It is only a few miles from Crown Heights to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but in some respects, the asphalt avenues linking them bridge entirely disparate worlds.
Matisyahu Miller — known to his legions of fans by his first name, and to his friends simply as Matis — makes the trip almost daily. He bikes from the Crown Heights apartment he shares with his wife and two young sons to the loft space he’s just rented in the old industrial neighborhood, giving him a place to write and rehearse his next album.
“I might call it ‘Dream Awake,’” he says, as he cracks open a grimy window in the newly painted empty loft, sits down on the floor and lights a cigarette.
The title references the life he’s been leading the past several years as he moved from being a troubled suburban teenager into life as a frum Jew immersed at once in both the shtetl of his religious community and the world of reggae music.
Recent years have been “like a dream I had. All the pieces just came together, like a dream,” he said.
But since making public that he is breaking off from Chabad-Lubavitch, the chasidic group to which he has been closely connected since before his 2004 debut album, there have been a few less-than-dreamy moments as well.
Now in a more religiously fluid place, “we’re just frum Jews,” Matisyahu says of his family, in his first extensive interview since breaking off from Lubavitch. “I live in Crown Heights but I daven in Borough Park in Karlin” synagogues when he gets up early enough to reach it in time for morning minyan. “My wife loves the community; that’s why we’re still living in Crown Heights.”
With his unruly beard, faded blue hoodie and little round glasses, Matisyahu, 28, fits easily into artsy, edgy Greenpoint, which is on the cusp of being colonized by yuppies but unlike neighboring Williamsburg isn’t yet populated by young parents pushing expensive strollers whose occupants wear tiny Ramones onesies.
He’ll play two Chanukah shows at the neighborhood’s Warsaw club on Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 (He’s also doing a Chanukah show Dec.4-5 at Roseland Ballroom in Midtown.)
The tzitzit hanging out of his sweatshirt and the velvet yarmulke on his head connect him to his Jewish world.
And true to his location and appearance, Matisyahu is a synthesizer of disparate worlds. His music braids together rhythms and themes found in roots reggae — love of God, though here “Hashem” rather than “Jah,” and a desire to return to Zion — and dance hall sounds. He manages to merge chasidic melodies and nigguns (wordless songs) with reggae-style scatting.
For Matisyahu, it is all about the spiritual search, the desire to mend this “world of fragmentation,” as he sings, and to serve and connect with God. “You’re like water for my soul when it gets thirsty …. I give myself to you from the essence of my being. Where you been, where you been for so long….”
Matisyahu first entered public consciousness with his debut album, “Shake Off The Dust … Arise” in 2004.
The following year, after talking Phish’s Trey Anastasio into letting him play a set at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, he proved to the tens of thousands of people there that he was more than a novelty act. Fame grew with the release of “Live at Stubb’s” (which sold 650,000 CDs) a second studio album called “Youth,” which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts and sold 1.2 million records, and nationwide radio airplay and touring.
Coverage in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and alt-zines — all prominently featuring photos of the black-hatted, bearded young man — both broadened his appeal and confirmed the unlikely musical marriage. In 2006 he cut ties with JDub, the Jewish boutique label that started his career, and joined powerhouse label Epic. The same year, Billboard named him its top reggae artist.
Through it all, Matisyahu, who adopted the Yiddish pronunciation of Matthew, the name he grew up with, has been an overt spiritual seeker, weaving his desire to connect with God through most of his songs.
In “Got No Water” he sings: “Hashem’s rays fire blaze light my way light of my life/ And these days well wait no longer night/ reaching for my G-d like skyscrapers in the night/ I said I know it’s hard inside is empty galus (exile) cuts like a knife/ Internalize Torah vibes bound to feel alright.”
Matisyahu’s first albums are frankly Chabad-oriented, with calls for “moshiach now” and short clips of Lubavitch rabbis talking theology and offering blessings.
But now, the lanky young singer says, he’s breaking his ties to the movement.
Matisyahu spent last Sukkot in Israel and made a surprise appearance at a Jerusalem club. Afterward, in comments made to the newspaper Haaretz, he said “I am no longer affiliated with Chabad,” and that he wants to convey a more universal message.
