Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hasidic Rhymes

From: Los Angeles Daily News

From: Los Angeles Daily News

NORTHRIDGE - His lyrics and his appearance are clearly Hasidic, but fans of Matisyahu's reggae rhymes are Jews and gentiles alike.

In a black suit and hat and boasting a long beard, Matisyahu entertained a packed crowd Thursday evening in the parking lot of Tower Records with bumping rhythms and punchy rhymes as he promoted the release of his new album, "Youth."

"He's a great inspiration to our people," said Dora Arzhevskiy, a 23-year-old Liberal Jew from West Hills.

"He shows us you can keep your faith and still rock on," volleyed her 20-year-old brother, Eli.

Rock station KROQ-FM (106.7) passed out kosher candy to a diverse crowd not often drawn to a single concert: Hasidic Jews, Rastafarians, clean-cut parents and metal maniacs.

"I like how a Jewish guy can come out and bust into (expletive) reggae and not care what anyone has to (expletive) say. I love that," said P.J. Morrison, a 22-year-old metalhead from Tujunga.

Amazed by Matisyahu's performance on a late-night TV program, Rosemary Wilkins and her husband dragged their 15-year-old daughter, Kathryn, to the reggae artist's free show.

"She's not a huge fan yet. But we go to all her concerts," said Wilkins, a Chatsworth resident, giving Kathryn a nudge.

Matisyahu fed the 2,500 crowd with a five-song set that closed with his hit single, "King Without a Crown," which has been shown on MTV and has saturated radio airwaves.

"Sing to my God all these songs of love and healing/Want Mashiach now so it's time we start revealing," Matisyahu rapped, asking for God to send the Messiah (Mashiach).

His music has been written up in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Critics wonder whether he is a pioneer or a fluke. Despite a gaggle of journalists begging his publicists for a sound bite Thursday, Matisyahu declined any interviews.

And some critics wonder how seriously they should take the message of his music.

Despite Matisyahu's reggae sound, Rastafarians did not dominate the crowd - and neither did the smell of marijuana.

"Do you think he'd be bummed that he has a fan who's a stoner?" quipped one 21-year-old Calabasas fan who openly puffed on a joint.

Born Matthew Miller, Matisyahu grew up in White Plains, N.Y. He didn't embrace his parents' Judaism, and by age 14 he was wearing dreadlocks and Birkenstock sandals. He spent class time perfecting the art of beat-boxing - making percussion sounds from the mouth - and as a junior he almost burned down his chemistry lab.

That led Matisyahu on a spiritual journey to the Rocky Mountains, where he discovered God and the inspiration to make his first trip to Israel.

But when he returned to New York, Matisyahu felt empty, according to his Web site. He didn't know how to prolong the religious experiences he had had in Colorado and Israel.

So he dropped out of high school and followed the jam band Phish around the country. That ended when the money, and his energy, ran out.

After two years at a wilderness school in Oregon, Matisyahu enrolled at The New School, a liberal arts university in New York, and began writing plays and working on his music.

He also discovered Hasidism and committed his life to the Jewish lifestyle. His music is infused with religious themes, mixing reggae rhythms with Jewish beliefs.

"I doubt that everybody gets the references. But what they definitely get is the passion that is directly connected to religiosity," said Rabbi Tsafreer Lev, who teaches Jewish philosophy to seniors at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.

Lev's class is studying Hasidism and an upcoming assignment is to write an essay about all the Hasidic references in "King Without a Crown."

"I had him on my iPod before he was the number one requested song on KROQ," said Lev, who was tutoring at the University of Judaism on Thursday night. "I tried to spread the word, but nobody really listens to rabbis."