Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lipa Schmeltzer Reaches For Broadway and Beyond 

It’s not every day that Town Hall, New York City’s fabled home to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and other legendary performers, gets to welcome a yarmulke-clad crowd of 1,500. And it is not every day that the yarmulke-clad crowd of 1,500 gets to see one of its own perform on a Broadway stage.

On the last Sunday of 2013, Lipa Schmeltzer, the famous and controversial Hasidic singer revered by many as the “Jewish Elvis” and the “Lady Gaga of Hasidic music” (talk about an oxymoron), took to the Broadway stage to celebrate 15 years of entertainment. The show was the first of its kind: a quasi-musical performed by Schmeltzer, an all-male cast of his theater classmates at Rockland Community College and a band conducted by the legendary Orthodox music conductor Ruvi Banet, as well as a five-man choir ensemble imported from Israel. It rightfully attracted a crowd from all over the Orthodox spectrum: From Satmar fans in traditional black and white who snuck out to attend a forbidden show, to Modern Orthodox Jews who, in their colorful attire, cannot get enough of Schmeltzer’s charisma, talent and Hasidic branding. The seating was mixed — one of the many reasons Hasidic rabbis have banned Schmeltzer’s concerts — and the audience uniformly jubilant.

The show was presented by Airmont Shul, the openly Orthodox, judgment-free synagogue that Schmeltzer built for families like my own, families who left their childhood Hasidic communities in search of a more tolerant environment. Even though I attend services only several times a year, mostly on the High Holy Days, I have come to know my neighbor Lipa Schmeltzer as a kindhearted, ambitious man. He appreciates his modest home and lifestyle as much as he loves the limelight, and he treats everyone crossing his path with dignity and respect.

I came as a neighbor, a friend and a fellow congregant. But I also came as an admirer of Schmeltzer’s perseverance and fearless pushing of boundaries. He has been bullied and shunned time and again, yet he prevails.

The show itself was not all it was cracked up to be. Aside from Schmeltzer’s beautiful singing, the cast was not very professional and was overly melodramatic, and the character development was difficult to follow. Schmeltzer alternated between a therapist in an ill-fitting silver shimmering suit and white fedora and the archetypal, if a bit farcical, Hasidic rabbi in all the glittery and furry regalia. Both characters were inspired by Schmeltzer himself — as a leader of his synagogue and as a man who talks freely about his struggles. The clients of the therapist were also disciples of the rabbi who expressed very different views in the therapists’ chair and in the synagogue — a play on the general dichotomy of Orthodox individuals who struggle with their identities. The clients, especially “Max the Dancer,” personified Schmeltzer and his lifetime challenges as a Hasidic entertainer.

Fans who came to see Schmeltzer got what they wanted: edgy music, the signature quirky costumes and a peek into the entertainer’s life. Behind me on the balcony sat an Orthodox family from Italy whose reverence for Schmeltzer was obvious to me despite the language barrier; and in front of me, I watched the peculiar animation of a group of frum, pious, teenage girls who applauded rapturously and squealed with delight when Schmeltzer came onto the stage, just the way secular teenagers would if Justin Bieber were performing.

For all the criticism Schmeltzer garners, and despite my own opinion that it would have served him better if he waited a few more years to take his talent to Broadway, his fearless trailblazing nevertheless deserves commendation. For an Orthodox man whose trademark Hasidic look attracts a largely ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic fan base to take on a Broadway stage — and to fill up all the seats — is quite extraordinary.

The show was unprecedented and is only the start of something bigger to come. With his contemporary spin on Jewish music and copious amounts of personal references to struggles faced by many expats like himself, Schmeltzer has consistently pushed the envelope, challenging his Hasidic aficionados to re-examine their beliefs in the system and resistance to change. His recent album, “Dus Pintele — The Hidden Spark,” boasts 13 tracks: a mash-up of traditional Hebrew, Yiddish and English songs with a unique Schmeltzer twist. Two Yiddish songs in particular sparked tremendous controversy, causing some to revile him as an apikoros, or nonbeliever.

I interviewed Schmeltzer a few days after the show. I asked him about his inspirations, his take on the show’s success, his controversial new album and what he has in store next. He revealed his ambition for the future of theater: to bring back Jewish theater in all its European, pre-Holocaust greatness. If anyone is capable of doing that, of merging the professional Yiddish theater of yore and modern Jewish life, it’s Lipa Schmeltzer.


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