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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Tonight is the fifth night of Hanukkah, so what better way to celebrate than a reggae show? In New York City, an Orthodox Jewish star is doing just that. His name is Matisyahu. Tonight, he wraps up a series of Hanukkah concerts. Producer Lu Olkowski has his story.

MATISYAHU (Reggae Artist): Yeah, it's New York City!

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

(Soundbite of music)

LU OLKOWSKI: In the days leading up to this Hanukkah concert, Matisyahu had a dream that he was performing.

MATISYAHU: Basically, the stage that I was on was very empty. It was like a real feeling of emptiness there. There was no lights. The music itself was very low. I wasn't even singing. I was just making sound. But every note that I made was like coming right from my heart.

(Soundbite of music)

OLKOWSKI: And that's the feeling he's trying to get across at his Hanukkah concerts.

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: The place that I'm trying to come from and where I'm trying to make music from is when I feel like I'm able to somehow like transcend it all and just speak right to God.

(Soundbite of music)

OLKOWSKI: Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller, just a kid from the suburbs outside New York City. Brought up without much of a connection to his Jewish roots, Matisyahu felt alone. Music and drugs were his solace. And when he was alone in his bedroom, he vaguely recognized Judaism and the reggae music he listen to.

MATISYAHU: I don't think you could pull one Bob Marley song that didn't have quotes from the Torah or the Old Testament.

(Soundbite of song, “Exodus”)

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Reggae Artist): (Singing) Exodus.

MATISYAHU: In that song, Bob Marley says we know where we're going. We know where we're from. We leaving Babylon. We're going to the Promised Land. That's like what every like white middle class suburban kid is trying to figure out. What, you know, where are we going? And, like, where am I from, you know?

(Soundbite of song, “Exodus”)

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) We're leaving Babylon. We're going to our fatherland.

OLKOWSKI: Matisyahu discovered the Promised Land himself when he went to Israel for a semester - more or less as an excuse to get away from home and school.

MATISYAHU: I had no interest in my Jewishness. But here I was like in Jerusalem, and I would see like a few hundred Hassidim packed into a small room and fervently praying, and - like there was something really at stake. They were really talking to God. And that's when he something like I could connect to. It was a real experience.

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: (Singing): Jerusalem, if I forget you. Let my right hand forget what it's about to do. Jerusalem, if I forget you…

OLKOWSKI: 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. And while the highest holidays are strictly reserved for introspection and family, Hanukkah is different.

MATISYAHU: It is a time where music and performing, like just technically, on a technical level, plugging in guitar amps and playing music, is not a problem.

OLKOWSKI: Matisyahu is alluding to the fact that as an Orthodox Jew, he follows a strict set of religious laws. One of the laws that Matisyahu follows is about physical contact. Orthodox Jewish men don't have even casual contact with women except with their closest family members. Early in Matisyahu's career, he didn't exactly honor all the laws.

MATISYAHU: So, like, when I was first performing, I used to stage-dive and jump off the stage without really thinking too much about that law, and you know, kind of like figuring it was mostly men that were holding me up. And that was like a no. You couldn't do that.

(Soundbite of applause)

OLKOWSKI: At this point, the rules don't really get in the way of Matisyahu's performances, but it does take vigilance. At the concert, Matis asked a fan to come up and light the candles on the Hanukkah menorah.

MATISYAHU: We've got to light the darkness right here, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

MATISYAHU: Here we go. We've got a guy right here.

OLKOWSKI: But he had to get someone else because the first guy who climbed on stage already lit the candles earlier that evening, and it goes against religious law to light the candles more than once in a night.

MATISYAHU: (Unintelligible). Right here. Come on up, come on up.

OLKOWSKI: A young woman came onstage, but she couldn't light the candles either, because she didn't speak Hebrew and couldn't say the prayer. So with his fans standing silently by his side, Matis lit the candles and said the prayer himself.

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

OLKOWSKI: When asked what he wants to impart this Hanukkah, Matisyahu looks back to a moment in his past, when he was first becoming religious, how on a winter's night, he went up to a rooftop in New York at sundown to pray.

MATISYAHU: In my life, at that point I was really stuck, and I was really struggling. I was really feeling the rawness and the emptiness and the loneliness. I was basically just, you know, wailing, and that's really what I try to get back to now at this point in my life, to try to somehow get back to that place, that stripped-down place.

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LU OLKOWSKI: For NPR News, I'm Lu Olkowski in New York.

BRAND: To hear Matisyahu's music from his latest album “No Place to Be,” go to NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MATISYAHU: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BRAND: There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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