America, or How Frat Boys Love an Orthodox Reggae Singer
So I went to the Matisyahu concert at the 9:30 Club last night -- Matisyahu is, to my 11-year-old son, what Kurtis Blow was to me, and so I was the driver and escort -- and I was left with a number of conflicting observations. As those of you who follow the career of this Hasidic reggae superstar know (and as those of you who follow all those other Hasidic reggae superstars don't know), Matisyahu recently shaved off his beard, but he did appear last night wearing a kippah and tzitzit. My prediction: He loses the tzitzit. It seems as if he's reaching beyond an identity that may have trapped him commercially. It's hard to say if this is a marketing ploy, or some honest change in his spiritual make-up.
It would be too bad if he ditches the Orthodox persona. Somehow, he seemed more authentic as a reggae superstar when he dressed like the Lubavitcher rebbe. Maybe it's because of the huge overlap between the Torah and Rastafarian theology (the through-line of traditional reggae is the Exodus story), or maybe just because his beard and long coat lent him a kind of exoticness he now lacks. (There is also a cheese factor in operation here -- at last night's concert a huge disco dreidel hung above the stage, shades of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge.)
Last night, as I watched him, I couldn't help but think that I just paid good money to watch a Jewish kid from the suburbs make believe he's Burning Spear. Believe me, a lot of Jewish kids go through a Rastaman phase. I also couldn't help but think that Matisyahu might be Sacha Baron Cohen's greatest creation. On the other hand, he can actually sing.
The most interesting aspect of all this to me was the audience. I didn't expect Hasidim -- Washington isn't known for Hasidim -- but it was a wildly-mixed crowd, with comparatively few Jews (yes, my Jewdar is that good). Down in front was a merry band of drunk frat-boys, singing along, cheering a man with tzitzit. I've made this point before, but I'll make it again: From the perspective of Jewish history, America is a very unusual and blessed place.