How Matisyahu became a Hasidic humanist — in his own words


Matisyahu’s personal and religious journey — from non-religious stoner teen to Hasidic reggae rocker to non-Orthodox Jewish symbol — has been tracked closely in the media.

On Friday night, the Jewish reggae star sat down to tell his story in his own words, no holds barred. He spoke with Brooklyn Rabbi Dan Ain and Relix magazine editor Mike Greenhaus at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village for the second installment of their Friday Night Jam series — which features Jewish musicians willing to talk about their art and their spirituality.

The first speaker last month was Ryan Miller, the lead singer of Guster; the next musician lined up is Lenny Kaye, the longtime guitarist of Patti Smith’s band.

After a Shabbat candle blessing and a short meditation session, Matisyahu began drinking red wine and opening up. He answered questions about what many of his fans are most interested in: how he entered the music world as a Hasidic Jew and how he eventually left the Chabad Hasidic community.

Here are five poignant and funny stories from his reprisal of the past decade of his life.

1. His late teenage years were full of drugs and jam bands

When he was 16, Matisyahu (then Matthew Miller) went to a Phish concert in Worcester, Massachusetts, and dropped acid for the first time with some friends.

“It changed my life,” he said.

He quickly became obsessed with the jam band scene and dropped out of high school to follow Phish on a tour across the country. After trying and failing to reenroll in high school, he ended up at a rehab center in Oregon, where he first began playing open mic sets.

“I wasn’t religious but I remember drinking mushroom tea and coming out wrapped in an Israeli flag with sage burning,” he said. “I decided: I love music, I love drugs, but I sort of need to make that next step. And being who I am, I did that in a drastic way and decided okay, I need to become something.”

2. He lived with New York University’s Chabad rabbi

After moving back to New York and attending The New School, Matisyahu started going to the Carlebach Shul on the city’s Upper West Side — which, as he put it, blew his mind. He gradually started wearing tzitzit and growing out his beard. One night he got so drunk that he collapsed in a bar’s stairwell and had an epiphany that he had to change his ways.

“The next day I was in Washington Square Park and [NYU Chabad] Rabbi [Dave] Korn was there,” Matisyahu said. “He poured me a glass of vodka … and the next thing I knew I was married with three kids in Crown Heights.”

What he really did next was move in with Korn’s family and begin studying Torah all day, every day.

“There was a beauty to it, it was like a purification in some sense. And there was also a complete psychosis to it, where I completely lost touch with myself and was trying to be this other thing,” he said.

3. His first hip-hop audience was a group of Hasidic Jews in the Catskills

The entire staff and student body of the yeshiva Matisyahu had enrolled in vacationed in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At a celebration one summer night, at the urging of someone, Matisyahu stood up on a table and rapped in front of the yeshiva’s staff members and their families.

“They kind of flipped out,” he said. “And they were into it.”

He would soon be performing for larger audiences. Back in his Torah-consumed life in the city, he had a teacher — “a maniac from Russia” — who tried to “crush” any dreams he had of being a musician. He let go of his ambitions, but quietly worked on his first album, which came out in 2004.

“I let go of [the dream] and said, Whatever God wants for me. And I think that in that internal moment of letting go, I was afforded the humility for God to come and give it to me. Because when it happened, it just happened almost in a supernatural way … It was just like, OK, this is now what you’re doing. You’re going to be on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, you’re going to be at Bonnaroo … everything happened very quickly,” Matisyahu said.

4. He got his beard shaved at Supercuts

Fast-forward several years and hundreds of thousands of records sold. In the Upper West Side one day in 2011, after a session with his therapist, he decided to walk into a Supercuts salon. The only employee inside was a Hispanic woman. He told her that he hadn’t shaved his beard for 10 years. After the deed was done, the two of them cried together.

“Honestly, I really didn’t think about anybody else when I shaved. I didn’t think about what it would mean for my career or what people would think about it. I just got to the place I wanted to,” he said.

5. Now, he’s most comfortable praying with Hasidim who scream

After shaving his beard, Matisyahu began to attend a Hasidic shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, associated with the Karlin sect.

“The place I feel most comfortable davening is by the Hasidim who scream,” he said. “I stepped into a Karlin shul, where they’re literally pissed off and screaming at God and everybody is singing their own melody. And it’s very beautiful.”

