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Matisyahu’s Message to His Fellow Jews and to the Israel Haters Trying to Cancel Him

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“The Jewish people don't really give up. They’re fighters. … a vision of peace, and a vision of hope, and of empathy. I really, truly believe that that is at the core of who we are. And that is what we are actually fighting for.”

Matisyahu’s recent show in Chicago was canceled due to the threat of anti-Israel protests.

The Jewish American singer’s music has evolved alongside his Jewish identity. But one thing has always been clear: He believes in Israel's right to exist. Because of that, he has faced protests at almost every show on his current national tour, and some have even been canceled.

Hear from Matisyahu on his musical and religious journey, especially since October 7, and what makes him Jewish and proud.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40) Matisyahu

Show Notes:

Song Credits, all by Matisyahu:

  • One Day 

  • Jerusalem

  • Fireproof

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Transcript of Interview with Matisyahu:

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Matisyahu is a Jewish American reggae singer, rapper and beatboxer, whose musical style and genre have evolved alongside how he practices and expresses his Jewish identity. But one thing has always been clear. He believes in Israel's right to exist, and he has expressed that repeatedly since the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel. 

Since then, he has performed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He has performed for the families of hostages and for students at Columbia University as a show of solidarity for those who have faced a torrent of antisemitism there. But there are places where he has not performed, including Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tucson, Arizona and Chicago, but not for lack of trying. 

Those shows were canceled by the venue's because of the threat of protests. Matisyahu is with us now to discuss these cancellations and what's behind them. Matis, welcome to People of the Pod.


Hello, People of the Pod.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So first of all, I want to introduce you to those in our audience who might not be familiar with your music. And we'll start with the anthem that I associate most with you. And that is One Day. Can you tell us a little bit about how that song came about–when and why?


Well, that song was written in around 2010, I want to say or nine, maybe 2008 or nine. And I was working on my second studio album. It's called Light. And we had turned in the album and the new record executives didn't feel like we had any hits on the album. The album had been based on this story of Reb Nachman of Breslov called The Seven Beggars. And it was a bit of a concept album. 

So I went to LA and I worked with a couple of writers and tried to write a hit song. And that's what we came up with was One Day, and that song got used in the Olympics in 2010, Winter Olympics on the NBC commercials. So that's kind of what propelled that song into popularity.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Popular, yes. But what does One Day mean to you?


A lot of my music is very positive and very much connected to this vision of a Messianic future of peace. You know, at the time, I was very religious. And in my particular group, Chabad Hasidism, the idea of a Messiah was very prevalent in the philosophy. 

I was living in a space of a vision of a future where the wolf lies down with the lamb and people turn their weapons into plowshares. And that was the thing that I was praying for and trying to envision daily. And so that was the main message of that song at the time. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

It is certainly something we’ve always needed, especially now. 

You grew up in White Plains, NY, in the Reconstructionist tradition, I believe. You found your way to Chabad. Can you talk a little bit about where you are in your spiritual journey now, these days.


I went through a very, very intense relationship with Orthodox Judaism, Chassidus. I started from a home, from a Reconstructionist background, so not Chassidus, for anyone who doesn't know these terms. More of a reform kind of background. And I went to Israel when I was 16, on a Conservative trip where I spent three months there, which had a profound effect on me. 

And then when I was in college, about 21, 20 years old or so, is when I started really exploring the more Orthodox side of Judaism, and started out with the Carlebach shul, on the Upper West Side, and his music and reading books about Shlomo Carlebach, and the type of person he was and what type of work he was doing. And then from there, I pretty much jumped into Chabad, and moved to Crown Heights and lived in the yeshiva there on Eastern Parkway for a couple of years. And all of that, sort of prior to Matisyahu the singer coming out. 

And then I spent many years, within 10 years or so, sort of exploring Chabad and then Breslov and different types of Hasidism. Different types of Chassidus within that realm. 

And I guess at some point, it started to feel a little bit, not constructive for me to be there and felt more claustrophobic. And I felt that I was not really connecting so much anymore with a lot of the ideas and a lot of the rules. And so I started to just kind of live more of like a normal life, I guess, or a non-religious life. 

And I'm still doing my music and making my music and writing from a place of deep Jewish yearning, empathy, and hope, you know, and using lots of the canon of the Old Testament still, to use as metaphors in my lyric, writing, and stuff like that. 

But more focused on more of a humanistic kind of approach to the world, less concerned with my religion, or God, or being Jewish and more concerned with, you know, writing about being a father or a husband, or dealing with addiction, or dealing with loneliness, or dealing with different ups and downs of life. So that for me was a process going through that over the last maybe 15 years or so. 

And then after October 7, you know, I mean, I've had some issues before, in 2015, with the BDS. I was thrown off of a festival. And so there again, I felt a very strong sense of Jewish pride when that happened. And especially like, when I went to Israel, after that had happened, I felt this sort of new connection with Israelis in the sense that a lot of them, writers, singers, actors, whoever, get shut down when they go overseas to try to perform. And so I felt like I had a strong connection with them and understanding of what some of them go through. And I guess that only reinforced my connection with Israel. 

