Still spiritual after all these years

Still spiritual after all these years

Matisyahu to play acoustic concert at BergenPAC this week

Matisyahu today.

The artist formerly known as a chasidic superstar will be appearing in Englewood on Tuesday night.

And though you won’t see peyos, you will most likely hear a song named after the Ba’al Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of chasidism.

It was just over a year ago that Matisyahu – the stage name of Matthew Paul Miller – posted a picture of himself shorn of the long beard, side curls, and black hat that defined him when his first record was released in 2004.

“No more Chassidic reggae superstar,” he wrote on his website when he unveiled his new look.

“At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity … to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules – lots of them – or else I would somehow fall apart.”

Now, however, “I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”

The very title of his subsequent album, “Spark Seeker,” released last summer, indicates that he hasn’t put aside things of the spirit. But now he sees himself as on an ongoing spiritual quest, perhaps less certain that the answers are outside him.

In the song “Bal Shem Tov,” he put it like this:

Search heaven and the seven seas

The answer lies inside you

You know it won’t come easy

You’ve got to find your own truth

(The song is also on “Spark Seeker: Acoustic Sessions,” released last week as Matisyahu kicked off the month-long acoustic tour that brings him to Bergen Performing Arts Center on February 12. For would-be listeners interested in checking out the singer but not normally inclined toward contemporary reggae or rap, the album provides a gentler introduction to the music of Matisyahu, as well as a preview of how he will sound.)

On the original album version of “Bal Shem Tov,” before singing, speaking in Yiddish, he recites the story, famous in Chabad circles, of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s dream, in which the founder of chasidism meets the Messiah and asks him when he will come. The Messiah replies: “I will come when the wellspring of your teachings have been spread throughout the world.”

“My understanding of it,” Matisyahu said in an interview with the Jewish Standard this week, “is the Messiah says you have to do the work here, in this world. It’s not like something mystic is going to happen and save everybody.”

“A lot of people are waiting for the Messiah, waiting for Godot. They’re waiting for an event, they’re waiting for the end of the world, the end of the Mayan calendar, for this thing or that thing that is going to shake everything up.

“Change happens from within. We can change. We can become different people. We can expand and grow and evolve. It seems to me – at least it’s my understanding of this vision the Ba’al Shem Tov had – that the Messiah was saying, ‘I’m not coming until this change has happened within people, within this world. I’m not the savior.’

“The teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov are about the oneness of God and the connection that God has to this world. The basic stuff. There’s a lot of teachings, but the basic gist of it is in every religion, and what everyone spiritual is trying to do, to be a better person. There’s no chidush, nothing new going on here. The Messiah is not going to save the world. The world has to save itself. Then the revelation of God will be here,” he said.

In his song Buffalo Soldier, from “Spark Seeker,” he puts it like this:

Don’t judge a book by the cover

Every single being in this world is your brother

When I look upon the page and uncover

Ancient words that teach me to love ya!

So we burn to return to the mother

And we yearn to unlearn all they told ya about yourself

Who you are, what you should be,

I’m gonna be free leave it up to me!

This might not sound radical. But compare it to “King Without a Crown,” from his first album, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” which reached 37 on Billboard’s pop chart:

Hashem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe

Out of darkness comes light, twilight unto the heights

Crown Heights burnin’ up all through till twilight

Said, thank you to my God, now I finally got it right

And I’ll fight with all of my heart, and all a’ my soul, and all a’ my might


And I sing to my God, songs of love and healing

I want Moshiach now, time it starts revealing

For Matisyahu’s Chabad supporters, there was disappointment, anger, and disbelief when he shaved his beard. His recent concerts have continued to draw a chasidic cohort – but they only jump up and begin to sway to the music at the end of the concert, when he sings his older songs.

He rejects the suggestion that there’s an inherent rejection there.

“Maybe they don’t know the new record. Maybe they’re not familiar with those songs. Maybe they were more familiar with the older songs. People have opinions about things. Does it mater really? Do you think it matters?”

Some argue that the essence of Yiddishkeit is to answer a question with a question. Matisyahu hasn’t lost that spirit.

Why is he performing acoustic?

“Why not?” he replies.

For Matisyahu, going unplugged means a backing band of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and cello – as opposed to the classic dub trio of drum, bass, and guitar.

And it’s a chance to reconnect with older songs.

“When I do it acoustically, I come back to the words, I come back to the voice. It reconnects me to myself and to the inspiration of the song,” he said.

“I’m always redesigning songs. As a musician trying to stay inspired by the music that you make, I find it important to sing the songs and perform them differently, while still holding the integrity of the songs. People will know it’s the same song, but I’m changing certain things around.” He pushes back against the effort to choose a favorite song.

“I don’t have favorites in general. I don’t have a favorite kid. I don’t have a favorite food. I don’t have a favorite friend. I don’t have a favorite parent. I don’t really understand that concept of favorites. Things are good for different times,” he said.

Nor would he recommend a “typical” one.

If someone wants to sample just one song off the new album, “I would tell them to put on the record and close their eyes and push the forward and back buttons a bunch of time and whatever song it comes to is the song they were meant to hear.”

An acoustic evening with Matisyahu
Where: Bergen Performing Arts Center,
30 N. Van Brunt Street, Englewood

When: Tuesday, February  12, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: or 201-816-8160

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