‘They lit my Jewish fire’: How Matisyahu blew away the boycott mob

The Chasidic reggae star tells the JC about getting cancelled, threatened and abused on his recent tour of America – and what he did to fight back


Amid the boycotting of anything that bears the slightest link to the Jewish state, there are those who lament, those who shrink away – and then there is Matisyahu.

The American reggae star, who recently completed a gruelling eight-week US tour that featured threats of violence, protests and three cancelled shows, has emerged stronger and more determined than ever.

“You can’t cancel Matisyahu,” he told the JC. “You can’t shut down because of the fear. In America we don’t do that.”

The protests, in fact, have fuelled his determination to keep playing. “When the opposition comes at you, it lights a fire – a Jewish fire – inside of me.”

Some of that defiance is thanks to what he calls the “Matis Tribe” – his legions of fans who have helped him turn transform cancelled concerts into powerful displays of Israel advocacy.

In Tucson, Arizona, a gig that had been switched to a new venue at the last minute due to a cancellation became a fundraising event for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, complete with “F*** Hamas” tumblers and fans singing every word of his peace anthem One Day.

The 44-year-old artist known for his Chasidic background and blending of musical genres spoke to the JC from his tour bus in rainy Idaho via a shaky Zoom connection.

He said that as soon as the second show was cancelled in New Mexico his team found another venue. “We’ll play somewhere else,” he says.

On a practical level, Matisyahu thinks cancelled shows leave fans and protesters with nowhere to go: “What ends up happening is that the fans show up. Now the show’s cancelled, they’re pissed off, and who’s in the parking lot? The protesters. So instead of getting those fans in the building where they’re safe, you now have the potential for a war in the parking lot, right where I’m parked with my family on the bus.

“So, the venue’s excuse of just shutting down because they’re afraid is complete bulls**t.”

The musician adds he has been buoyed by the support he has received in the face of protests.

After one cancellation, David Draiman, the Jewish frontman of heavy metal band Disturbed, called him up and offered to help with security.

Matisyahu and Draiman had never met, but via a GoFundMeLink, Draiman and his fans raised thousands for Matisyahu. Now, a full-time security guard called Rick travels with the singer and his family on the tour bus.

Matisyahu described Draiman as “an older brother who is watching my back who I never knew”.

Both musicians have been outspoken in their support for Israel. Other Jewish artists have not been so forthcoming and, referring to those who haven’t spoken out against antisemitism, Matisyahu says, “More than anger or frustration, it’s sad.”

Born Matthew Paul Miller, Matisyahu has undergone numerous transformations since the success of his 2005 hit King Without a Crown. Initially known for his “hipsidic” appearance, he gradually shed his religious attire, cut his payot and discarded his yarmulke.

Part of Matisyahu’s original success was his Jewish identity. He says: “You couldn’t go to downtown Manhattan and hear a Jewish guy singing songs on Purim – you’d have to go to the JCC [Jewish Community Centre] to hear Jewish music – so that was part of the original thing that was really successful for me.”

On shedding his religious garb, he says: “A lot of the Jewish community felt like they didn’t understand what I was going through” – but lately there’s been a shift and Jewish fans are flocking back.

The “Matis tribe”, as he calls them, became a diverse bunch, but recent gigs are reminiscent of his early days, attracting a crowd yearning for a space to celebrate their Jewish identity. “There aren’t a lot of musicians who do what I do – authentically feel super-connected to Israel, to Jews and to being Jewish,” he says.

Much of his music is rooted in Jewish philosophy – one of his albums is called Akeda – and he quotes the Talmud in numerous songs.

After October 7, his Jewish identity “smacked” him with full force. He felt a pull to Israel, where his son had been studying at yeshiva before the attack, and in January he flew out to perform for IDF troops.

After a tour of the sites of the massacre, including the Nova music festival, Matisyahu sat down at an army base and started playing for soldiers. As troops returned from fighting, they didn’t know Matisyahu was there, but “one by one, a couple of American kids noticed. And then they all started noticing me”.

The performance was euphoric: “We lit each other on fire.”

Like Leonard Cohen and Shlomo Carlebach before him, Matisyahu felt the weight of history as he played.

The trip rekindled his hope. “In Israel, you just see the resilience and the light that pours out of this people” – a stark contrast, he says, to the “darkness” he feels elsewhere.

“We’ve heard the horror stories of our grandparents and their parents,” he says. “You feel like everybody is against you, an entire generation of people is confused or ignorant, you feel like we’re being blamed.”

But in Israel, he goes on, “the way that Jews come together and stand up for themselves, it’s the only place that you can find hope right now”.

Just three months after his trip to the Jewish state, the musician is planning two more concerts in Israel in early April – in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.

So, will Matisyahu be bringing his unique brand of Zionist hope and reggae beats to the UK anytime soon? “F*** no”, he says.

“Based on the shit I see on the news, it looks f***ing horrible.”

But there’s a glimmer of hope. He fondly remembers UK gigs where Muslim fans danced alongside Orthodox Jews. “If you guys get me there, I’ll come there,” he concedes. After all, he rarely turns down a chance to perform.

And he knows he’d have the support of the Jewish community in the UK, “You guys definitely come out. You guys really stand together.”

With his security guard Rick by his side, Matisyahu’s bus drives on. “Why do I keep going?” he ponders. “It’s the same question as to why does a Jew light the next Chanukah candle, why does a soldier go out to search for the hostages, it’s because it’s what we do, it’s who we are, and we won’t stop because someone tells us to stop.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive