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Matisyahu Enlightens Fans with Reggae Hanukkah

Tonight is the last performance for Matisyahu's  Festival of Light Concert Series at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.
Tonight is the last performance for Matisyahu's Festival of Light Concert Series at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.

He's an Orthodox Jew who's also a reggae singer. And if some of his songs sound like prayers, you're not far off.

Meet Matisyahu, a singer exploring his spirituality through reggae. This year, he's performing several concerts at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City to celebrate Hanukkah.

Born Matthew Miller in the suburbs outside New York City, Matisyahu was brought up without much of a connection to his Jewish roots. He felt alone. Music and drugs were his solace. But during that time, he listened to reggae music and vaguely recognized Judaism in it.

"I don't think you could pull one Bob Marley song that doesn't have quotes from the Torah or the Old Testament," Matisyahu points out.

Take the lyrics to "Exodus," for example. "That's what every white, suburban, middle-class kid is trying to figure out," he says. "Where are we going and where am I from, you know?"

Matisyahu visited Israel for a semester in high school, more or less to get away from home and school.

"I had no interest in my Jewishness," he says, "but here I was in Jerusalem, and I would see a few hundred Hassidim packed into a small room and fervently praying like there was something really at stake — they were really talking to God. That, to me, was something I could connect to... it was a real experience."

Six years later, Matisyahu became a practicing Orthodox Jew — and a performer. His experiences in Jerusalem and of becoming religious have remained a point of inspiration.

But his performance for Hanukkah is far more practical.

"It's a time where music and performing, on a technical level — plugging in guitar amps and playing music — is not a problem," he says, alluding to the fact that, as an Orthodox Jew, he follows a strict set of religious laws. The laws were written centuries ago and they have a lot of different interpretations, so they can be tricky to keep. When he's in doubt, he speaks with his Ruv — a rabbinical authority.

At this point in his career, the rules don't get in the way of being a performer, but it does take vigilance. At the Hanukkah concert, Matisyahu sorts through a few fans trying to find one who can light the candle on the menorah.

The first guy who climbed on stage had already lit the candles earlier that evening, and it goes against religious law to light the candles more than once in a night.

Another young fan gets on stage, but she can't light the candles because she doesn't speak Hebrew, so can't say the prayer.

Finally, Matisyahu, with the young fan silent by his side, sings the prayer and lights the menorah himself.

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Lu Olkowski