Matisyahu: Questioning things led me to think more

Reggae musician sings and reflects on his religious transition during Jerusalem performance

Matisyahu with Ephraim Rosenstein at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai, May 28, 2018. (photo credit: MAOZ VISTUCH)
Matisyahu with Ephraim Rosenstein at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai, May 28, 2018.
(photo credit: MAOZ VISTUCH)
Jewish American reggae singer Matisyahu sang songs, beatboxed, cracked jokes and avoided questions during an appearance in Jerusalem on Monday night.
Billed as a show and conversation at the Beit Avi Hai cultural center, the singer – a former Chabad hassid – was joined on stage by his longtime guitarist Aaron Dugan, his friend, therapist and sometimes muse Ephraim Rosenstein, and by friend and Jerusalem-based saxophonist Daniel Zamir.
Yes, Matisyahu brought his therapist on stage to ask him questions about his life and his music. And while the questions may have been probing, the musician tended to avoid getting too deep.
Matisyahu opened the night by jumping straight into performing, first “King Without a Crown,” from his 2004 debut album, and then “Jerusalem” from 2006’s Youth, followed by “Broken Car” off of 2014’s Akeda. The intimate venue and quiet atmosphere were the perfect vehicle for Matisyahu’s powerful, pure vocals, accompanied only by Dugan’s expert electric guitar skills.
After those three songs, Rosenstein joined Matisyahu on stage, and the singer discussed the journey reflected by those three tracks.
“Those songs [“King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem”] were written right when I first really started becoming religious, and there’s a certain hope in those songs,” he said. “When I first started out it was reaching for the quality of perfection – in my lifestyle, in religion in my music – and that was a driving force for me for some time.”
But at a certain point, he recalled, “I started to feel like I couldn’t catch up, like I could never get to the actual place that I was running to get to all the time and then I said, OK, and I started to slow down a little bit.”
“Broken Car,” Matisyahu said, was born when he “started to come to the awareness that the vehicle I’m driving in this world is not a Ferrari, or a Tesla roadster or a Porsche, but I’m actually in some beat-up kind of old Chevy or something. And I started trying to find the beauty in that - in feeling all the bumps in the road in life and not just trying to fly over them.”
When Rosenstein asked the singer about once “being the most famous Jewish face” and how he kept going after that, Matisyahu evaded the question, and began once again to sing.
He performed “Star on the Rise,” “Temple,” “Sunshine,” “I Will be Light” and “Ayeka,” supplementing his rich vocals with extensive beatboxing at times.
The white-haired singer exhibited none of the temper that has gotten him in trouble in the past - including shoving teenage fans off stage during a show in Alabama last year. In Jerusalem, Matisyahu was remarkably mellow and reflective, perhaps aided by wearing what appeared to be pajamas on stage - a white t-shirt reading "running cult member" and a plaid robe. The singer is also in Israel to perform at the Beersheba student festival on Tuesday night.
While he evaded several questions, Matisyahu was quick to tell anecdotes from his life, mainly of his time in yeshiva – wandering the streets performing Chabad mitzva campaigns, spending summers in the Catskills and visiting Ukraine with Rosenstein.
Zamir, who came on and off stage, told a tale of the pair getting stuck in Waterbury, Connecticut for Shabbat, and using a public lake in the middle of a park as a mikve.
Later, Rosenstein prodded Matisyahu to reflect further on his transition away from religious life.
“I started to become more interested in questions,” said Matisyahu. “I started to realize that questions led me think more and led me to a much deeper place than pretending I had all the answers.” The singer said that “this way of being fits a lot more with the nature of my neshoma, of my soul.”
After declining to answer a question about what he’s seeking now spiritually, and how much he left behind, Matisyahu began once more to sing.
“In my next life/ Could I take another turn?” he sang from 2014’s “Surrender,” continuing: “With my sights set on the next bet/ my life is not set yet.”
While he may not have answered many questions, Matisyahu spoke through his music, and his fans in Jerusalem were more than satisfied.
By popular demand, he ended the show with his big 2009 hit “One Day,” but not before performing “Back to the Old” from his most recent album, last year’s Undercurrent.
“I’ve been blessed but I’ve been tossed up round this sea,” he sang. “And the love that got buried deep down beneath/ Seen in a vision on a BQE with a test to see/ Restlessness ain’t got the best of me.”