Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lipa Schmeltzer: 'Hasidic Lady Gaga;' the 'Jewish Elvis' 

Lipa Schmeltzer says he has one foot in the Orthodox Jewish world and one in the secular.

The Hasidic pop star plays events around the world, is fluent in English, studies visual arts and creative writing at Columbia University and has friends of many races, genders and religions.

He also dons a yarmulke and the side-locks typical of his Hasidic brethren. He has four children with his wife, with whom he was matched years ago in an arranged marriage. He leads weekly prayer services in Hebrew in the Airmont Shul, a synagogue attached to his house where all are welcome and most are fellow Hasidim also seeking to straddle two worlds.

At 38, his self-determination was hard-won.

Schmeltzer is from New Square, a Hasidic village of 7,500 in Rockland County presided over by the powerful Skverer rebbe. He is the 11th of 12 siblings, born to a postal worker father who wanted him to be a Torah scholar. An undiagnosed learning disability hampered the energetic and day-dreaming young boy.

"It's a normal thing today, but then they didn't know about it. I was nicknamed and beaten by teachers," he said. "They said that nothing would grow out of me."

Married by age 20 and educated in New Square yeshivas, which teach minimal English and almost no secular studies like math and science, he worked as a delivery man for a kosher meat and fish store. The low-wage job became an unlikely entree into a new world. Radios, televisions and Internet connections are banned in New Square.

But, in his delivery truck, he heard his first pop song: "I Need to Know" by Marc Anthony. He quickly became enthralled by the sounds of Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and others.

Untrained but with an undeniable natural talent, Schmeltzer began performing his upbeat music at bar mitzvahs and weddings. With his Yiddish, Hebrew and English tunes quoting scripture and encouraging listeners to turn to God, he built a following throughout the Orthodox world. He began recording CDs. (He now has 17.) The New York Daily News has called the flamboyant performer the "Jewish Elvis," others have dubbed him "the Lady Gaga of Hasidic music."

But Skverer religious authorities rejected his melodies as too different, too modern. He was reprimanded by the rabbinical court and forced to place an ad in a Hasidic newspaper apologizing for his music. He was made to promise that his future recordings would be more conservative.

Schmeltzer tried to comply, but his natural creative instincts prevailed. He continued on with self-styled music.

Finally he moved his family to nearby Airmont in 2007. 

"I couldn't bear the harassment," he said. "I told my wife we had to move out."

Still, threats and edicts against him intensified.

As he was set to perform at a charity concert at Madison Square Garden in 2008, 33 leading rabbis denounced him in a popular Jewish newspaper. Schmeltzer reluctantly withdrew and the event was canceled, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. Though he had a thriving career, the bans scared clients away in droves and eventually left him worried about how he would support his family.

One day, he drove past Rockland Community College in Suffern and the idea blossomed to pursue an education as a back-up career plan. Schmeltzer took BOCES classes to earn his high school diploma and then moved on to college coursework. He persuaded his wife to attend RCC as well for a time.

He eventually graduated with an associate's degree and won the Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence, along with his new friend and fellow New Square native Mendel Taub.

"I developed a love for education, regardless of my career," he said.

Now studying for his bachelor's degree at Columbia, he is in full creative bloom, writing poetry, shooting photographs, drawing, composing and singing — much of it for credit or compensation. He still performs (in April he did a show with Jay Leno) and, to provide informal art therapy, sings for and writes poetry with the sick and elderly.

"My kids will go to college," he said. "But I still feel guilty because it's engraved in my brain."

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