As his new album debuts, the renegade religious rapper tells The Times of Israel why he drastically changed his lifestyle.

Sitting backstage at Matisyahu’s concert in Stamford, Connecticut five days before the July 17 release of his new album, “Spark Seeker,” his father Bob Miller is smiling. Warm up band Moon Taxi has left the stage (as part of the Summer 2012 “Alive@Five” Festival), the sun is going down, the Stamford Town Center is packed and the crowd is cheering.

Matisyahu dances during his set at a summer concert in Irvine, Calif., in this May 2006, file photo. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello/FILE)

Matisyahu, best known for performing in traditional hasidic garb — black kippa with tzitzit (ritual fringes) swinging under his white shirt — is now dressed in a white T-shirt, black faded jeans, fashionable white sunglasses and green Nike sneakers. For most in the audience this is their first in-person look at his handsome, clean-shaven face. Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, no longer looks like a Lubavitcher. And he no longer embraces a hasidic lifestyle.

On December 13, 2011, Matisyahu shocked the Jewish world by posting a beardless picture of himself on Twitter, with additional commentary on his website.

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter.
No more Chassidic reggae superstar.
Sorry folks, all you get is me… no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality — not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity… to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules — lots of them — or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.
Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry… you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.
— Matisyahu

Many articles and blog posts have pondered the question of who is this new Matisyahu? Many wonder if he is “still religious.” Father Bob confidently reports, “He is the same person he always was. He has always been searching, and he always will.”

Mother Rochelle was also backstage at the Stamford concert, along with their daughter and family friends which included Matisyahu’s fifth grade health teacher who danced with her former student on stage. Ms. Miller was happy that Matisyahu was performing a short 27 kilometer drive from their home in White Plains, New York.

Rochelle enjoys the concert but shares more motherly concerns: The 33-year-old Matisyahu, wife Talia, and sons Laivy (7), Shalom (5), and Menachem Mendel (1), recently moved from Crown Heights, the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch, to the Pico Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

“I am extremely sad. I have been to Los Angeles five times since their move in September. Maybe they will move back after two years there!”

The soft-spoken, very forthcoming Matisyahu respectfully notes, “My wife took me there. She wanted to go. She wanted the weather. She’s from New York.”

At first, Matisyahu reports, “I wasn’t necessarily interested in leaving,” but he soon realized, “I wasn’t tied to one place.” Matisyahu consented and the family relocated.

Perhaps an additional benefit of living in Los Angeles is the proximity to Hollywood. Matisyahu will appear in the horror movie, “The Possession,” set to open August 21. Ironically, the now clean-shaven Matisyahu plays Tzadok, a rabbinic exorcist. The movie, which stars Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is the story of a girl who buys an antique box at a yard sale and is unaware that an evil spirit lives inside. For Matisyahu, acting is a return to his second love — he reportedly always had a passion for acting and was in plays in college.

Matisyahu is still best known for his first love, music. His musical styles include reggae, beat boxing and rap. His current tour, which ends on September 29, will take him and his band across the United States, Canada and Portugal. He continues to play such well known songs as “Jerusalem” and “King Without a Crown,” as well as cuts from his upcoming “Spark Seeker” album.

Matisyahu spoke candidly with The Times of Israel pre-concert from the back of his van, en route from the Stamford Marriott to his tour bus outside the Stamford Town Center. The musician spoke openly about a favorite song on his new CD, his family, and his recent transformation.

How is this different from past tours? Who is your audience?

How is anything ever the same? I go for deep. I have a hard time answering simple questions. The audience is different. We are on tour with the Dirty Heights. It is a younger crowd.

Your new CD “Spark Seeker” comes out on July 17. Are you excited about the release? Do you have a favorite song?

Of course I am excited. I don’t have a favorite song but one I have been performing lately, we’ve been staring off our shows with and the one my record starts with is “Crossroads.” I don’t even remember recording it to be honest with you. And I don’t remember writing the lyrics, but I did feel that when I listened to it, especially after all the changes, and everything that has been going on — I just felt like that it really sums up a lot of what I was feeling.

On “Light,” there was that line — “one tiny moment to shine.” [he is referring to the song “I Will Be Light.”] Looking back on the record, I feel like that was the main lyric of that record and I feel like “Crossroads” every night when I’m starting to sing it. I just feel like it’s perfect, I just feel like it’s right . Sometimes you write a song and it has a certain mood in it, and a feeling in it, and you are not always in that mood. Or that lyric doesn’t always resonate. The song that’s definitely resonating for me now is called “Crossroads.” And it feels powerful every night to go out and to perform it.

