In late August, Jewish music sensation and Shlomo Carlebach/Bob Marley hybrid Matisyahu released “Light,” his third album. Having enjoyed his first two albums immensely, and already humming some of Matisyahu’s new tracks, I began to wax philosophical while listening to his newest compilation. I asked myself: Can we define ourselves by what we think of Matisyahu and his music?
I think so. First the music part. When I first heard him several years ago, I thought Matisyahu was unique and interesting, and cool! The more I listened, the more I began to appreciate him. Matisyahu takes the music that was a part of my past and sanctifies it to some extent. And in his cover versions of songs by Bob Marley and Sting, Matisyahu seems to channel the voices of these music icons with his authentic renditions. In a recent interview, Matisyahu said: “Shlomo’s music was not for the masses. It was beautiful, soulful, and deep but it was mainly in Hebrew and was born out of Jewish experience. My music is coming out of the non-Jewish world and therefore it resonates in the world at large.”
For me, Matisyahu’s comments ring true. Shlomo’s music is beautiful and deep, and I have always loved it. I was honored to have my first Sheva Brachot at Shlomo’s shul on the Upper West Side, and my mother is one of Shlomo’s original devotees. Every type of Jewish person loved Shlomo’s music. Observant, non-observant. very Orthodox, very modern. And people, for the most part, were able to separate Shlomo the person from Shlomo the musician. Even if haredim rejected some of his methods in reaching out to other Jews, they would never reject his music. His music was, using Shlomo’s words, “the holy of holies.”
Matisyahu is markedly different. As he says about himself, his background is secular and he grew up experiencing music in its most non-Jewish form. Maybe that’s what draws me to him. I love that his music is informed by the secular influences that shaped me, because no matter how religious I become I will still enjoy that type of music. I may not listen to it as often now; I may listen to Shwekey instead of the Doors if I put music on in the car, but it’s not because I like the Doors any less. I just feel more comfortable at this stage of my life with “Ben Bag Bag” on my CD player than “Hello I love you,” especially when I do carpool to yeshiva for my kids.
I was proud to hear Matisyahu singing “King Without a Crown” on Z-100 in New York a couple of years back. I was happy when my brother, who is not Orthodox, wanted to find out more about Matisyahu and asked me questions about him and his brand of Judaism. I like seeing Matisyahu on TV, on talk shows, even the Tonight Show last week. It’s exciting.
I didn’t go to too many rock concerts in my classic rock heyday, and I haven’t been to a Matisyahu concert yet. But I am impressed that he goes out, as an Orthodox Jew, and has become an expert at his profession, making great music and energizing concerts. He tries to inspire everyone. Not just Jews, but everyone whose soul he can touch. He tries to be a “light unto the nations.”
In my informal research, I have found that Matisyahu cuts across levels of religious observance, and even across families. Maybe it’s because his personality is so unique. I love his music because it resonates with me. But I think I admire him personally because I feel that I am like him in some important ways. I originally described Matisyahu as a Shlomo Carlebach/Bob Marley hybrid, and perhaps as a religious Jew he is a hybrid, as well: Just like a hybrid car engine can power a car as effectively as a standard gas engine, it’s just powered differently at times, so too Matisyahu is a religious Jew, powered by both his non-religious musical past, and his present Torah true life.
By Jonathan Jarashow is the publisher of Diabetes Digest, the nation’s largest circulation diabetes magazine.