Beard or no beard: "a Jew is a Jew is a Jew." At least, so said Chevra leader Aryeh Shalom and several other Matisyahu fans interviewed before the Orthodox reggae star took to the stage at the Theatre of Living Arts during a Saturday night stop on his sixth annual Chanukah tour.
Less than two weeks before, the singer made national headlines when he posted a photo of his clean-shaven face followed by an explanation of his desire to reclaim himself sans "alias."
"No more Chasidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me," he wrote, continuing that his choice to explore Jewish spirituality through real life eventually led him to "move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth."
"For all those who are confused," he followed up later in a tweet, "today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday."
Despite this announcement -- or perhaps because of it -- his Philly show sold out just as it had the year before.
David Keleti, 41, a local technical writer who also grows a beard as a symbol of piety, wondered whether Matisyahu figured he's popular enough now that he doesn't need to be "the Chasidic musician." Or, Keleti continued, perhaps the singer, who was raised Reconstructionist and became a ba'al teshuvah in 2001, jumped into stricter observance too quickly and it ended up being too much.
Keleti said he gives the singer the benefit of the doubt, and believes he was just "trying to stabilize where he was."
"I respect that. I think ultimately the Jewish community will respect that."
There will always be ultra religious people who think he should be just as devout as they are, Keleti said, but at least in his Orthodox circle in Bala Cynwyd, nobody has had anything negative to say about it.
While growing a beard has become such a strong custom among the Chassidic that it's "as if it's taken on the power of a law," technically it's not halachah so from a religious standpoint he didn't do anything wrong, said Leib Meadvin, 48, who was manning a video camera at the singer's request.
Meadvin, who also has a beard, said he first met Matisyahu six years ago when the singer stayed with an area Chabad rabbi after a show because he didn't travel on Shabbat. Though he's remained friendly with Matisyahu since, even heading to New York to see him perform three times this past week, Meadvin said he hasn't broached the subject of his new look.
"He didn't owe me any explanation," said Meadvin, a math teacher at Torah Academy. "If he felt it was a good thing, then it's good."
Referencing Matisyahu's statement that he used to feel the need "to submit to a higher level of religiosity" to become a good person, Meadvin said he's also met people who followed rules out of fear instead of love. When that happens, he said, the actions ultimately lose meaning.
However Matisyahu's religious observance settles out, Meadvin said, the singer's not likely to bring up his internal struggles in conversation. In contrast to his persona on stage, when he's not performing "he whispers in your ear if he talks at all," said Meadvin's 14-year-old son, Moshe, who had the honor of lighting a giant menorah on stage with the star last year.
Aryeh Shalom, the organizer from the Chevra, a social group for Jewish 20s and 30s, has gone through his own metamorphoses while wrestling with his faith. Years ago, he said, he also grew a beard as an expression "of my relationship with Hashem, and that will never change no matter what I do."
He applauds Matisyahu for being a public example that it's okay to find your own way to express Judaism. "Even if he decided not to be religious, good for him. We're all growing."
Misha Zubarev, 28, who came from Manhattan to join a Philadelphia friend at the show, said he saw the singer's actions as an attempt to rejuvenate, similar to how some Jews might use Yom Kippur as a chance "to start all over again."
Sally Minkovich, 21, a senior psychology major at Temple University, said the singer's shaving sent a message that "appearance shouldn't be what makes you spiritual." From the lines outside the theater, she said, his fans must agree with that, or else they're indifferent.