How do you deal with life in the spotlight?

I don’t know. How do you deal with it? It’s pretty cool.

You change your appearance — that’s one thing! Do people not recognize you these days?

Not even at my own shows!

When I saw you at the hotel, I didn’t even recognize you. You were wearing blue gym shorts, a blue T-shirt and tennis shoes — you just looked like a regular basketball player. People always grow and change and that’s awesome. Why did you decide to make your religious transformation so public?

The question is how do I not make it anything but public? I didn’t think I wanted to mention it. I wasn’t planning on mentioning it afterwards, with the Twitter thing. But I was going through Twitter and I read that quote [“When the tide comes in I lose my disguise”] — a fan quoted that lyric from “Thunder,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect!”

‘Who is to say what the disguise is?’

Sometimes you write lyrics and it can mean one thing for you and then a year later it can mean a totally different thing for you and at that moment I felt, wow, there is something inside of me even at that point that felt that I was in disguise. There was some part of me even four years ago when I wrote that song that felt one day I’m going to take off my disguise and then, on the other hand, you can say, “Who is to say what the disguise is?” Maybe the other one is the disguise. But in that moment, I felt it was time to reveal panim, the face. So then I was thinking, “People will see me at shows and they won’t get that it’s me — I’m gonna have to mention it. People are going to want to know what’s going on.”

How are you navigating your current level of Jewish observance on the road?

It’s kind of a different thing for me now. There are certain things I am still holding on to strongly, like obviously not performing on Shabbos, not traveling on Shabbos. Kosher. Kosher has been easy for me in this run because we have a chef and he is a vegetarian and he cooks just for me. So that one’s like knocked off. So that’s that. Shabbos is Shabbos.

‘There are so many rules in Judaism, and if you get into them and you get obsessed and you have the kind of life that I have, it can make you a very unhappy person’

Everything else, for the most part, I’m not holding myself to it in terms of the rule aspect of it. It is more about an ideal. Ideally I would like to put my tefillin on every morning and daven mincha and daven ma’ariv [two of the three daily prayer services]. And I would like to say brachos [blessings] and all these things. But I sort of stopped holding myself to it. It is a weight off now I do it when I have the time and it feels right. When I make the time, I am a little bit more accepting, a little more patient with myself maybe than I was in past years trying to fit in putting tefillin on with, like, in the morning when I had to be at a radio station at 8:30… There are so many rules in Judaism, and if you get into them and you get obsessed and you have the kind of life that I have, it can make you a very unhappy person. It can make everything complicated and more stressful than it needs to be, so I kind of loosened the knots a little bit.

How was the transformation for your family?

My one-year-old dealt with it. He had to get used to seeing my face. I think the first time I held him, he didn’t recognize me. But it was very quickly that he got it. I think they look in the eyes. And the feeling and the voice. Maybe more than anyone else my one-year-old son got it right away. No judgments, certainly from him. And then, my other two boys go to Chabad school (in Los Angeles), and I had to warn them and tell them that people might say stuff. We had to have a lot of conversations.

‘More than anyone else my one year old son got it right away. No judgments’

I think it’s given them a whole new take on… everything, because they will want to know. That things are not as simple; life is a little more complex. It is not so clear.

We had a conversation with my son on the way up here that was so interesting, where he was saying that… the whole thing with Jews and non-Jews and the differences and all that. I try to open them up and just give them alternatives. Basically, I just tell them, “When you are raised in a religious family, you learn that there is no alternative. That there is one ultimate truth. And you can see it might come in various shades and colors. At the end of the day there is one truth and that one truth is this.”

I’ve had to talk to my kids and explain that maybe that’s not so. Basically what I tell them is that no one can ever be sure of anything — and in this life, your teachers, parents, yourself — you can have your own ideas, your own opinions, intuitions feelings, etc., whatever it is. But never to be too sure of yourself, and never to be too sure of anyone because, at the end of the day, we don’t know. That was a new idea for them. But amazing conversations — me and my sons.


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Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, running in Amherst, focuses on klezmer tradition – and innovationWoodstock 1969, meet Yidstock 2012.

Back in the day, the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York, may have featured such acts as Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, but today’s Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, running July 11-15 in Amherst, Massachusetts, will present a who’s who of musicians from the klezmer and Yiddish music worlds, on the grounds of the National Yiddish Book Center.

