The Bob and the Baba

Haaretz, Israel/October 10, 2007

One of the show's most delightful numbers opened with an ancient Hasidic melody. Matisyahu, Daniel Zamir's surprise guest, stood at center stage and began to sing alone. Zamir joined him on the sax. Accompanied by Zamir's band, the two bearded musicians left the emotive Hasidic tune behind to depart on an improvised jazz-reggae-rap-rock adventure that mercilessly pounded the crowd for 10 minutes. Matisyahu jumped from quotes from Bob Marley and Lee "Scratch" Perry to screaming "Shma Yisrael," the cornerstone of Jewish prayer. A brief lull in his barrage of worshipful text was devoted to his signature beatboxing. Zamir's frenetic sax did not lag far behind.

The guest appearance of New York rapper-reggae artist Matisyahu, who is in Israel on a personal visit, was the first surprise awaiting the crowd that attended the Saturday night performance of jazz artist Zamir at Jerusalem's Yellow Submarine club. Neither artist performs traditional Hasidic music and both come from different musical worlds, but their joint association with the Chabad Hasidic movement made traditional Hasidic nigun songs a natural meeting point.

But that was the source of the second surprise: In an interview following the show, Matisyahu revealed that he had decided to abandon his association with Chabad, his hallmark from the first day he appeared on the radar of international reggae. "I am no longer identified with Chabad," he announced. "Today, it's more important to me to connect to a universal message. While they were playing on stage and I closed my eyes, I was thinking that what we do is not at all about Judaism and not about Chabad. It's much bigger than one religion or another. It relies on something real that can speak to anybody. It's about truth and memory."

Matthew Miller, an American, and Daniel Zamir, an Israeli, met at New York's prestigious New School of Music seven years ago. During that period, both artists embarked on separate spiritual journeys in which they embraced religious Judaism - Zamir did so independently and Matisyahu in a Chabad yeshiva in Crown Heights. Matisyahu says their friendship began only at the final graduation ceremony. "When I arrived at the New School ceremony, I was already wearing a suit, a hat, payot [sidelocks], and a tzitzit [fringed undergarment]. It was so weird but suddenly I saw another guy who looked like a penguin. I said, 'Who is that guy?'"

The meeting of penguins led to a joint Shabbat in Crown Heights and there, according to Zamir, "Matisyahu introduced me to one of the rabbis who recruited me into Chabad. Fairly quickly, I realized that it was exactly what I wanted, that it's the path, the kernel of truth, the essence." Matisyahu says, "When I was in yeshiva, I was a little lonely. I didn't know people and my former friends were no longer around. Daniel would occasionally come to visit me and we became close friends."

Zamir: "It was incredible. The guy disengaged from everything for a year and a half to study at yeshiva. He did nothing else. For him, it was a hard-core experience. He came to me to eat real food."

During that period, Zamir began to appear in jazz clubs and released albums under the New York "Tzadik Records" label. Miller, who eventually adopted the Yiddish pronunciation of his first name, Matisyahu, briefly remained at the yeshiva before launching an international career that placed him on the cover of Time magazine and earned him a place on the Forward newspaper's list of the 50 most influential Jews.

Matisyahu has appeared in Israel several times but, a month ago, he brought his wife and two children to Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood for a visit. The idea was to spend the High Holiday period worshiping in the neighborhood's synagogues in the company of close friends from the United States. However, the visit also sparked a "spiritual shift," to quote some of his friends. He devoted the time between synagogue services to studying Hasidism, mainly the Collected Teachings (Likkutei Moharan) of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Two of Matisyahu's friends live in an apartment in Nahlaot with two framed pictures of Bob Marley and the Baba Sali, a Moroccan Jewish sage, hanging side by side. Matisyahu's friends introduce these sources of inspiration as "The Bob and the Baba." Many members of their community of American immigrants sheared off several kilos of dreadlocks in their path to spiritual redemption. One of them saved two dreadlocks as a tribute to his former membership in Seattle's reggae community. They hang from his temples beside a traditional pair of payot.

"Matisyahu encountered a form of Judaism here that spoke to him. It was new to him and I think he liked the fact that you don't have to surrender your original sources of inspiration," they said. "There were Chabad rabbis who supported him at first but, recently, they've criticized him for continuing to appear in front of an audience of men and women and also in front of non-Jews. It's important to Matisyahu to appear before non-Jews. The advantage of Bratslav is that it's less centralized, there isn't one rabbi, and it speaks more to the soul."

Chabad and its deceased leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have greatly defined Matisyahu's identity and he has mentioned them in an endless number of shows and interviews. Although he was not an official representative of the movement, he was invited to appear at their conferences. His friends say that he has remained a pious Jew and that he bears no animosity toward Chabad. They say he has no intention of switching the Chabad Lubavitch flag for the flag of the Bratslav Hasidic movement and "is actually searching for freedom from a pronounced identification with one specific group."

How does Chabad respond? Unlike Scientology, which considers the enlistment of celebrities as one of its Ten Commandments, Chabad refuses to view Matisyahu's departure as a failure. Yet, in the past Chabad has spurned disciples who chose to promote the Lubavitcher Rebbe's teachings by means it considered inappropriate. The most famous example of this was the Lubavitcher Rebbe's request that "Dancing Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, a former avid disciple of Chabad, discontinue dancing on the Hasidic leader's behalf. There was also the case of Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, who was the movement's emissary in England. He was expelled from Chabad after publishing his book, "Kosher Sex."

"It is as convenient for Chabad as it is for Matisyahu," comments a senior Chabad member in response to Matisyahu's new religious orientation. "Matisyahu was never a part of the movement's conventional line. It's possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized. He may have received a negative comment here or there within the Hasidic movement, and, perhaps, he felt limited. I do not believe that this was caused by his appearance before a mixed audience, because [international, Chabad singing star] Avraham Fried appears before women as well. This is a case of an inflamed audience in nightclubs and discotheques where Matisyahu gets boys and girls dancing."

And how does Zamir, who was attracted to Chabad because of Matisyahu, respond? "I respect it, but I have remained absolutely attached to Chabad. I hold a truth in my soul. It is a powerful blessing. When I am on stage, it is important to me that a Jew connect to his own soul. I see that as a beautiful thing. Long live the King Messiah [a reference to the Lubavitcher Rebbe]."

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