An article in Slate has some interesting takes on Matisyahu, everyone’s favorite Chassidic dance-hall singer, arguing that he has more in common with American therapy culture and Christian fundamentalism than with actual Torah teachings.
Either way, he’s a curious phenomenon — one that I personally find uncomfortable, having turned to popular music in my teens as an escape route from the complicated strictures and willful anti-aestheticism of the Chabad Lubavitch brand of Chassidus that my hippie parents had adopted. Indeed, this struggle between 1960s-style counterculturalism and Orthodox Judaism is one that has affected all of us kids.
It was for my sake that my parents, New Yorkers transplanted to Northern California, first started going to the local Reform temple, beginning their journey into the Jewish religion. They were concerned that I would otherwise never acquire the Jewish identity they took for granted back home. As a teenager, I came to reject the religion pretty thoroughly, preferring the hippie liberal ethos that defined my parents during my early childhood. To the extent that I have since reconciled with my Jewishness, I have done so by reversing my parents’ westward migration and settling in New York City, where I could marry a non-Jew, ignore the religion completely and still have a firm sense of my own Jewishness.
My brother was born ten years after me, when my parents’ religious awakening was already firmly integrated into their lives. He too has struggled with the two sides of my parents’ cultural identity, feeling alienated among both the hippies at Camp Winnarainbow and his fellow Chassidim at various yeshivas around the country. He is now studying Talmud in Safed, Israel (pronounced Tzfat in Hebrew), where he seems at last to have found some likeminded cohorts.
My sister, who is even younger, has always taken a rejectionist stance to pretty much everything, which is why it’s so surprising that of the three of us, she has had the least conflict with Orthodox Judaism. She has embraced the Chassidic youth culture at the University of Arizona and seems perfectly capable of going native in the socially conservative world of Modern Orthodoxy — a world in which, ironically, my parents have never felt at ease, preferring their hippie-fringe approach to the old religion. I suppose she was exposed to the least of my parents’ hippie side, so perhaps there was less conflict there. Or maybe it’s simply that for all the evident sexism of Chassidic practice, women’s religion is far less restrictive than men’s religion. Of all of us, including my parents, she seems most at ease with her religion and the way it fits in the world.
Matisyahu, a former college hippie from White Plains, is evidently working out this same struggle. Like so many of the people I met who had found their way to Chabad from more secular lives, there seems to be something a little off about the reggae star — a kind of self-hypnosis, perhaps, or at least a willful suspension of disbelief. Which raises the question: Is it better to be happy or to be honest with oneself? Of course, most Chassidim would argue that they are doing both — that the truth of Torah is not in question for them — but I have to wonder. The life of a devoted Chassid is potentially quite satisfying, but it is premised on a faith that is impossible for me, and that most people not born to the religion can only achieve through ferocious acts of aggression against reason.