Saturday, August 15, 2015

Meet the Hasidic Lady Gaga 

Traditional Hasidic Jewish music is typically mournful. The kvetchy tunes and OY reverberations are meant to awaken the Jewish soul, to inspire piety and spiritual yearning. Enter Lipa Schmeltzer, the Hasidic superstar whose music has earned him titles like “The Jewish Elvis Presley” and “The Hasidic Lady Gaga”

That last one has something to do with Lipa’s impressive collection of outlandish eyewear. In the realm of the ultra-Orthodox, he’s different, even revolutionary, and he embraces it.

Lipa has amassed a tremendous loyal following, but he has also been the subject of controversy and rabbinical bans ever since he popped onto the scene over a decade ago.

His music and concerts are routinely banned in many hardline Hasidic communities, and he has faced hostility at every step of the way.

Lipa grew up in New Square, a small, insular Hasidic enclave in upstate New York. This isolated village, less than 50 miles from Manhattan, is a relic of pre-Holocaust European shtetl life. There’s one road leading in and out of the densely populated village. Its suburban streets are exclusively inhabited by Hasidim of the Skverer sect. Their spiritual leader, or “Rebbe,” is revered and keeps a tight control over the village. Anyone who doesn’t follow his rules risks expulsion from the village; members loyal to the Rebbe have resorted to violence to keep nonconformists in line.

In New Square, boys and girls attend sex-segregated religious schools, typically marry at a young age through arranged marriages, and have an average of eight to ten children. There are no TVs and no access to the internet, or any outside influence that religious authorities deem a potential threat to impressionable minds.

The 11th child in a family of 12, Lipa showed great musical talent from a young age. Like all the boys from the community, he attended the village’s cheder, or boys’ school, where Yiddish is the primary language; English studies are almost non-existent. It’s limited to one hour of basic math and vocabulary in the afternoon. When they leave for yeshiva (essentially high school), many of the boys are illiterate in English. That was true for Lipa.

He admits he wasn’t a good student. He struggled to sit still for hours and read from the ancient Hebrew texts, and he often found himself on the receiving end of the rebbe’s (teachers) spanking stick. He was on the same course as the other boys — to study Talmud, get married and find a job that doesn’t require a good command of the English language, or a secular education.

But Lipa wanted something else. At first, he yearned to be a wedding singer at Hasidic weddings, conservative enough for the powers that be. But as his taste in music evolved, he ached to color outside the lines — to be creative and push the boundaries.

When Lipa got his first car as a married man, he started playing around with the radio dial, listening to tunes by musicians like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. He drew inspiration from their lyrics and beats, and created kosher versions of pop music.


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