by Sarah Bunin Benor, author of Becoming Frum
When I received the “breaking news” last month that Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu had shaved his iconic beard, I recognized this transition as part of a common progression among ba’alei teshuva, Jews who become Orthodox. In my research among “BTs” in Philadelphia and elsewhere, I found that some newcomers, eager to integrate into the frum (religious) community, go overboard in their use of Orthodox practices at first. They seek out stringencies in religious observance and “overuse” words like “mamish” (really) and “baruch Hashem” (blessed be God). Women wear skirts and sleeves longer than required by Jewish law, and men let their tzitzis (fringes) hang out more conspicuously than their “Frum From Birth” peers. Eventually many of these BTs feel that they have given up too much of themselves, and they temper their use of these Orthodox cultural practices.
Like any social scientist, I had the urge to name this progression, and the term I chose was the “bungee effect.” A bungee jumper plunges off of a high place connected to a strong elastic cord. When she gets to the bottom of the cord’s reach, she bounces back up a bit. So too with many BTs: near the beginning of their religious transformation, they “jump off the deep end,” and then they bounce back to a happy medium (see Chapter Eight of Becoming Frum for a more detailed explanation). A few years ago Matisyahu was performing in a dark suit and hat, and his beard and payos (sidelocks) were discussed by fans and critics worldwide. More recently he has been performing in more casual clothing, still displaying symbols of his Orthodox identity – his kippah and tzitzis. His recent shave seems to be the next logical step in his bungee bounce.
Not all BTs experience this progression. Some take on Orthodox observance and culture more gradually, avoiding elements that they find too alien. Others jump in with both feet and never bounce back, becoming so adept at frum culture that people assume they grew up Orthodox. There is great diversity among BTs, and Matisyahu’s recent transition represents just one approach – one that I observed and heard about from many other BTs.
The notion of a bungee jump implies that BTs’ journeys are linear – more and then less. Of course the reality is more complex: they might shed some elements of Orthodoxy while taking on others, based on meeting new role models or encountering new approaches to Jewish philosophy and spirituality. But Orthodox Jews do often discuss a continuum between Modern Orthodoxy on one end and “Black Hat” Hasidic and Yeshivish Orthodoxy on the other. Many community members view transitions along this continuum as linear. Matisyahu’s beard symbolized his connection to Black Hat Hasidism, and its absence symbolizes his decision to identify closer to the Modern end of the continuum.
As Matisyahu reassured his 1.3 million Twitter followers, he has not shed his religious observance: “For all those who are confused: Today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday.” His shave is merely the next phase in his spiritual journey, his upward bounce after his head-first dive into Orthodoxy.