“The idea behind the festival is to build on what the Yiddish Book Center has been doing and take it to a whole new level — to program a festival of contemporary Yiddish and klezmer music that draws upon both tradition and innovation,’says festival programmer, Seth Rogovoy, music critic and author “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music” and “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet.”

Priceless Yiddish books that had survived Hitler and Stalin were being discarded and destroyed

The Yiddish Book Center grew out of the work of Aaron Lansky, a 24-year-old graduate student in Yiddish literature who, in 1980, learned that thousands of priceless Yiddish books that had survived Hitler and Stalin were being discarded and destroyed. American-born Jews were unable to read the language once spoken by their parents and grandparents. Lansky organized a national network of zamlers, volunteer book collectors, to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books.

“We weren’t collecting books for too long before we realized it was just the tip of the iceberg,” recounts Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center and the editor of its magazine, PaknTreger. “We didn’t just lose books, but we lost the constellation of Jewish life — language, literature, music, film and theater.”

The Yiddish Book Center has helped ensure the preservation and rebirth of Yiddish language and culture. The 49,000 square foot center is home to more than 1,500,000 volumes of Yiddish books. More than 11,000 Yiddish titles are now available free of charge online through the Center’s Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, and undergraduate students interested in becoming the next generation of Yiddish language speakers and translators spend their summer learning Yiddish language, culture and history.

‘Through the course of the festival you get a picture of where the music has been, where it is now, and where it is headed’

Yidstock, a more popular front of the center’s activities, will feature such top names in klezmer and Yiddish music as Hankus Netsky and the Hebrew National Salvage, Grammy Award winners the Klezmatics, Josh Dolgin aka “Socalled,” Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars with Eleanor Reissa, and the Michael Winograd Trio. Yidstock will also include a film festival, a klezmer instrumental workshop and a klezmer brunch. Rogovoy will deliver a talk entitled “Rockin’ the Shtetl: The Essential Klezmer.”

“Through the course of the festival,” notes Rogovoy, “you get a picture of where the music has been, where it is now, and where it is headed.”

Hankus Netsky, scion of a klezmer dynasty, one of the original klezmer revivalists, and founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, shares Rogovoy’s appreciation for the Yiddish Book Center.

“The Yiddish Book Center exists because the mainstream world neglected, then discarded, Yiddish literature and everything else too. The revival and revitalization is a major triumph of the last 30 years — this festival celebrates that.” Netsky, who holds a PhD in ethnomusicology and is director of the Itzhak Perlman “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul” Project (to be released in the Fall of 2012 on Sony), speaks passionately about the themes of “salvage,” rescue and revitalization (he will be performing with a group known as Hebrew National Salvage).

The Klezmatics (photo credit: courtesy)

“We found Jewish culture discarded in the dumpster and are doing what Jewish business people have always done — we are finding a new use for it. My father was in the rag business so I am familiar! We are putting it back into circulation. We are reclaiming it.”

Netsky refers to his work as “salvage ethnography.”

He adds, “Jewish music is the same as Jewish literature — it builds on what came before it and is eminently creative.”

Netsky relates that the entry for klezmer in the 1975 Dictionary of Jewish Music read, “The klezmer tradition died out in the 19th century.”

“Huh?” asks Netsky, “That’s interesting! All my grandfathers and uncles were klezmer musicians!”

In a summer, 2011, PaknTreger article entitled, “But Is It Klezmer?” Rogovoy explores this latest wave of Jewish music, which continues to borrow from many sources. He playfully reports on the types of comments he hears when he exits concerts by performers like the ones who will play at Yidstock.

‘Klezmer has always spoken in the idiom of its time. And that time is now, and the fusion of hip-hop, funk, and jazz is our musical currency’

“If I had a dollar for every time I hear someone saying ‘I don’t know what you call that, but that’s not klezmer,’ I’d be, as the saying goes, a rich man,” says Rogovoy. “I hate to disappoint you, but yes, it is klezmer. And not only is it klezmer, it is part and parcel of the klezmer tradition. Indeed, it is traditional klezmer, because klezmer has always spoken in the idiom of its time. And that time is now, and the fusion of hip-hop, funk, and jazz is our musical currency.”


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Nadine Fahoum, a Muslim from Haifa, has become Israel’s unofficial ambassador off the court, and a phenom for Duke on it.