The move has prompted criticism and resentment from some for whom his association had been a point of pride, in discussion on the street and in the blogosphere.
“I’ve only been religious for eight years and I want to explore Judaism. That is so normal. For some reason it’s considered a big deal, but it’s so basic,” Matisyahu says. “I’ve always been very open to things, not afraid of growth and change. That’s how I got religious.”
He’s moved away from Chabad because “it was about becoming part of this machine and feeling like it was taking away from my service of God, not adding to it.”
As a 20-year-old, Matisyahu dove head first into the Chabad world.
Before then, growing up in White Plains, he dropped out of high school to follow the jam band Phish on the road, and started musical — and other forms — of experimentation. He finished high school at a teen wilderness program in Oregon for reasons “I’ll leave to people’s imaginations,” he says with a wry smile.
Already into reggae, Matisyahu’s first contact with the frum life came when he was back in New York, studying art at The New School.
He began praying wearing his grandfather’s tallit, alone on the roof of the college building and screaming out his prayers to God — an approach he recently learned he shares with a small chasidic group in Jerusalem.
Matisyahu visited different New York shuls, finding his first spiritual home at Carlebach on the Upper West Side. At the time he was also beatboxing — creating rhythms and sound effects with his voice — at open mic nights at venues like the Lower East Side’s Nuyorican Poets Café.
“I started growing out my beard and wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis then,” he says. Then he connected with a shaliach, a Chabad emissary, and quickly got deeply involved.
“I moved into the apartment of this shaliach and his family, and stayed on his couch,” Matisyahu recalls. “I had in my mind an image of a chasid and I wanted to completely transform myself. I wanted to just jump in.”
He found teachers eager to embrace his fervor.
“A lot of shluchim feel it’s their job, their end goal, to make Lubavitchers with the hat and the jacket and belief in the rebbe. And I got into it,” he says.
He moved to Crown Heights to study full time in yeshiva. He let go of music almost completely as he delved deeply into religious life, even adopting a chasidishe lilt, like he picked up a touch of Jamaican patois when he was more involved in reggae.
Being in yeshiva “was a very positive thing, learning Torah all day and getting outside of myself,” he says.
But as he concluded his studies he realized that perhaps he had set aside too much of his nature in order to fit into his new community.
“I’d made such a huge change in my life,” he says. “Because I did it all the way I stopped trusting my intuition, my own sense of right and wrong.”
As he toured, Chabad rabbis would meet with him in each city to study chasidic teachings. “At first it was very exciting to me, but after learning it for hours a day for two years, the ideas weren’t fresh anymore.”
As he was leaving the Lubavitch yeshiva, in the fall of 2004, he met an Orthodox therapist and together they studied Tanya, the founding Chabad theological text. “It was like learning it for the first time,” says Matisyahu. Then they began studying Breslov chasidic texts, and comparing the approaches. “It became so real, so alive. We studied where these two great thinkers differ, and how they can differ” theologically, he says.
It awoke the singer to the reality that there was more than one Jewish approach to serving God.
Earlier this fall, he began learning with a non-chasidic Orthodox rabbi when he was in Dallas on tour. “I started learning Gemara [Talmud] from ArtScroll, very slowly, in English translating one word at a time, and getting a broader sense of Judaism.”
More recently, he was introduced to an entirely different approach to chasidic prayer, one that, he says, he connects to. Visiting Israel, he went to the Pinsk-Karlin shul in Mea Shearim, where morning prayers take 90 minutes rather than the half hour he had become used to. That community’s custom is for the men to scream their prayers. Not just at moments of peak religious ecstasy, Matisyahu says, but throughout the service.
With them, “I’m really saying the words, trying to break through. To me that really fits with the essence of what the chasidic movement was really about” originally, he says. “Being unconventional and breaking out of your boundaries in any way you can.”
“I was full-on Chabad for about four years,” he says. The recent articles written about his break from Chabad “made it seem like I just woke up and said Chabad is not for me, but it’s been a process for the last four years.”
“Not that I want to come down on Chabad,” he says. “But I started learning things in a new way.”
And, he says, “I need to do Judaism in a way that makes me feel more alive, not less alive.”