Sporting shorn blond hair, aviator sunglasses, and no beard or yarmulke, the formerly Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu introduced the next chapter in his career at a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos.
The singer took the outdoor stage at NJY Camp Cedar Lake in Milford. Pa. on Friday, July 13, days before the release of his new CD, Spark Seeker.
The audience of 1,500 campers, counselors, and staff came from Cedar Lake, its sister camp Nah-Jee-Wah, and from visiting camps in the area including URJ Kutz Camp, Camp Tel Yehuda, and Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh.
No longer performing in the black garb and heavy beard of a Hasidic follower – an identity he held on to even as his music crossed into the mainstream – the former Matthew Paul Miller sang songs that still reflect the spiritual seeker he has always been.
Unlike bloggers and Facebook posters who since late last year have been feverishly debating Matisyahu’s new look and its meaning, the campers seem unfazed. Campers and counselors held up signs reading “Matisyahu is Cedar Lake’s Sunshine,” referring to one of the tracks on his new cd, and “Bunk 26 Loves Matisyahu.”
The acoustic concert was a collaboration between Matisyahu and the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Cedar Lake Camp was chosen in part because it fit into his tour schedule and requested location, according to Alicia Zimbalist, public relations coordinator for the FJC. It offered a space large enough to hold 1,500 spectators as well as proximity to a number of other Jewish camps that could come for the concert, she said.
Matisyahu, 33, who declined to be interviewed, said in a prepared statement that he supports Jewish camps as “a comfortable and accepting place for all children to explore their Jewish identity.”
One true fan, Emma Weiss, 13, of East Brunswick, said, “It was really awesome! The fact that Matisyahu could come to camp–I personally love to listen to Matisyahu. To be able to be with my camp friends listening to Matisyahu – that was really amazing!”
The singer, who spent the day at the camp, commented during the concert on the fun he had in their lake. “I did everything! I loved the marshmallow puff,” he said, referring to a trampoline-like feature at the lake.
When he finished playing, he offered to answer questions from the audience. With the easy stuff out of the way (Yes, he is married, with two kids he says he plans to send to Jewish camp), he faced questions that have been asked for months by fans perhaps disappointed that he no longer embraces the appearance of an Orthodox Jew. As they have been for months, his replies were cryptic.
Asked why he shaved his beard, he said, “I needed a change. I had it for 10 years.” He added, “We become tied to our hair, it’s a kind of identity and way of representing ourselves. When you take it off, it’s an expression of humility.” But he shrugged off some other questions, including, “What values do you live by,” saying only, “Probably similar to the ones you do.” Asked “Who’s your favorite Zionist thinker?” he responded, “Bob Marley,” the Jamaican reggae star whose Rastafarian religion revered “Zion.”
Some of the campers, not fans of reggae music, had no idea who he was. Jared Levi of Maplewood, 14, said, “Who is he?” and although seemed to enjoy some of the concert was not a converted fan. Others, like Josh Anthony, 12 of Maplewood, hadn’t heard of him previously but said, “It was fun. I liked the beat boxing.”
Mindy Fliegelman, 18, from East Brunswick, a counselor who thought the concert was “cool,” particularly enjoyed “Jerusalem,” a song she learned while in Israel. “I always play that song for my bunk,” she said.
Zach Vinik of Millburn, 14, a music lover, thought it was “really fun. It’s something we haven’t done that much of here – had musicians in.” Although he’s usually more into rap and hip hop than reggae, he said he’d definitely buy the music.
In the end, it was all about the music, and even those who were less familiar with his music knew the piece he concluded with – “One Day,” a song of messianic hope — and most of the audience sang along.