For Nadine Fahoum, serving as an ambassador for Israeli tennis and the State of Israel is a pleasure — though anything but straightforward. The 22-year-old Muslim Israeli-Arab from Haifa recently graduated from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she majored in business administration and received a certificate in marketing and management. While there she also found the time to rank number one in tennis singles and helped the Lady Blue Devils tennis team to a national ranking of number three.

Fahoum also served as a de facto Jewish studies teacher and spiritual adviser to three American Jewish teammates. “They asked me about the Jewish holidays and when the Yom Kippur fast begins and ends,” says Fahoum, who regularly visited the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and participated in campus groups such as “Peace or Pieces?” — a forum for Jewish and Muslim students’ “controversial issues.”

‘I was the only Arab kid in school until my brother enrolled in the same school a few years later’ 

Fahoum got an early start feeling comfortable in the Jewish world. Her parents — mother Wafa Zoabi, a lawyer, and father, Anan, a bakery owner — sent Nadine and her younger brother to Haifa’s prestigious Reali Hebrew School. “I was the only Arab kid in school until my brother enrolled in the same school a few years later.”

Her brother, Fahoum Fahoum, 20, has continued to follow in his sister’s footsteps. Fahoum currently studies economics and plays tennis at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia — the university Nadine transferred from to play tennis at Duke.

“When Fahoum was a junior, I took him and three Jewish kids to play in a tennis exhibition in Boca Raton, Florida,” recounts Shaul Zohar, manager of the Israel Tennis Center in Kiryat Shmona. “We were at a Shabbat dinner and the host asked, ‘Who wants to do the blessing over the wine?’ The three all said no — and so Fahoum did the kiddush!”

Nadine and Fahoum have represented Israel in over thirty countries — starting with her first tournament in France at age 14 and including Switzerland, Portugal, Greece, and India. And they are not told what to say on behalf of the State of Israel.

“I say what I think,” says the polite, soft-spoken Nadine. “I have heard both sides my whole life. We all want the same thing — to live in peace.”

“We need to find a solution as soon as possible. It is a tough situation. We have to start where we are and look forward, not backward, and move forward from here.”

When asked what she would recommend as a solution, she pauses, carefully considering her reply. “We must learn from an early age to live together, when we are not prejudiced. That is why programs like the coexistence programs at the Israel Tennis Center are so important.”

She explains how its initiatives, such as the Twinned Peace Kindergarten, bring children and their families together in meaningful ways. “They go to each other’s houses, do homework together and travel to tournaments together.”

It has not always been easy. Many years ago, at New York’s JFK airport, security officials noted Fahoum’s name and asked to inspect her luggage. Coach Zohar intervened and said, “We are all the same — if you check her bag, you must check all bags. Check all or leave her alone!’”  She was allowed to pass without inspection. Israeli security has subsequently invited Nadine’s mother to offer workshops to security personnel on how to treat minorities.

Nadine recently began working as a development associate in New York City for the ITC. “If there were 10,000 Nadines, the [Israeli-Arab] situation would be different,” says Zohar.

The Israel Tennis Center team: Jacqueline Glodstein, Nadine Fahoum and Shaul Zohar.

“I’m sure there are — we just have to identify them and have them speak up,” adds Nadine.

“We have to encourage them to speak up,” adds Jacqueline Glodstein, vice president of global development for Israel Tennis Center.

Nadine has been living with Glodstein and her family in their Long Island home for the past six months. The family, whose members have all spent significant time in Israel, has found it very enlightening. Glodstein says, “We never had an opportunity to get to know on an intimate basis an Arab Israeli Muslim. It was an amazing opportunity for all of us. Living together, you just begin to know each other in a very special way — you create relationships and bonds.” The Fahoum parents also stayed in the Glodstein home for a e week during a recent trip to the United States.

For now, it is back to work for Nadine. While she will be focusing on her ITC responsibilities, she will still manage to find time for tennis. “I love tennis — I will always play!”


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Walking out of the Bruce Springsteen concert in Philadelphia last week, I heard a yalmuke-wearing teenager exclaim, “If Bruce Springsteen was a rabbi, I’d go to his shul [synagogue]!” The 62-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had just delivered a three-hour concert—without even an intermission—during which he crowd-surfed across the pit of the Wells Fargo Arena, danced on stage with his almost 90 year old mother during crowd-favorite “Dancing in the Dark,” and pointed heavenward for several minutes during the encore, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” paying proper respect to “The Big Man,” Clarence Clemons, who died last June. Springsteen kicked off his Wrecking Ball tour on March 18th, to promote the release of his 17th album.

