Wednesday, February 18, 2015
On the sixth night of Hannukah last December, about a thousand Hasidic and Orthodox Jews came to Queens College for "Following the Stars!"—a concert featuring four Hasidic singers. Three of them dressed conservatively in black and white as they belted out stale religious tunes from the stage of the Kupferberg Center. As the intermission came to an end, a stooped figure covered in a white prayer shawl made his way across the stage. A hush swept the crowd as the figure was revealed to be the evening's headliner, Lipa Schmeltzer, arguably the biggest pop star in Hasidic music.
Under the prayer shawl, Schmeltzer wore a shiny frock coat and his signature funky glasses (he wears a different pair for every occasion). A yarmulke and short curly side locks completed his look, the shawl casually draped over his shoulders in a shockingly transgressive manner.
"Thank God, I'm going for higher education!" he announced, referring to his recent decision to pursue a college degree, unheard of in Hasidic circles. The crowd applauded vigorously. "They're teaching me nice stuff, but I'm teaching them nice stuff too. That people with these"—he flicked one of his side locks—"can also be normal, and learn English!"
The crowd went wild, and Schmeltzer launched into a Hebrew song about not judging a person until you've been in their shoes. His dance moves alone—a mixture of energetic stomping and a series of high jumps—were enough to distinguish him from the openers. Another song, based on Judaism's holiest prayer, the Shma, ended with Schmeltzer on his knees, his hand over his eyes.
He left the stage to the sound of the crowd chanting his name.
Schmeltzer has aptly been called the Lady Gaga of Hasidic music. Known mononymously as "Lipa" in Orthodox and Hasidic households from the U.S. to Israel, Schmeltzer's catalogue is widely played at Orthodox weddings, from the most conservative to the most modern. His music videos have hundreds of thousands of hits, his songs have millions of downloads. He is perhaps the only celebrity who transcends the many divisions of the Orthodox and Hasidic communities.
And yet, since the beginning of his career, Schmeltzer, now 36, has been dogged by opposition, his name virtually synonymous with controversy.
Schmeltzer hails from one of the most stringent Hasidic sects, the Skver sect. He was raised in New Square, a Hasidic enclave in Rockland County with a population of 7,000 predominantly Skverer Hasids, where the powerful Skverer Rebbe reigns supreme, and where the most stringent opposition to Schmeltzer's music took root.
The eleventh of twelve children, Schmeltzer had a troubled childhood. He was abused by his teachers, emotionally and physically. "I got nicknames, and smacked up every week," he recalled when we met on the Columbia campus, where Schmeltzer is now a student.
"When it was time to get married, it was an arranged marriage, took twenty minutes to meet my wife," he explained. "I had no idea what marriage was all about. All I wanted was a car, and you couldn't drive if you weren't married. And I wanted to have a shtreimel," the round fur hat Hasidic men wear on Sabbath and holidays, also the purview of married men.
His early influences were Jewish singers, but after getting married at age 20, Schmeltzer worked as a delivery man for a meat and fish store. It was driving around making deliveries in a smelly little truck, hoping for a dollar tip here and there to make the rent, that the singer first heard "Hero" by Enrique Iglesias, and "I Need to Know" by Marc Anthony. Schmeltzer soon found himself devouring other other pop standards—Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, Britney Spears.
"I couldn't live without music," he told me. "And I wanted to upgrade Jewish music."
When he began to sing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, Schmeltzer's talent was obvious, and yet he was met with derision from within the Skver community; his music was too different, too new, too challenging. Though his songs were in Hebrew and Yiddish, mostly with words culled from religious texts, people called him "this new talent who sings like a goy," Schmeltzer recalled ruefully.
Two weeks after the release of his third CD in 2001, Schmeltzer says the rabbinical court called him in for a hearing and told him there was too much "disco beat" for their conservative tastes. He was forced by powerful community members to place an ad in one of the Hasidic papers apologizing for the CD, which had taken him five years and all of his savings to produce. The album's title—"Gam Zu LeTovah," or "This is also for the best"—now seemed painfully ironic.
