I’ll say it loud: I adore Matisyahu!
His reggae rhythms and inspired poetry evoke a common vocabulary of longing for spiritual liberation that, originating in the Torah, finds expression in two religions of Exile: Afro-Caribbean Rastafarianism and the Kabbalistic symbolizations of Hassidic spirituality.
Try listening to “Warrior Figh-tin’ Far Yer Soul” without getting the spooky feeling that somewhere, in the Supernal farbrengen, Peter Tosh and the Baal Shem Tov are trading l’chaims (and perhaps a toke off the Besht’s ever-present pipe?).
While it’s still too early to predict how far this baal t’shuvah from Westchester can go in his chosen idiom, it’s clear that after three albums Matisyahu is still exploring fresh territory in the reggae idiom and shows no signs of turning into an imitation of himself. I’m tempted to compare him, at this early stage, to yet another young American-Jewish musician who, half a century ago, intuited the exact way of linking African-American folk music, with strong emotional and poetic links to Christianity’s Old Testament, to a powerful stream of Jewish visionary tradition.
I’m thinking Bob Dylan here — Abe and Bea Zimmerman’s boy. His brilliant stroke was just this: he brought the folk music of rural Americans — black and white — into conversation over ringing calls for social justice.
That secular messianism channeled the political passions of urbanized Jewries from the European revolutions of 1848, 1905, and 1917 into the New Deal and beyond, to the Freedom Summer of 1964.
To look at it this way, of course, highlights the crucial difference between the Jew who became Bob Dylan and the Jew who became Matisyahu.
Robert Allen Zimmerman, like a generation of American Jewish entertainers starting with Al Jolson, dejudaized his act by first, adopting the persona of rural American blackness, and second, choosing a cosmetic change of name. Asa Yoelson became Al Jolson, and Bob Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.
By contrast, Matthew Miller/Matisyahu claims as his native inheritance two diametrically opposed cultures of blackness — one born of the West African-Caribbean slave trade and the other in the enslavement of the Jews of the Russian Empire.
By filtering reggae’s Afro-centrist ethos through his Lubavitch levush, Matisyahu enables the transgressive musical sensibility of reggae to open a path to the redemptive longings of traditional Hasidism.
Now, as for Dylan — if you’ve lost track of him since his flirtation with Born Againism in the early ’80s — he’s just produced a widely praised new album, Modern Times. Those like me, who may be coming back to Dylan after a couple of decades of child-rearing and nose-to-the-grindstone careerism, will be shocked. Except for the fact that his voice is now shot from years of attempting to sound like he collected his fan mail at a Butcher Holler address, you’ll notice that — nothing’s changed!
Well, maybe one thing. Modern Times is filled with pleasant tunes, But since when do we turn to Dylan for “pleasant”? I remember tearing open his albums panting to hear things that I knew would explode my notion of what a “pop song” could be. Not this time!
After repeated listenings, I count: two bouncy covers of blues classics, one homage to Dylan’s origins as a “protest singer” (“Workingman’s Blues,” which bemoans the plight of the “proletariat” with all the authenticity of John Lennon advising us to “imagine no possessions”) and a few lovely numbers marred by solipsistic, quasi-spiritual lyricism. The most successful pieces are tuneful romances, with a country touch, that could have been outtakes from “Nashville Skyline.”
I guess that my disappointment here has something precisely to do with Dylan’s flirtation with Protestant fundamentalism and his eventual hazarah bitshuvah under the heimish auspices of Chabad.
Modern Times is the statement of a man reaching the end of middle age, looking back on a stormy life, and trying to condense his wealth of experience into something he can pass on to the next generation.
With someone of Dylan’s obvious poetic genius and sensitivity to life as lived, it is amazing that there is scarcely a line in this collection that offers any insight into the spiritual struggle that seems so central to his personal world.
Okay, there is the album’s finale, “Ain’t Talkin’.” The narrator finds himself “out walking in the mystic garden,” where he discloses that “there’s no one here, the gardener’s gone.”
Evoking T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, “The Wasteland,” which exposed in its day the spiritual emptiness of a European civilization that had abandoned its Christian roots, Dylan’s narrator is reduced to the emptiness of “tryin’ to love my neighbor and do good unto others but, oh Mother, things ain’t goin’ well.”
If Dylan’s “mystic garden” were in the neighborhood of the Talmud’s “Four Sages Who Entered the Orchard,” I wonder if they’d even bother to take the trip!
Now please indulge me this confession: I, too, am a man reaching the end of middle age, looking back on it all. But I’m lazy. I want my cultural heroes to do the work of wisdom-condensation for me. That’s why I learn gemara and listen to the music of aging Jewish folkies.
As much as I groove on Matisyahu, I am too self-important to seek existential wisdom from a pisher from a baal t’shuvah yeshiva in Crown Heights.
If you share my plight, let me recommend a guy who has probably dropped from your entertainment radar years ago, but is getting better and wiser as he enters what, to me, is the uncharted territory of 74 years of age.
Wanna know who? Stay tuned for…the rest of the story!
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.