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Amram Altzman

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In Defense of Matisyahu

Posted: 08/27/2012 9:15 am

Although I personally never got into his music -- hip-hop and reggae never did it for me in ways that other genres of music did -- Matisyahu has been, since I was in elementary school, a cultural icon of an Orthodox Jew who diverged from the obligatory professions of doctor, banker or lawyer. As someone who wants to make a career out of my love of writing and thus break out of the mold, seeing Matisyahu (who, ideologically, identified far to the religious right of my Modern Orthodox upbringing) taking his passion for music and Judaism and turning it into a successful career gives me something to aspire to. Previously, the only other Jewish singer I could think of was Adam Levine, the singer for Maroon 5.

In December of 2011, Matisyahu posted a picture of himself on Twitter that showed him without a beard or side-locks, which traditionally go untrimmed in Hassidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. This past June, Matisyahu caused more upset when he appeared in his music video for his single "Sunshine" without the traditional skullcap traditionally worn by Orthodox men, and caused another outcry from his Orthodox fans a few weeks later, when he performed on the Ninth of Av, a fast day when many abstain from listening to music, wearing leather shoes. He also performed activities that are considered to be "comfortable."

A few days after this performance, one fan posted on Facebook that he was disappointed with Matisyahu's change in appearance and practices, and called him out for disappointing his Orthodox fans who felt that they could no longer support him as an artist. Other fans also called out Matsiyahu's behavior.

I found this troubling. Matisyahu's music and the Jewish themes that have inspired much of his work -- "One Day" talks about his belief in the Messiah, "Miracles" extolls the miracles of Hanukkah -- haven't changed. What have changed are his own, deeply personal convictions and practices. Matisyahu's decision to shave his beard and side-locks and shed his skullcap were no doubt personal decisions, and his decision to leave the Chabad (a Hassidic Jewish sect that lives primarily in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights) community in favor of a different Hassidic sect was also a deeply personal one.

It would be one thing if, for example, Matisyahu's change in religious practices profoundly influenced his music -- but they haven't. Matisyahu's beard, or lack thereof, isn't what makes his music good or appealing to the Orthodox community: it's his musical ability as a singer and his relationship to Judaism. And while it might be disconcerting to see Matisyahu clean-shaven (and with bleached hair to boot), it's not a beard or a skullcap that determines relationship to religion, but one's own convictions that should not be open to public scrutiny.

By people saying that they are disappointed with Matisyahu's shaving off his beard and, thus, will no longer listen to his music, they're showing that they didn't, in fact like the music that Matisyahu produced -- they liked Matisyahu's image. To them, Matisyahu's new look might be an indication that he no longer affiliates with the Orthodox community and that the same celebrity that inspired me as a fifth-grader, along with so many others, might be different from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox fans that adored him and looked up to him so. However, the music that Matisyahu has made hasn't changed drastically since he first became popular, and the same Jewish themes that inspired his earlier songs inspire him still today. Would his commitment to Judaism be the same if he continued the practices that he now felt were no longer important to his identity as a Jew? I think not.

And so, recently, I've come to have a newfound respect for Matisyahu. Matis: you're being you. You started out with certain beliefs and over the course of your career as an artist, you've evolved. And you have the right to do that -- you're doing what you think is right, and, because of that, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You continue to make music that is inspiring to many, and you can transcend the beard and side-locks that you were known for. You can -- and do -- still make good music, and I hope you do for a long time to come, with or without the beard. You're a breaker of stereotypes and molds yet again, and, for that, I commend you. My only hope is that you continue to inspire Jewish youth -- fifth-graders to high school seniors, and everyone in between and even beyond -- to follow their own religious convictions and break their own molds.

 
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