By Peter Duffy
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th-century founder of modern Hasidism, was once asked why his followers worshipped in an ecstatic style full of singing and dancing. He responded by telling a parable about a street-corner fiddler who played with such skill that everyone who heard him began to jig. A deaf man, unable to hear the beautiful sounds, walked by and wondered if the world had gone mad. “Why are they jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in the middle of the street?” he asked.
“My disciples are moved by the melody that issues forth from each and every thing that God, blessed be He, has created,” said the Baal Shem Tov, as the rabbi was known. “If so, how can they keep from dancing?”
Just such an exultant spirit infuses the performances of Lipa Schmeltzer, a wildly popular Hasidic performer who will be headlining a concert at the WaMu Theater of Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday. Mr. Schmeltzer, who is 30, grew up in New Square, a village in Rockland County, N.Y., founded in the 1950s by the strict Skverer Hasidic movement. He was born into a culture that required its young to devote long hours to intensive study. Young Lipa wasn’t cut out for it. Even the deaf man could have sensed that.
“I always liked to hum in the class and knock on the table and do some songs,” he tells me in his Yiddish-inflected English. “I couldn’t concentrate on Torah. It brought me a lot of pain from kids who didn’t understand how I am. Sometimes I got smacked. I had nicknames.” One of the nicer ones was “baal ha-chalomot,” or “big dreamer,” a pejorative used to describe Joseph in the Book of Genesis (37:18-20).
It was only after his marriage at age 20 — to a woman he had known for 20 minutes — that Mr. Schmeltzer found an outlet, performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs in the ultra-Orthodox communities of upstate New York and Brooklyn. He earned a reputation as a natural performer, as gifted with comedic routines as with devotional songs.
“I was at a celebration in Brooklyn, and he got up to sing,” says Sheya Mendlowitz, a manager, producer and promoter who is the Sam Phillips of the Jewish music scene. “I felt that he had something that was unique. It was very raw. But he has an incredible ear. And his mind is so fast — it’s lucky you don’t get pulled over for talking that fast.”
Mr. Schmeltzer began producing videos and releasing CDs, singing in Yiddish with the occasional Hebrew or English phrase. “I know what to do with a lot of traditional stuff,” he says in describing his music. “But I am also very up to date.” During a 2005 concert at Brooklyn College, released on DVD as “The Lipa Experience,” he performed hard-driving rock tunes, jazzy shuffles, pseudo-rap numbers, solemn prayers, rollicking klezmer dances and jokey skits, accompanied by a nine-piece band and a troupe of actors.
“I try to bring out positive messages in every song,” he says. “I wrote a song about money — Gelt. In the secular world if you write a song about money, it’s [just] a nice song about money. But what I am trying to bring out is that money can become pure if you do the right thing with it, if you are helping people, if you are giving to charity.”
Mr. Schmeltzer’s popularity spread throughout frum (the Yiddish word for pious) communities in the U.S., Europe and Israel, particularly after the song “Gelt” was released in 2004. “He comes from a very restricted, very Hasidic background, and everybody in the community sees him as the kid next door,” says Paul Sherman, a Brooklyn internist who follows his career. “They have that need for a release, and he allows them to let loose a little bit.”
The proprietor of a fan site, unbeLIPAble.blogspot.com, who would tell me only that he is a Brooklynite in his 20s, describes his first encounter with Mr. Schmeltzer in almost mystical terms. Mr. Schmeltzer was performing at a wedding, “jumping around and shaking full of energy that I don’t think I had ever seen before,” the fan wrote in an email. “Ever since then, I have realized how really special Lipa is, how his siyata dshmya [help from heaven] shines forth in brilliance.”
Even though Mr. Schmeltzer is loath to violate the strictest of standards — his concerts have separate seating for men and women — he has struggled against forces who see his bouncy pop tunes as carriers of impurity from the outside world. In March 2008, 33 rabbis signed a full-page ad in the ultra-Orthodox Hamodia newspaper condemning a concert he was to headline at the WaMu Theater, claiming that it would “strip the youth of every shred of fear of heaven.” The ban represented “another skirmish in the ongoing culture war,” between those who wish to embrace aspects of wider society and those who fear its corrupting influence, says Dr. Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor who has written widely on ultra-Orthodox Jewry. In the ensuing uproar, Mr. Schmeltzer backed out of the show, causing its cancellation.
But the controversy only enhanced his popularity. In the months after the ban, he released an album, “A Poshiter Yid” (A Simple Jew), with a title song that could serve as a Yiddish version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” The chorus concludes, “I am still not a Tzadik (a righteous one), still I don’t get tired/I am still not allowed to give up, I am a simple Jew.” In the meantime he quietly met with several of the rabbis, seeking their blessing for another try at the WaMu Theater. After all, he says, “You can’t fight City Hall.”
“The Event,” as the March 1 show has been dubbed, is being heavily promoted in New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods. A huge billboard of Lipa smiles upon Avenue J in Brooklyn. “I would doubt very strongly that there would be a ban this year,” said Zev Brenner, a popular radio host who says that he has been told that several rabbis acted last year before “they had all the facts in front of them.” One of the rabbis, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, told the Jewish Star newspaper that he now had no problem with Mr. Schmeltzer: “As far as I know he is an ehrliche Yid [a truly devout Jew].”
In some ways, another condemnation might be more harmful to the rabbis than to Mr. Schmeltzer. To an outsider, it is striking how popular he is in the community. Within seconds of hitting the sidewalk on 13th Avenue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, on a recent evening, he was approached by a man holding a small child. The 40-something Hasid, with sidelocks dangling underneath his black hat, gestured toward the singer and spoke to the boy in Yiddish. Later, Mr. Schmeltzer translated the words. “He says, ‘You wouldn’t believe who this is. Should I tell you who this is? This is Lipa Schmeltzer himself.'”
“You saw that?” said Mr. Schmeltzer. “So that’s how it is.”
Mr. Duffy is the author of “The Bielski Brothers” (2003) and “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” (2007), both available in paperback from HarperCollins.