Then after October 7 happened, it's been this very, very strong pull back towards feeling very Jewish and feeling like that is the center and the core of who I am, and especially right now, that's what feels the most powerful and authentic to me.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So you have been to Israel since October 7, performing for soldiers on bases, hospitals, visiting some of the kibbutzim targeted by Hamas, the Nova festival site. Did it scare you to walk those sites? Can you share how you felt or what you took away from that experience?


I don't know that I was scared when I was there. I was obviously touched profoundly by the stories that I heard and what I saw firsthand, so it was more of a feeling of just destruction. And then just seeing these incredible human beings that had just survived and are just the most amazing people. 

And then there was this feeling of hope and this feeling of wow, look how these people come together and how I'm a part of that, and that became a really strong place for me in terms of finding hope for my tour and going out into America. And dealing with cancellations and protesters and stuff like that. 

So I really wanted to try to grab that feeling that I had when I was in Israel and sort of bottle it up and take it with me and sort of get drunk on it at my shows with everybody and make everyone feel like there's a place where they can feel comfortable to be Jewish, and they can feel okay with being a supporter of Israel.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Do you feel that your colleagues in the music industry understand that and understand where you're coming from? 


Well, some people seem to silently understand it, and I'll get some texts and stuff from some people here and there. But no, I don't think people do. I think there's really for the most part, as you see, the mainstream art world and music world either doesn't know where they sit, or they're not supporters of Israel.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Do you think if they went to Israel, they would have a different perspective on that, that it would shift that mindset?


Absolutely. I mean, any person like, in my band, who's ever come to Israel, been with me, who's not Jewish, or is Jewish, but has had no connection, like didn't have parents or grandparents that taught them about Israel. Or didn't have that experience of going to Israel, like I did when I was 16. I think anyone who goes to Israel feels a connection to this, and especially, especially now, you know, there's no way to deny it. I don't think.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So, is it important for Jewish celebrities in particular, or influencers, to speak out about the violence on October 7?


See, I think it's important, because it's important to me, you know. But what I've learned is, there's no point in getting angry at people thinking that it should be important to them, if it's not important to them. And if they're not speaking out, and it's because of fear, then the fear is larger than how important it is to them. 

And everyone has to deal with their own stuff, you know, but to me, it seems that the fact that there's such a lack of people speaking out is a symptom of a sickness that the Jewish people may have been carrying, that just seemed dormant for some time, which is that somehow that it wasn't important to to a lot of American Jews.

So for me, it was just like, tapping into what is the feeling after October 7, and it was immediate, and it was in my bones and in the depth of the core of my being. And I feel very blessed that, on my journey in life, I was able to connect that deeply, to being Jewish, and to Israel, and realizing how those things are connected. And I went on a journey, like I didn't come necessarily from a place where that was instilled into me, you know, to some extent, it was, you know, but I went on my own journey, and I spent a lot of time you know, sifting through all of that and figuring those things out for myself. And so I feel blessed to be in the position that I'm in where I know kind of who I am and what I believe, and people can take strength from that.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So I lived in Chicago for 15 years so I'm very familiar with the House of Blues as a venue. I loved going to see shows there and was heartbroken to hear that The House of Blues canceled your recently scheduled show. I understand that they paid the contractual penalty, you're going to donate that to an organization that advocates for the return of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. But can you tell us a little bit about the conversations you had with them, or with Chicago police or anyone else prior to the cancellation, and what explanations were given?


Well, I'll go into it a little bit. I mean, there's still some confusion as to exactly what happened. But I essentially got a call from someone high up at Live Nation saying that the show needed to be canceled because of a lack of police force. And then with a friend of mine, David Draiman, who's the lead singer for a band Disturb also from Chicago with a lot of his close friends, we were able to explore that. And it seemed as though the police department was aware there was going to be a protest, but that they were not concerned. 

So then it became a mystery as to where's the concern coming from really, which then led us to this whole Alderman thing, and then we thought it might have been this one. But now then, you know, turns out maybe it was other Alderman that were putting pressure on the police force or on Live Nation. And so there's, there's some mystery and honestly, as much as it is important to find out where this is coming from. And so how we can try to stop it. It has not been my main focus in this past week.

This past week, I was out on tour, I played four shows, there were protesters at all of them, except one, Salisbury, Massachusetts. And all four shows went on, and they all sold out. And they were all really powerful. So what happened in Chicago was pretty devastating for us. Because, you know, it's scary to think that people are making choices and being able to shut down huge organizations, and creative expression and artistic freedom. So it was devastating. But, you know, we bounced right back and jumped right back into tour. I got another big week of shows this week. 

So that's basically all I know, to tell you the truth. And while I would love to point the finger and say it was this person or that person, what I'm learning is, as things start getting uncovered, you know, it's hard to know, I'm not an investigative reporter, but I'm sure that like, it's tricky finding out what the real story is a full time job probably.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Were there similarly mysterious circumstances surrounding Tucson and Santa Fe? 