These days, Matisyahu is still religious — and he’s looking for a new synagogue to pray at near his home in Monsey, a town in New York’s Rockland County.

“I love Hasidim, I love certain aspects of it. But when you put an idea at the top of the list and everything else falls under that, you lose track of what’s real, of humanity,” he said.

Showbiz meets shtetl: Helping Hollywood get Hasidim right


When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.

But that approach isn’t without its challenges.

Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.

“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.

Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.

These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.

Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.

He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.

“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.

Isaac Schonfeld, a graduate of Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah high school in Queens and an Orthodox Jew, has consulted on several independent films.

Most recently, Schonfeld consulted for the 2013 comedy “Fading Gigolo” directed by John Turturro, who stars as a novice prostitute being pimped out to female clients by a friend played by Woody Allen. One of the major plot lines focuses on a budding romance that develops between Turturro’s character and a lonely Hasidic widow who hires him as a masseur.

Schonfeld brought Turturro and several crew members to a regular social gathering he runs in New York called Chulent that is popular among many former Hasidim and others on the margins of the haredi world.

Other acquaintances of Schonfeld also helped with the film. One, Malky Lipshitz, contributed religious artwork and consulted with Vanessa Paradis, the French actress who played the Hasidic woman in the film. Others submitted voice recordings for actor Liev Schreiber to use to practice his inflection in his role as a member of a Hasidic community patrol vying for the widow’s affections.

Schonfeld pointed to one significant change that resulted from his advice. He said that Turturro had planned to name the Hasidic widow after a friend’s wife named Avital, wrongly believing it to be an authentic-sounding Hasidic name. Schonfeld noted that some people have a tendency to believe that Israeli and haredi names are interchangeable.

Schonfeld recommended similar alternatives that would be more plausibly Hasidic but would still accommodate Turturro’s attachments and artistic considerations. In the end Avital was named Avigal.

But the naming of characters was a minor challenge compared to another conundrum: finding a word for “pimp” in Yiddish to be used in a scene before a rabbinic court where Allen’s character is accused of providing a male prostitute for a Hasidic woman. Finding the one word, “alfons,” rarely if ever used in contemporary Hasidic parlance, required a significant amount of research on Schonfeld’s part.

When it comes to meticulousness, “Fading Gigolo” does not stand alone. “Felix and Meira,” a forthcoming independent Canadian film that follows a Hasidic woman from Montreal who engages in an extramarital affair with a non-Jewish man, also required significant research, consultation and visits to the haredi community.

Several former Hasidim consulted for the film in varying capacities. Rivka Katz, formerly a Lubavitcher Hasid, consulted on the script, while Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weisz, who attended Satmar Hasidic schools growing up, both acted and consulted. Twersky plays the protagonist’s husband and Weisz has the part of a Hasidic woman, a minor character in the film.

They pointed to the verisimilitude of a scene set during a Shabbat meal.

“The shtreimel [fur Hasidic hat] was real, the bekeshe [frock coat] was real, the chicken soup was real,” Twersky said of the scene.

Even though it was not shot on the actual Sabbath, the scene seemed so authentic that Weisz, who acted in the scene, said that on a visceral level it felt wrong to be engaging in un-Shabbat-like activity like filmmaking.

Afterward, when conversation turned to the movie, “I got mad,” Weisz recalled, “because they shouldn’t be talking about that on Shabbos.”

But film consultants do not always agree with one another on what makes for the most authentic depiction of Hasidim.

On Twitter, Twersky had criticized the 2010 movie “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a drug-running yeshiva student, for its costuming choices and other issues. He tweeted: “guys with peyos don’t wear short suits and fedora hats.”

Meyer, who worked on the film, says he advises a “mish-mosh look,” piecing together the hat from one Hasidic sect and the side curls of another, unless the director has a particular sect in mind.

To Twersky, that was one of several of the film’s failings.

But he acknowledges that departures from authentic portrayals of Hasidic life are not always such a bad thing.

“We need to get over the fact that we don’t own the story of Hasidic Jews,” Twersky said.

He noted that artistic considerations often result in departures from reality.

“Nobody wants to see regular people doing regular things,” Twersky said. “That’s not a movie.”