedder with his girlfriend. The teenagers began whispering and pointing to the back of the room at the surprise guest. What was usually a boring study session would became memorable.

Vedder and his girlfriend sat in the back of the room listening as we discussed Jewish values and theology. About thirty minutes went by and they decided they wanted to leave so Eddie Vedder raised his hand and said something bizarre about the existence of cows. We all sat there bewildered. (In fairness, it might have been an intelligent observation but it was lost on us teens.)

We left the hotel on Sunday and said our goodbyes to our new friends, which included rock stars, roadies and groupies. As our tour bus pulled away from the hotel parking lot we snapped our final photos of the tour buses.

At the first highway rest stop I got off the bus, walked inside the store and purchased Pearl Jam’s “Ten” on CD. I would listen to that album thousands of times over the next decade. And I would come back to it many times in the decade that followed. Eddie Vedder’s music spoke to me during the rest of my teen years and into college.

Last year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of “Ten,” Cameron Crowe produced a documentary called “Pearl Jam Twenty.” Watching the DVD at home late one night recently, I thought back to the memorable and life changing summer I spent on a tour bus out West twenty years ago. While I didn’t even know who Eddie Vedder was as he sat in the back of the room at our Shabbat afternoon study session, just knowing that I had learned Torah with Eddie Vedder brought chills to my spine. I don’t know if he ever studied Torah again after that one afternoon, but I sure feel blessed and honored to have witnessed the Jewish education of Eddie Vedder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Getting Chai on ‘Weeds’ – Jewish Themes Galore on the Showtime Hit Series

Fans of the long-running Showtime series “Weeds” know that writer and creator Jenji Kohan is not afraid to pepper the show with Jewish themes. While the show, now in its final season, has changed its flavor over the years and gained some critics, many devotees still enjoy the story about a marijuana-selling widowed mother from the suburbs and her family’s experiences.

Throughout the different webs of relationships, Kohan, who is Jewish, has managed to bring esoteric Jewish concepts into the series, including in a recent episode that featured ruminations on the power and purpose of immersing in the mikvah. Perhaps because the show is on the subscription-based Showtime network, its Jewish essence hasn’t been widely covered, but Kohan, who considered attending rabbinical seminary, has taken on some controversial Jewish subjects in the past eight seasons. Here are the top Jewish references:

* Unveiling (Season 1, Episode 8): It’s likely that many viewers thought this was a funeral service at the cemetery, but Jewish fans recognized the ritual as the unveiling of Judah Botwin’s tombstone. Once the family returns from the cemetery, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) explains her day to the Drug Enforcement Agency agent who becomes her boyfriend: “It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock … I’m not Jewish. My husband. He’s dead now. He was Jewish.”

Showtime

The episode also tackles the controversial topic of Jewish lineage when the Orthodox rabbi tells the Botwin boys, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould), that they are not legitimately Jewish because their mother isn’t Jewish and they had never converted to Judaism. The young Shane is hurt by the news and takes out his aggression on his wrestling opponent, whose foot he bites after yelling “Sh’ma Yisrael!”

* Rabbinical School (Season 2): Nancy’s out-of-work brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) decides the best way to keep from returning to military service will be to become a rabbi. He enrolls in the fictional Hamidrash L’Torah rabbinical school, where he falls in loves with the dean, the attractive Israeli Yael Hoffman (Meital Dohan). While much of the ongoing rabbinical school experience is silly, some rather serious issues are discussed, including Andy’s theological convictions, which come up while he is writing his admissions essay.

* Euthanasia (Season 4, Episodes 2 and 3): The Botwins leave the Agrestic/Majestic community after it burns and relocate to the home of Nancy’s father-in-law. There they find Lenny Botwin (Albert Brooks) and his mother, Bubbie (Jo Farkas), who is hooked up to a ventilator. The Auschwitz survivor regains consciousness and asks Lenny to kill her. The Botwin men discuss the wisdom and ethics of euthanizing Bubbie, but in the end Lenny agrees to have Nancy kill Bubbie.

* Sitting Shiva (Season 4, Episode 4): While shiva is one of the most well-known Jewish rituals, not many television shows have accurately portrayed it. This episode focuses entirely on the Botwin family sitting shiva for Bubbie at son Lenny’s insistence. Several laws and customs of shiva are mentioned during the episode, including the understanding that family members should not cook for themselves. A shiva candle is lit, and friends and neighbors come to pay their respect.

* Levirate Marriage (Ongoing): While Andy mentions the Jewish concept of a Levirate marriage to his sister-in-law Nancy at one point in the show’s history, the theme is an ongoing one. The Torah dictates that an unmarried man must marry his brother’s widow, but that applies only if the widow has not had children. So even if the law would not apply in Nancy and Andy’s case — both because she already has children and she is not Jewish — the constant and sometimes awkward attraction between them seems continually to remind the viewer of Andy’s enjoyment and frustration over the hunt.

* Bris (Season 5, Episode 8): Nancy gives birth to Tijuana Mayor and cartel leader Esteban Reyes’ baby boy, but the father (Demian Bichir) refuses to sign the birth certificate for fear of its effect on his political career. Andy signs the birth certificate as the boy’s father and insists on a brit for the baby, whom he promises to raise proudly as his Jewish son. At the brit, baby Stevie is given the Hebrew name Avi Melech (son of a king).

Showtime

* Mikvah (Season 8, Episode 5): At the end of this episode, Rabbi David Bloom (David Julian Hirsh), the rabbi/hospital chaplain, finally confronts Nancy, who has been secretly swimming in his backyard swimming pool. This is the same rabbi who talks theology with Andy at the hospital when he is concerned about Nancy’s well-being after she is shot in the head at the end of the previous season. When Nancy explains that swimming in the pool feels like a sort of rebirth for her, the rabbi explains the Jewish concept of tevillah (immersion in a mikvah). This is likely the most spiritual and New Age definition of the mikvah ritual that has ever been offered on television.

Kohan has said that she’s not afraid to take on inherently Jewish concepts on the show no matter how esoteric they may be. For the many Jewish fans of “Weeds,” there have been many instances of surprise and pride over the years after unpredicted mentions of a Jewish ritual or theme. As the final season comes to a close, there may just be more Jewish references to come.

UPDATE: I just received word that the show filmed scenes for an episode at Adat Ari El synagogue in Valley Village, California last week. They used the historic chapel for one of the scenes. I’m thinking this can mean a Nancy-Andy or a Jill-Andy wedding… We shall see!

Originally published at JTA.org and cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Boy With Stutter Raps Adon Olam

I was looking forward to meeting many of the inspirational educators and thought leaders at the #140edu conference in New York City this week, but the one speaker I was really excited to meet was Lil Jaxe.

A few months ago, I watched a video of this 13-year-old boy at a previous #140conf and was amazed, impressed, and inspired. Lil Jaxe has a severe stutter, but he discovered that when he raps it goes away. So, it’s a good thing for him that he’s a talented rapper. And he’s only 13 so I’m predicting that he’s got a very successful career ahead of him.

Lil Jaxe presented before me at the #140edu conference today and I had a chance to shmooze with him a bit in the Green Room at the 92nd St. Y after his presentation. Here’s the video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam as he did back in April at his bar mitzvah.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller