Tonight you performed at the WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, 70 miles from my Dallas home. The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion, it is right around the corner. I did not attend your concert. I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again. You have disappointed me greatly. I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in. But you have let me down. All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message that resonates with America — a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing toward secularism — and helps right it. How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base. When your song “One Day” was chosen to be the theme melody of the 2010 Winter Olympics on NBC, my heart fluttered with pride.
Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism — Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study — is numero uno and everything else is numero dos. It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose. It would have to be someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing. With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.
When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained, I took pause, but your reassuring tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa — you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint — made me realized that you are no longer singing Z’miros in reggae. You are singing a different song.
I drive by the Windstar World Casino often. It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights. The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking. It is not the place to offer even the most watered-down Jewish values.
Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before. A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message. What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.”
“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop culture.
I grew up in New York, where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture. Twelve years ago, my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas, where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business. It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered, and Jews are respected.
Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our patriarch Avraham did. The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak? You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak.
But now I am discouraged. You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.” Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence. You have become connected to the hedonism that abhors rules and undermines values. And it says that I will, too, if I go it alone as you did.
Sometimes I lie under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness and that discipline is the precursor of kiddush ha-Shem — sanctification of the Name.
I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it. I still believe that if we speak, the world will listen. But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community. And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of kiddush ha-Shem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand and appreciate.
The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC, and as a rabbi at NCSY — Dallas.