No, that was less mysterious. And in those cases, it was a little more clear as to what was going on. In Santa Fe, it was literally staff members that didn't want to come to the show. And for whatever reason, let the venue know at the last minute. There may have been someone at the venue behind that, we don't really know. And then in Arizona, it was, seemed like it was more from the promoter, or the buyer of the show where people were putting pressure on her to cancel the show. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

I asked you a bit ago, if it was important for Jewish celebrities or influencers to speak out about October 7 violence? I'll ask you instead, is it important for them to speak out about this kind of cancellation or censorship or limitation on creative expression? 


I think so. You know, because it's like that old story, they came for, they came from me and these people, and I didn't say anything, they came for these people. And then they came from me. I mean, that's what we see out here. You know, that's what that's what artistic expression, creativity is about, it's about being able to express your views and your ideas through music. It's peaceful, you know. So, it's unfortunate. It's what we have to deal with. 

There are people that realize how important it is. And those people like David are really  trying to help and trying to be outspoken and there are a lot of Jews out there that understand how important this is. I'm feeling support from most people, but not enough. For sure.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Speaking of creative expression, I am curious whether October 7 has influenced any of your musical creation, songwriting, how has that influenced the creative process for you? 


One way, I have a song that's coming out it’s called Ascent, and I wrote it before October 7, but after the Kanye antisemitic lash out and it's about antisemitism. So while I was in Israel, we shot the video at the site of the Nova festival and in some of the kibbutzim and with some of the survivors, so that is like one very obvious way in which I was influenced. And that video kind of takes footage from the Holocaust and World War Two and intermixes it with October 7 footage as well. 

And then in terms of my own music, last year, I recorded about 40 songs, and started releasing them with this EP. But I kind of like right when all this began, right as I was starting touring, so it's sort of, for me a different creative hat, like a bit of a different place than writing. So I'm not writing new material, but I'm performing the new songs along with old songs. 

And what I'm finding creatively is that a lot of the lyrics and a lot of the themes, even though over the years, some of them have been personal, they all kind of connect and tie into the greater story of the Jewish people, and the obstacles that we face. And our survival. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

That's one of the reasons why I brought up One Day, is I loved the song back when it came out. But it does take on a whole new meaning when you listen to it today. It's very powerful. 

This is not the first time that your shows had been canceled due to anti Israel sentiments, I believe it was in 2015, there was a music festival in Spain that canceled your appearance, when you wouldn't promise to bring up Israeli politics on stage. Instead, you toured a dozen American college campuses that year. And I'm curious what you learned from that experience that you're applying to now? And also what you've learned on some of these college tours?


Well, that's a great question. Because for a lot of people all this is like the first time they're experiencing it. And I feel like part of the blessing of my journey that I've had is that I have gone through this to a lesser version. Like you said in 2015. What they wanted me to do was to sign some kind of document saying that I was against the atrocities of Israel.

So I wouldn't sign that and that was the same thing. It was like, No, I'm not going to do that. Like, that doesn't that doesn't line up with who I am. I mean, I don't care honestly, what this statement is, I'm not going to sign something, I'm not going to be singled out as the only artist out of hundreds. That's being forced to sign something, because I'm Jewish, or because of my belief system. So I just kind of played it cool. You know, I was just like, No, I won’t do it, and they threw me off the festival.

It was like this story of Purim, like, they were trying to hang Mordechai. But Haman got hung really. They were patting themselves on the back, like, we threw this guy off the festival. And then there was an uproar about it. There were backers that were pulling out of the festival. 

And so they ended up having to apologize. And asked me to come back and still play the festival, all this happened within three or four days. And so I did go back, and I did play the festival. And, and then I went to Israel, you know, and then I went on this college tour, with Palestinian artists. And we went and performed together because we felt that was an important thing to do. 

So I think from what I learned from that was sort of like this idea of sort of, like trying to just be like water. If I just sort of do what feels what the right thing is what I feel is the right thing, and just don't kind of lose my cool. And I'm able to just sort of move within it, then basically, it's going to come out in a way that hopefully, will be victorious. And that's been my strategy so far with this tour as well. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So my last, my last question to you is, we talked about your journey, your faith journey and your musical journey. What makes you Jewish and proud today?


You know, you see, the Jewish people don't really give up. They’re fighters. And there's always, in my mind, I believe, a vision of peace, and a vision of hope, and of empathy. I really, truly believe that that is at the core of who we are. And that is what we are actually fighting for. 

Even when the rest of the world is trying to say that we're the monsters, we won't let that stop us. Nothing will stop us. It's just who we are. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Beautiful, thank you so much, Matis, for joining us. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with Israeli filmmaker Shifra Soloveichik about her digital initiative Women of Valor: Women of War, portraits of individual Israeli women during this challenging moment in modern Jewish history.


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