Permit me to rant a bit.
Many of Matisyahu’s fans are beating their chests over what went wrong, why he went off the derech (that is to say, abandoned Jewish observance). After all, this wasn’t just someone who happens to be religious and doing their own thing. In February of last year, Matisyahu proudly proclaimed that he, not Drake was the real Jewish rapper. Clearly, that assertion had something to do with the fuzz that formerly graced his face.
But really, who cares? It’s his private life and his decision. A colleague of mine just rebuked a group of us for making a fuss over another Jew’s decision to take a step away from Judaism just because of their status in pop culture, and pretty much called us a bunch of hypocrites for not being as distraught over the millions of Jews not in the limelight who feel alienated by their tradition, many of whom have walked away from it entirely. He’s almost right. Almost. There is a difference though.
- It’s a major burden in terms of time, energy, and money.
- It puts an unnecessary glass ceiling up that if you want to achieve a certain level in life you’ll never get there.
- If you’re religious you basically have to withdraw from public life and isolate yourself in a box. Ditch old friends, no partying, and forget about being a public figure.
- It’s just not cool.
Matisyahu more than any Orthodox pop culture icon, a very small list to begin with, showed that these reasons just weren’t true. He not only lived an observant lifestyle but made it his selling point. He’s the kind of figure I’ve heard a number of Orthodox people they say they’d been waiting for: an unabashedly Jewish figure at the top of their game, in the limelight, for the whole world to see.
The Orthodox world at some point turned on him the way Hollywood turned on Vanilla Ice, with similarly disastrous results. Almost overnight he went from being the spokesman for the Jewish community in the music industry to being considered a bad influence. Once a pioneer in Jewish music, now his music was being branded a goyishe zach (non-Jewish thing). Of course much worse than the oodles of covers done by so many Jewish artists without giving proper attribution (that’s for a different time). I even heard from one high school kid that he played at a HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children) concert that when he started playing a bunch people stood out and walked out on him. What a slap in the face. And of course the kid was beaming about it, clearly something communicated to him by some rabbi. No wonder Matisyahu has been looking to find a more universalist path!
Jewish professionals keep scratching their heads: why can’t we get more people on board? I have a suggestion: learn how to treat your stars. Scientology, despite teaching that we’re all possessed by extra-terrestrial ghosts, and having an extensive rap sheet of abusing its members, is nonetheless continuing to grow. It’s because they take care of their stars. When people look at how the Church of Scientology treats John Travolta and Tom Cruise, they say “Wow! This is great! I’ll sign up.” And yet, when such a person is willing to occupy this spot on their own accord, we failed to even keep him on board, much less be the representative of Judaism to the world.