As a visibly Jewish singer whose Judaism-themed reggae and rap songs have found their way into mainstream radio rotation, Matisyahu has become something of a bellwether for American Jewish acceptance in popular culture. It is no secret that this is a fraught place to be, especially since Oct. 7. Yet in talking to Matisyahu, it doesn’t take long for some optimism to appear.

One point the singer made in our interview this week was that the difficult position American Jews are in now is evidence, at the very least, that they care enough to be pained by the choices society wants to force on them: “If there are so few Jews that really want to stand up for Israel and believe in Israel, understand the history, know their connection to that place, then it seems like there wouldn’t be the crisis that we’re having right now.”

That crisis is most clearly seen in the swirling controversies around Matisyahu’s own performances. Last month, back to back shows were canceled in Sante Fe and Tucson, ostensibly over security concerns but in reality over staff boycotts. Then two weeks ago the House of Blues in Chicago became the third venue to cancel a show of his. Matisyahu isn’t Israeli, he is American born and raised. So there is no euphemism or flimsy excuse available to the protesters who have followed his tour.

Tonight Matisyahu will play Washington’s famed 9:30 Club. Then after shows in Philadelphia and Brooklyn—and a bar mitzvah party for his son—Matisyahu will finish up the tour, appropriately, in Israel.

“Israel’s always been a very powerful place for me, a very deep part of my story and my journey and Judaism as well,” Matisyahu told me. “That’s why I say I feel very blessed to feel really strong in knowing what the right thing is and who I am. And in my life, I haven’t always felt that about everything. There’s always been lots of questions and murkiness. But on this particular topic, I feel very, very clear about it.”

Yet many American Jews, he said, don’t find the choice as clear. I asked Matisyahu if that was something his fans specifically sought out at his shows, a jolt of inspiration or strength. “Absolutely,” he said. “And not every fan or every person that comes to a Matis show feels that way. But I would say my fans are very unique and very special, Jews and non-Jews alike, that they feel very strong in what they believe and in their support for me as well. So that’s been powerful to watch that and to get that energy from the fans and feel that strength from people.”

Matisyahu is no stranger to this particular controversy. In 2015, he was dropped from a Spanish music festival’s lineup for failing to “clearly declare himself regarding the war” in Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to the organizers. After a backlash, the festival apologized for caving to the pressure from local BDS activists and reinvited him. The whole incident showed not only BDS’s anti-Semitic agenda—trying to force an American Jew to denounce Israeli Jews or lose gigs—but how readily much of the music industry cowers before BDS activists. Nine years later, this phenomenon has come roaring into the U.S., but without the apologies or re-invitations.

It’s all a bit darkly ironic. One of Matisyahu’s biggest hits, and his most-played song on Spotify, is “One Day”—an antiwar track about coexistence. In it, he sings: “All my life, I’ve been waiting for/ I’ve been prayin’ for, for the people to say/ That we don’t wanna fight no more/ There’ll be no more wars, and our children will play…”

The message Matisyahu delivers on stage contrasts sharply with that of the demonstrators outside. Coexistence has fallen into extreme disfavor in so-called “anti-Zionist” protest culture. Genocidal chants like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are commonly heard; calls for “resistance by any means necessary” speak for the larger pro-Hamas masses that come out in major cities and demand Israel lay down its arms.

On campus, Jewish students are assaulted and routinely harassed, Jewish speakers canceled and occasionally chased out of the venue by violent mobs. Shops and bars have tried to ban “Zionist” customers. Jewish writers have had events canceled. A sudden jettisoning of all pretense has meant all Jews are open targets of discriminatory policies.

“It’s a very dark time and it feels like it’s a very violent time and a time when people are taking sides,” Matisyahu says.

Still, he has never felt that he or his fans have been put in physical danger at any of the shows. “We have a lot of support and a lot of people on our side, but there’s definitely opposition and we’re not afraid of it, and we’ll welcome it when we come up against it.”

At the outset of the tour, Matisyahu visited the kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope that had been devastated by Hamas’s attacks on Oct. 7, as well as the site of the Nova music festival where hundreds were killed and dozens more taken hostage that day. He also met with survivors of the massacre. It fueled him and gave even more meaning to the songs he performed. The fans, he says, picked up on that energy, too.

For Matisyahu, and no doubt for many of his fans, “everything kind of changed” on Oct. 7. And despite the growing sense of unease many American Jews feel in the wake of the attacks, and the hostility they are met with in unfamiliar places, Matisyahu’s message remains one of resolve: “Some people obviously struggle with it, but there’s some very special Jews out there and people who are fighters and have a lot of light and a lot of talent. It gives all these people an opportunity to come together and work towards a common goal. And that is a very, very powerful thing when the Jewish people come together and work towards something like that. So I feel like there is some hope and I don’t want people to just feel lost out there.”

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link