Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Greeting in the Shabbat Queen with Matisyahu, Part I

Posted by Oyster on September 13, 2006

Two Rabbis Three Bochurs
My verbose writing is forcing me to break up my series on my Matisyahu weekend into smaller chunks. Here is the first installment.

I found myself driving away from work, racing to get to Berkeley by 5:45. That was the specified time for Mincha prayers, in accordance with the last-minute Chabad schedule for the Shabbaton that I received late last night. I also have an ulterior motive aside from getting settled in the Berkeley Hassidic community before Shabbos started; I was hoping to snap some pictures before I would be compelled to put my camera away.

And who was it that I was getting excited about? What was it about his music had me playing his albums in my car over and over? Matisyahu Miller, the hassidic reggae phenom that has cut for himself quite a reputation in the past few years. I had met him (well, been near him; we never spoke or greeted one another) at the Jewlicious @ the Beach, 2.0 conference at the Long Beach Hillel this past February. Yet something didn’t quite fit right, in my reflections. He came to the four-day convention, and even though he attended the Sunday concert, complete with a line-up of Jewish musicians such as Reb Shmuel and So-Called, he didn’t sing a single note. At all. Not on stage, not in a crowd, not at the Shabbat table (if he did so there, nothing exceptional above what everyone else sang). I was mystified by this dissonance of expectation and reality. I expected him to sing, even if just a little bit. He did participate in a panel discussion on Jewish music (more on this later!), and had some very insightful things to say, but that was about it.

So, honestly, my knowledge of this Jewish super-star was limited. Before two weeks ago, when I picked up “Live at Stubbs” and “Youth” from Bob & Bob’s in Palo Alto, I only knew the few hits that they played on the radio, like “King Without a Crown” (video!). It was my mission in this second encounter with Matisyahu, to try to figure out this man, and to understand his behavior.

I arrive at a little before 5:45 PM at the Berkeley Chabad House, which is a combination of a kosher kitchen, Beit Midrash, shteibl, office, and haimishe dormitory. I figured that if they were going to be davening Mincha, this would be the place to find them. Several knocks on the door to the communal space / shteibl went unanswered, and then, growing irritated, I gave several rings on the wireless doorchime button on the dormitory / office. Eventually, of all people to answer the door, there stood Rabbi Yehuda Ferris himself! I had many encounters with Rabbi Ferris across my five years living in Berkeley, some in times of sorrow, some in times of joy. Seeing him for the first time in a long time was a time of joy. He never ceases to surprise me by his close-shorn hair under his black fedora, his alacrity, his razor-sharp wit, and his ability to command a certain Jewish nobility about him when leading his Hassidim in ritual or prayer. He also is a musician, playing in a band reportedly called “The Ferris Wheels”. I first learned of this Bay Area Jewish icon in high school, when our AZA brother-chapter would regularly plan these events called ‘Rabbi Fun Trips’, where they would go up to the crazy city of Berkeley, stay at a Chabad house, and be entertained by this guitar-playing singing Rabbi that would ply these decidedly non-Orthodox Jewish teenagers with mitzvot, Torah, and alcohol l’chaims. 🙂

We exchanged greetings and discussed some matters about what’s going on with the Shabbaton, he advised me that I might be able to catch Matisyahu playing basketball (photo op!!). But I was worried about my car, and they needed some young strapping lads (did he mean wrapping Tefilin?) to help set up the Ferris’ home for the huge Shabbat dinner they were hosting (later, R. Ferris would kvetch that 15 people R.S.V.P.’ed, but they set up to seat 200. :-p ). So after dropping off my over-night stuff and greeting the young Yeshiva bochurs who were visiting the Bay Area to learn about how to make kosher wine (as one of them related), we drove over to the Elmwood estate of the East Bay’s senior Chabad rabbi to assist in setting up the folding chairs and tables.

Ferris Home
I found a parking spot on a nearby street (no small feat in Berkeley; a very car-unfriendly town). And then it dawned on me where I parked: it was the very spot four years ago where I was shown the dried blood from when two Chabad hassids, one them Rabbi Ferris’s son, were severely beaten on their way to the Rabbi’s house on the closing days of Passover. I recalled working feverishly that day to document what happened, as the two victims, Shneur-Zalman and Yossi, couldn’t be involved in such matters on a Yom Tov. I spoke with them at length, committing to memory the details of the attack as they recalled it, speaking to witnesses, etc. I eventually wrote up a press-release of sorts, and started working the phones and email to try to get word of this crime out as far and as wide as possible. It succeeded in even getting to the ABC national news, as I recall someone informing me. Years later, the Ferris’s would jokingly call me ‘the reporter’ for my efforts.

And as I approached the house, someone stepped out of the front door. A tall, thin, striking figure, with a large black kipah with writing in purple puffy-paint along the rim. He had short, black hair with a dusting of grey hairs appearing, and a long unruly black beard. He wore thick black plastic-rimmed glasses straight out of the 1950’s, yet they were small & stylish. He looked hip in his thin bowling-alley jacket over his button-down dress shirt, complete with dangling iPod headphones that he was fitting into his ears. As he bounded down the last step to leave the Ferris’ house, I nodded to him in greeting. It was Matisyahu. And I had so much to ask him. But he was moving with intention and I knew it would be appropriate for me not to play the part of the annoying fan, and better to focus on my surroundings and help set up with everyone else.


4 Responses to “Greeting in the Shabbat Queen with Matisyahu, Part I”

  1. jlifer said

    It’s official: oyster is a certified groupie. Check out this photo on the Daily Californian.

  2. Oyster said

    Wow, what a great shot! Thank you so much for pointing that one out to me J-Lifer!

    Darn, now I have to start posting double-time to get all this content up & linked to timely articles in other publications. 🙂

  3. […] We Jews are a minority. “We’ve been travelling from state to state”, as Matisyahu sings in ‘Jerusalem’. We are a tribe of brothers and sisters that have been persecuted for our beliefs and “differentness” for centuries. This is really the tip of a huge philosophical discussion, but we have our own History. It’s separate from others’ histories. Remember that history started as a practice of writing down the chronicles of whomever was in power. It usually just reflected their greatness, and not their flaws or mistakes. To a lesser extent, modern history still is rife with bias. And I’m not talking about pure & pristine academic works, but the ‘history’ that our culture understands, and the cultural history that is all around us. […]

  4. […] of orthodox Judaism, Reggae, rock and energy. Read Oyster’s review of Matisyahu’s Shabbaton and Bay Area performances from last […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: