Why We’re Losing Matisyahu

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Once a pioneer in Jewish music, now his music is being branded a goyishe zach (non-Jewish thing).Permit me to rant a bit.

I’m not interested in bashing the Orthodox community, of which I am a member.  There are plenty of people out there to do it for me.  Just look at my YouTube Channel.  Besides, the Orthodox community has done and is continuing to do many things right, some in plain sight and much of it behind the scenes.  That being said, I have a bone to pick.

Many of Matisyahu’s fans are beating their chests over what went wrong, why he went off the derech (that is to say, abandoned Jewish observance).  After all, this wasn’t just someone who happens to be religious and doing their own thing.  In February of last year, Matisyahu proudly proclaimed that he, not Drake was the real Jewish rapper.  Clearly, that assertion had something to do with the fuzz that formerly graced his face.

But really, who cares?  It’s his private life and his decision.  A colleague of mine just rebuked a group of us for making a fuss over another Jew’s decision to take a step away from Judaism just because of their status in pop culture, and pretty much called us a bunch of hypocrites for not being as distraught over the millions of Jews not in the limelight who feel alienated by their tradition, many of whom have walked away from it entirely.  He’s almost right.  Almost.  There is a difference though.

I’ve basically identified four basic reasons that would prevent someone from taking on Jewish observance:

 It’s a major burden in terms of time, energy, and money.

It puts an unnecessary glass ceiling up that if you want to achieve a certain level in life you’ll never get there.

If you’re religious you basically have to withdraw from public life and isolate yourself in a box.  Ditch old friends, no partying, and forget about being a public figure.

It’s just not cool.

Matisyahu more than any Orthodox pop culture icon, a very small list to begin with, showed that these reasons just weren’t true.  He not only lived an observant lifestyle but made it his selling point.  He’s the kind of figure I’ve heard a number of Orthodox people they say they’d been waiting for: an unabashedly Jewish figure at the top of their game, in the limelight, for the whole world to see. 

There may be those who say it, but the community certainly doesn’t act that way.  When Matisyahu was getting started, still just doing his thing in Washington Square Park, he was the darling of the Jewish world.  JCC’s, Hillels, and Jews in general couldn’t get enough of him.  Many students of mine back then when I was still in the yeshiva system had him on their iPOD.  Suddenly, he got successful.  Really successful.  Too successful.

The Orthodox world at some point turned on him the way Hollywood turned on Vanilla Ice, with similarly disastrous results.  Almost overnight he went from being the spokesman for the Jewish community in the music industry to being considered a bad influence.  Once a pioneer in Jewish music, now his music was being branded a goyishe zach (non-Jewish thing).  Of course much worse than the oodles of covers done by so many Jewish artists without giving proper attribution (that’s for a different time).  I even heard from one high school kid that he played at a HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children) concert that when he started playing a bunch people stood out and walked out on him.  What a slap in the face.  And of course the kid was beaming about it, clearly something communicated to him by some rabbi.  No wonder Matisyahu has been looking to find a more universalist path!

Matisyahu is still quite Jewish, though his concept of what it means to be Jewish has changed radically, and continues to be in flux.  I wish him the best of luck in figuring himself out.  But we as a community should have been there for him during possibly his biggest challenge: fame.  Our Sages tell us that riches are a difficult test on our religiosity, so much so that one rabbi didn’t want to be rich for that reason.  We let him down big time, and our community is going to pay the price for it.

Jewish professionals keep scratching their heads: why can’t we get more people on board?  I have a suggestion: learn how to treat your stars.  Scientology, despite teaching that we’re all possessed by extra-terrestrial ghosts, and having an extensive rap sheet of abusing its members, is nonetheless continuing to grow.  It’s because they take care of their stars.  When people look at how the Church of Scientology treats John Travolta and Tom Cruise, they say “Wow! This is great!  I’ll sign up.”  And yet, when such a person is willing to occupy this spot on their own accord, we failed to even keep him on board, much less be the representative of Judaism to the world.

I think even though he doesn’t say it outright like I do, he’s alluding to this in his statement to his fans (matisyahuworld.com/news/detail/to_my_fans/).  I’d be curious what he’d think of my ad-hoc psychoanalysis.

Rabbi Eric Kotkin is the founder of TheCollegeRabbi.com, the online chaplaincy for Jewish college students.  He is a musmach of Rav Ephraim Greeblatt and Yeshiva University’s RIETS and is an EdD candidate at YU’s Azrieli School of Education.

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