"They felt that I am bringing them shame," Schmeltzer explained. And he believed them. He was plagued with feelings of guilt about the talent he couldn't deny or reign in. In hindsight, Schmeltzer says, "I had guilt about things I should have pride about."
The rabbinical court also made Schmeltzer promise that his future records would be more conservative, and for a while, Schmeltzer complied with their demands. It was a losing battle. As Schmeltzer put it, "my art bust forth" and with it, further bans. A network of "activists" went from school to school, pressuring principals to ban his music. Signs went up around the neighborhood depicting Schmeltzer's face with a line drawn through it; his sister spent days tearing them down. Schmeltzer choked up when describing the shame that his father—a Holocaust survivor and great adherent of the Skverer Rebbe—felt during this time.
"He never kissed me," Schmeltzer said. "He said, 'By the Hasidim, we don't kiss,' but now I know it was because he lost his father, it was very hard for him to connect. And he did show me love. His love was to daven [pray] for me."
Schmeltzer faced so much harassment in New Square that he finally left, moving his family to neighboring Airmont. He started a new Synagogue built on his own property, the "Airmont Shul," a place where all are welcome (even secular Jews, and even women, as I found out during a visit) and where regulars are greeted with a plastic cup of wine with which to greet the Sabbath
But the controversy surrounding Schmeltzer only ballooned: Children whose parents attended his Synagogue were not welcome in Monsey schools. More edicts came out against him in the Orthodox and Hasidic papers, no one was willing to stand up to the powerful rabbis that opposed him.
Eventually his life became dogged by people like Avraham Schorr, a Borough Park rabbi who seemed intent on his destruction. In 2008, when Schmeltzer was supposed to sing at a concert called "The Big Event" at Madison Square Garden, 33 leading rabbis, with Schorr at the helm, signed an ad in a popular newspaper banning their followers from attending the concert. They claimed that Schmeltzer's unique brand of music would lead to "ribaldry and debauchery," despite the organizers' promise to provide separate entrances for men and women. The concert was cancelled, prompting an estimated $700,000 in losses.
On another occasion, Schorr went as far as grabbing a microphone from the singer's hands at a wedding where Schmeltzer was a guest. (Neither Schorr nor the Skverer Rebbe returned requests for comment.)
The controversy took a heavy psychological toll, leaving a deep void and an urgent need for validation, which Schmeltzer wears nakedly to this day. The only person he spoke of with envy was another singer from the less extremist Chabad sect, Avraham Fried, who had the blessing of his sect's leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to pursue music in the name of God.
Throughout all this, Schmeltzer maintained a level of support among Hasidim but also among more modern Orthodox Jews (he encountered a group of dedicated fans in Columbia's Hillel). Still, he suffered financially from attempts to end his career. Where he used to perform at a hundred bar mitzvahs and weddings a year, he was now down to five. Clients would call and apologize; their son's principal had said that Schmeltzer's music was verboten.
Things got so bad that Schmeltzer worried about whether he had a future in the music industry, and if not, how he would support his family. One day, while driving in Monsey, he passed Rockland Community College, and decided he needed a back-up plan. He enrolled, eventually graduating with an Associates degree and winning the Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence.
Now getting his bachelor's degree at Columbia, Schmeltzer wants to major in something that combines creativity with counseling, like drama therapy. He also supplements his income from gigs and CDs by doing marketing and musical performances for the sick and elderly.
A short, intense man with seemingly boundless energy who invents his own expressions in his musical, Yiddish-accented English ("You can't plant cucumbers and expect strawberries to grow"), Schmeltzer is now the father of four. His wife Miriam, one of his biggest fans, comes to most of his concerts with his children, who sing along to the songs. When Schmeltzer took the stage in the prayer shawl in December, his son asked his mother who the figure was. "Who could that possibly be?" she replied with a wry smile.
How to explain the rabid opposition to this wholesome, campy character who sings songs about being less judgmental, praying to God for help being a better person, and spending less time on your cellphone ("Instead of searching Google, I'm busy making Kugel")? What could possibly account for sentiments so rabid that, as a Hasidic friend who lives in Monsey put it, "If they would find you in a Church, they wouldn't be as upset as if they found you in the Airmont Shul"?
