Matisyahu grew up in a relatively secular household in White Plains, the oldest child of liberal Jews who embraced the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, a modern movement that emphasizes individual autonomy over traditional Jewish law. His parents are social workers; his dad attended graduate school at Howard University and runs an agency that works with the homeless. His mother is a school social worker. As a kid, he attended Hebrew school three times a week.
Matisyahu can't fully explain his troubled school years; he speaks carefully about that time, skimming over past tensions with his parents.
As a high school junior, on a trip to the Colorado wilderness, out in the woods, he felt a spiritual union that bordered on the mystical. That sense of the mystical was amplified during a trip to Israel. There, he saw religious Jews praying at the Western Wall, davening , rocking back and forth, back and forth.
That image stuck with him. But back in the States, he felt constricted: school, parents, rules . This would prove ironic later.
He found refuge in rap, particularly in Nas and his 1996 album, "It Was Written," which included a riff about a slave rebellion. Matisyahu, too, felt enslaved. By what? He didn't know. Just felt the chains.
"It's an amazing thing, a phenomenon, when a person is willing to give themselves over to something else," Matisyahu says softly, in a lilting voice that reflects both his White Plains roots and the accent of the rabbis he studies with. "That's what real passion is . . . and that passion comes through a divorce of self. . . . And the way to do that is to give yourself over to something greater."
Here are a few samples of some of his tracks.