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Northwestern University

Matisyahu Rocks Pick-Staiger

The Grammy-nominated artist explores music and Hasidic Judaism in a talk and concert on campus

More than 700 people filled Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on March 31 to attend a concert and talk with Matisyahu, a Grammy-nominated reggae, hip-hop and rock musician.

Matisyahu skyrocketed to fame a decade ago after the success of his hit single “King without a Crown.” His identity as a Hasid, including his attire and beard, and his life within the Hasidic community lent him a distinct identity within the entertainment community. In 2011, Matisyahu shaved his beard and reintroduced himself with a tweet that announced, “No more Hasidic reggae superstar.” His decision to publicly change his religious identity was the main topic of discussion during his evening on the Northwestern campus.

In conversation with Barry Wimpfheimer, director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, Matisyahu explained that he has come to realize he is “a different kind of person and needs to honor that difference” by allowing himself to dig deeper into his own creative soul, even if that distances him from a group ideology or even other people. To end the night, Matisyahu shared some of this soul-searching by performing songs from his new album, Akeda, the Hebrew word for “binding.” The music featured Hebrew phrasings and references to Jewish liturgy while invoking roots reggae, and the lyrics focused on Matisyahu’s process of grappling with his transition from Hasid to post-Hasid.

“He has a very unique perspective on American Judaism today, having experienced it in a number of different places, because he’s a celebrity and he’s achieved the crossover success that no other ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew has achieved,” Wimpfheimer, an associate professor of religious studies, told the Daily Northwestern. Although Matisyahu may not look the part anymore, it is clear that he is still an important figure in the Hasidic Jewish community.

The event was hosted by the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies and was a part of the Renee and Lester Crown Speaker Series, which has also brought Israeli intellectual Moshe Halbertal and award-winning author Nathan Englander to campus.  

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