The young fan was suggesting that Springsteen knows how to connect with people and inspire them with his message. Charismatic and caring, he even knows his fair share of Bible.

I overheard another, less-observant, friend confided that he was planning on spending the eve of Friday April 6thseder night—with Bruce, the E Street Band, and 20,000 close friends at Manhattan’s famous Madison Square Garden!

Many Jews are connected to Bruce. Fans have long speculated on the extent of the Boss’s connection to all things Jewish. Here is a partial list of obvious (though admittedly “long shot”) connections to Judaism, the Jewish People and Israel.

1. His Name

Many have (incorrectly) speculated that the Boss’ last name gives him away as Jewish. Adam Sandler set the record straight in his “Chanukah Song Part II”:

So many Jews are in the show biz/ Bruce Springsteen isn’t Jewish/But my mother thinks he is.

2. Jews in the Band

The Mighty Max Weinberg (drummer), spoke at the American Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia the night before two gigs at Wells-Fargo. Weinberg played his first bar mitzvah at age 7, attended synagogue at Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, and in a recent email interview with the JTA, reported that drumming “was my way of living a life of tikkun olam.” Weinberg also said, “I was greatly influenced by the poetic approach to leadership by the late Rabbi Avraham Soltes, who made the stories and scripture come alive through music and his charismatic teachings.”

Max’s son, Jacob, briefly toured with the E Street Band when Max was tied up with his commitment to the Conan O’Brien TV show, and Springsteen’s longtime manager and producer, Jon Landau, is Jewish. Pianist Roy Bittan is Jewish. And Suki Lahav, an Israeli post-army violinist from Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar, toured and recorded briefly with Springsteen in the 70’s before returning to Israel. Her then-husband, Louis Lahav, was a recording engineer for Bruce.

3. Biblical References

A former student of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic school in Freehold Borough in New Jersey, Springsteen knows his bible. Aside from the occasional Jesus reference, lyrics contain gems such as these three:

“Rocky Ground”

Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land…
Flood waters rising and we’re Canaan bound

“Red Headed Woman”

Well, push comes to shove
Man, and shove comes to push
And I was Moses standing ‘fore the burning bush

“Adam Raised a Cain”

In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And East of Eden he was cast,
You’re born into this life paying,
for the sins of somebody else’s past,

4. Jewish References

Springsteen’s hometown of Long Branch, long associated with the seaside town of Asbury Park, is a stone’s throw from Deal, New Jersey—home to nearly 5,000 Syrian Jews who vacation in there each summer. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but as one blogger noted, a line in “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” might have been inspired by the Syrian Jewish Beach Club Casino in Deal:

And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovery on the shore/Chasin’ all them silly New York virgins by the score

5. “Shtick” in Concerts

Generally reserved for klezmer bands, “Hava Nagila” is not the first song you’d expect “The Boss” to play. Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Rahm Emanuel, President’s Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, prompted Springsteen to play 45 seconds of the Jewish melody at a Washington, DC area show in May, 2009. Emmanuel spotted a sign made by a hardcore fan, requesting the famous—albeit unlikely—song:

“My daughter (a Jewish day school student) didn’t want to go because of homework, so I figured she needed a Jewish excuse to go to the concert. I made the ‘Hava Nagila’ sign—I’m in the mortgage credit market, so there’s not a hell of a lot for me to do these days—and we brought it to the concert,” he said. “I made it like the Torah, two sticks on each side.”

And, in his Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live in New York City record, while getting the crowd pumped up, Bruce references…a bar mitzvah! He says, “ I’m gonna throw a rock and roll exorcism…a rock and roll baptism and a rock and roll bar mitzvah!”

6. Israel

First the bad news—he ain’t coming to Tel Aviv.  But, back in November, there were articles in several Israeli publications speculating that he might finally perform in the Promised Land. Unlike Elvis Costello and Pete Seeger, Bruce has not criticized Israel or called for its boycott or divestment. When Bruce completes the US leg of his tour in May, he will then traverse Europe before wrapping up in Helsinki, Finland on July 31st—he just doesn’t have enough time to hit the Holy Land. The closest the Boss gets to the Middle East is Lisbon (June 3rd), Milan (June 7th), Florence (June 10th), Trieste (June 11th) and Madrid (June 17th).

But I can’t hold it against him—The Boss is clearly a fan of the Jews! His lyrics, show antics, and band that nearly comprises a minyan point to his connection to Judaism. He  might not be Jewish, but I’m convinced: I want Bruce to be my Rabbi.

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