"Self-expression is very suppressed in that community," says Chaim Einhorn, a congregant of the Airmont Shul who hails from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. "So when Lipa does his music like he wants and it's about self-expression, not what the Rebbe wants, it's very threatening." The rabbis like older music, Einhorn explained, and they don't understand the desire young people have for new kinds of music, and because they have the power to do so, they enforce their tastes.
"It's the way he sings, the way he dances," another Hasidic friend who lives in Williamsburg explained. "It's kind of goyish. The way he is changing his glasses, he's going and coming. It's outside the box. But he is sincere. And that is what is bothering the establishment."
And because he stays within the religious world, Lipa Schmeltzer is more of a threat to the Hasidic way of life than those who up and leave the faith.
"It's like a bone that you can't swallow and you can't spit out," he told me, standing in his living room under a painting someone had given him depicting three great rabbinic authorities sitting in a dark room and Schmeltzer standing on a balcony in the sun wearing a bright blue coat. "I'm that bone."
Very recently, Schmeltzer has gone from controversial singer to iconoclast, a man on a mission. In a radical break from his previous reticence to speak openly about flaws in his community, Schmeltzer has started to vocally criticize the fundamentalism of the Hasidic community. His critique comes not just as one who was once part of the community, but from someone who remains part of the Orthodox community and wishes to influence it.
He laments what he sees as the crisis of leadership in the Hasidic community, engendered by rabbinic dynasties that flow from parents to children, making it impossible to ensure that the best person for the job is the one who gets it. "And if you know anything about sociology," Schmeltzer went on, his college education sneaking out, "the social cultural upbringing plays a major factor on the behavior. I was brought up that the Rebbe is next to God. If the Rebbe said eating banana is healthy for the brain, I blindly believe him. I don't even investigate, maybe he never looked into nutrition and he doesn't know."
Schmeltzer also objects to the rigorous gender segregation. "I always tell these activists who are very strong against ladies and make segregations, that it's their problem," he said. "Their problem is they should go for therapy. I tell people, you know who you need to protest? Protest God. God created beautiful people that make you crazy."
He says that ultra-Orthodox Judaism is full of fanatics who are power hungry and who use religious zealousness as a form of control. "The desire for control is a disease, it's not Judaism," Schmeltzer insisted. "It took me years to realize I didn't need anybody's approval, only to listen to my inner voice," he said. "No other human being knows better than me what I should be." He explained this thought with a Lipa-ism: "They want to put everyone in a painting. How about I should be a new painting, not for people to follow, 'I'm going to follow this painting,' but rather, a painting to say, don't follow a painting."
Schmeltzer now sees his talent as a stepping-stone towards something bigger, though he's not yet sure to what. "What makes somebody into a leader, if not the feeling and the power that [God] is giving him?" He said. "What do you think, in our century, you have a prophet coming down, and tell, I want you to be a leader? It's the willingness," he said, which he says he has plenty of himself.
A recent Schmeltzer song exhorts people not to judge others by external signifiers of piety, such as the length of one's beard, but rather by what's inside ("Jew, Jew, where's your beard? Beard, beard, where's your Jew?" goes one chorus, in Yiddish). "I'm really proud of him," his fourteen-year-old daughter ZC told me at the concert in Queens. "In his new songs, you see who he really is."
Walking down the street with Schmeltzer in Borough Park, you wouldn't know he'd ever been condemned by powerful religious authorities. Children's eyes went wide at the sight of him, and adults routinely stopped to thank him for his music, and to tell him how he'd changed their lives.
In a café where the owner wouldn't take Schmeltzer's money (he was a fan), three Hasidic boys in matching outfits shuffled over at the behest of their father to shake the famous singer's hand with a mixture of shyness and delight. Schmeltzer seemed to take the attention seriously, and after greeting the boys, he went quiet for a while. When I asked him what he was thinking about, he said, "You can't buy this feeling with any amount of money."
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