Forward Thinking

The Shearing Heard 'Round the Hasidic World

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Never before has the shaving of one man’s beard prompted such an outcry.

When Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu posted pics, early Tuesday, of his newly-shaven (and nearly unrecognizable) face, and later posted a statement on his blog saying that there’s “no more Chassidic reggae superstar” and “sorry folks, all you get is me….no alias,” many people gasped in shock. Including me.

After all, the guy has built a career on compositions fusing frank yearning for connection with God and a serious roots reggae dancehall beat. That he has beatboxed so impressively while wearing the long beard and black frockcoat of a serious Hasid has made his success all the more delectable.

And he has been extremely successful, topping the Billboard charts, two of his albums reaching gold status, has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers and is so part of general culture that he was the punch line of a joke in the movie “Knocked Up.”

Now that he is shucking off his coat, has shaved off the long side locks along with his beard and is describing his religious persona as “an alias,” it is leaving his legion fans wondering what, in addition to two new albums and a movie role, will come next.

Within hours after the website CrownHeights.info ran the story, 120 people had posted comments, many dickering over whether Matis (who stopped affiliating with Lubavitch in 2007) he has let the community down or now poses some kind of spiritual danger for those still “on the derech.”

To some, Matis has been a real role model, and they seem disillusioned. One of his Facebook friends posted on the singer’s wall: “I [consider] what you did a personal act of betrayal!!”

With charisma and confidence, Matisyahu has embodied a unique model of American Jewishness. He was a disaffected stoner and then, through a Lubavitch emissary, found God. He jumped into Orthodox observance with both feet and still became a mainstream star. He has celebrated particular aspects of Judaism, in his Hasidic niggunim and singing about moshiach, and universal values, as in the song “One Day,” which was used to promote the last Winter Olympics.

He felt confined by different camps within Lubavitch claiming him as their own, and stopped affiliating with that community in 2007. He began spending time with the Karlin-Stolin Hasidim in Boro Park, whose approach to prayer — men cry out to God, in longing and need, as they pray — he found more appealing. He also spoke of his attraction to the teachings of Nachman of Breslov, who created the Breslov Hasidic movement and struggled with extreme mood swings, according to Rabbi Art Green’s biography, “The Tormented Master.”

When I interviewed Matis in a Greenpoint loft four years ago, he struck me as a sweet and creatively brilliant guy who continued to struggle to find inner equilibrium. Now I’m concerned that he’s grappling with more than spiritual challenges. In late 2010, in this video interview, he talked about struggling to find the balance as he tried to lose himself in religion:

You start to become schizophrenic, you know, or totally lose your mind almost. I was really walking that line.

He has spoken of his internal struggle between darkness and light.

At the end of the day Tuesday, Matis tweeted reassurance to those who needed it:

For all of those who are being awesome, you are awesome. For all those who are confused: today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday.

Now perhaps he is modeling the search, rather than any of the answers. And for some, that’s enough.

On his Twitter page a fan called Judahism wrote:

Dear Matisyahu, You have always been my idol, your music inspired me to wear tzizit, and kept me shomer shabbat in times of doubt. Even when I have doubts in life, I listen to your music, and your poetry speaks the truth. I listen to your music when I wake up, on my walk to and from school, and when I go to sleep… I made Aliyah because your words inspired me to believe, and restored my Jewish soul … A haircut may be a statement, but it isn’t a life decision. Your music will continue to inspire me, and your Judaism will continue to be an example for me… Keep the search going, and I will do the same.


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