Matisyahu, the Musical Maccabee

Jewish Hassidic reggae star Matisyahu played a groundbreaking Chanukah show – illuminating Manhattan’s “Roseland” alongside Bob Marley's Wailers.

Ezra HaLevi, New York City,

Matisyahu
Matisyahu
(file photo)

Jewish Hassidic reggae star Matisyahu played a groundbreaking Chanukah show with Bob Marley’s band, the Wailers – illuminating Manhattan’s “Roseland” hall on Wednesday night, the second night of the holiday.

Chopping down assimilationism and heralding the decline of Babylon while singing of the return to Zion, Matisyahu illuminated “the belly of the beast” - as he referred to the venue. The Roseland hall is located in the heart of Manhattan’s culture district.

Opening for the Hassidic Jewish musician were the Wailers, the band of the late Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley.

Matisyahu took the stage, melodically greeting the “sons and daughters of Israel” to scattered cheers, following with a greeting to New York City. The mixed Jewish-Gentile crowd roared with excitement.

His second song had thousands belting out, at the top of their lungs: “Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu HaShem Echad” – the mantra of Jewish faith recited four times each day, meaning: “Hear O Israel, HaShem (literally, ‘The Name’) is G-d, HaShem is One.”

In this midst of his adaptation of Rastaman Chant - singing “Babylon’s throne goin’ down goin’ down, Babylon’s throne goin’ down” - Matisyahu suddenly declared, “Who wants to light up the menorah?” to a thundering response from the crowd. A young man boosted up to light the traditional Chanukah centerpiece modeled after the Temple fixture waved his kippa in the air and pointed to it as if to say: “It pays to stay true to our ancestors – it got me up here on stage.”

Matisyahu darts in and out of various roles throughout his shows. He is teacher and mentor to the throngs of high-schoolers. He is musical virtuoso and trailblazer to the music enthusiasts who, while intrigued by the depth of Jewish tradition and wisdom in his lyrics, are there first and foremost for the music. He is an example of what a Jew can do to spread the Torah’s message to humanity, to Lubavitchers and other Hassidim who curiously attend his shows.

Sharing his name with one of the Macabbees central to the Chanukah story, Matisyahu sings of Jerusalem and a return to Zion to young Jews who have long ago ceased to hear such messages during their two or three visits to synagogue a year. The message is fresh and sincere, yet ancient and resonant:

Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do,” he belts out, going on to sum up Jewish history and exhort his people to rebuild the Jewish Temple at the heart of Jerusalem.

In the ancient days, we will return with no delay
Picking up the bounty and the spoils on our way
We've been traveling from state to state
And then don't understand what they say
3,000 years with no place to be
And they want me to give up my milk and honey
Don't you see, it's not about the land or the sea
Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty
Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory
Years gone by, about sixty
Burn in the oven in this century
And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn't choke me
I will not lie down, I will not fall asleep

Matisyahu and Jerusalem
Matisyahu spoke with Israel National Radio’s Ben Bresky on his last tour of the Holy Land, speaking about the difference between performing before audiences around the globe and in the Jewish State. “The Israelis really give themselves over when the music is inspirational,” he said. “Jews love inspiration and particularly Israelis. If the music is exciting and inspirational, they give themselves to it 100 percent – 110 percent.”

One of the members of the often-cynical and stridently left-wing hip-hop group HaDag Nahash approached Matisyahu after a gig in Tel Aviv and told him: “It is so inspirational to see a Jew who is out there as a Jew making it and being accepted, because it’s never really happened before.”

It was quite a transformation from the first encounter between a recently-observant but not yet renowned Matisyahu years ago when the Israeli group was playing at the Lower East Side’s Knitting Factory venue. “I asked them if I could get on stage and they were kinda’ like probably “Who is this Hassidic guy?”  They had never heard of me before. And I got up there with them and it was really cool, it was a really powerful moment.”

Matisyahu said “it was nice to come back and collaborate with them, after the success and stuff.”

Growing Interest in Breslov
Recent articles in the US Jewish press talk of Matisyahu distancing himself from Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidut. The artist doesn’t see it that way, but rather is thankful for everything he learned from the sect and is broadening his horizons to include other teachers and teachings within the Hassidic world. “Now I am interested a lot in Rebbe Nachman [of Breslov], in his teachings and writings and stories,” Matisyahu told Bresky. He said he was writing a song for his next album from one of Rebbe Nachman’s stories. Bresky coaxed him to reveal which story. He relented: “The Story of the Seven Beggars and the analysis of a dream by founding Rabbi Nachman of Breslov,” he said.

“I think it’s a good thing to always be changing,” he said. Asked if all his songs about returning to Zion would culminate in his own move to Israel, Matisyahu said a plan to make the Holy Land his home is in the works.

Click here and here for photos of the Chanukah concert at Roseland.



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