If at First You Don't Succeed... Hasidic Singer, Subject of Rabbinic Ban, Tries Again

By Lana Gersten

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.
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Hasidic singing sensation Lipa Schmeltzer was set to perform last March before a crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater in New York. The concert, a charity fundraiser, was billed as “The Big Event.”

ALL HE WANTS TO DO IS SING: Lipa Schmeltzer is preparing once again for a charity fundraiser at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater.
ALL HE WANTS TO DO IS SING: Lipa Schmeltzer is preparing once again for a charity fundraiser at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater.

Then, less than three weeks before the concert date, 33 ultra-Orthodox rabbis — including some of the community’s most prominent figures — issued an edict banning attendance. The event, they warned, was likely to cause “ribaldry and lightheadedness.”

Deferring to the rabbis, organizers promptly canceled the concert. The ban, however, roiled the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, world, sparking an unusual public outcry in a community known for its scrupulous obedience to rabbinic authority.

“Last year was going to be a big event,” said Sheya Mendlowitz, the producer behind the concert. “It really did turn out to be a big event, but not the one that I intended.”

This year, Schmeltzer is once again set to perform before a crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater. The March 1 concert, again a charity fundraiser, is being billed simply as “The Event.”

This time around though, there have been no edicts or rabbinic outcries. Concert organizers are pulling out all the stops and express optimism that “The Event” will go off without a hitch.

“We’ve had responses from all over the world,” said Mendlowitz. “We have people flying in from England. There’s going to be I don’t know how large a contingent that will be coming in from Israel — let’s hope. Because it was so publicized last year, people are looking forward to it.”

Like last year’s aborted concert, the bill for “The Event” features a number of musical performers popular in the Haredi community. But it is Schmeltzer, the headliner, who is the biggest draw. Known for his outlandish outfits and comical YouTube videos, the 30-year-old Skverer Hasid is a regular at bar mitzvahs, weddings, community events and fundraisers. Schmeltzer’s burgeoning popularity extends across many segments of the fractious Haredi world.

The acclaim, however, is not universal. Some critics view Schmeltzer’s pop-star status, the incorporation of contemporary musical influences and large-scale concerts as threats to the community’s traditional values. Still, the last-minute ban on “The Big Event” took both Schmeltzer’s fans and concert organizers by surprise.

Many in the community were angered by the ban. Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the Hasidic stronghold of Boro Park, told The New York Times, “In all my 26 years of representing this community, I can’t remember anything that has so shaken the people.” On blogs frequented by Haredi Jews, there were complaints that the organizers and the charity the concert was supposed to benefit had lost money. Some suggested that some of the rabbis who signed the ban may have been misled as to the nature of the event — which, like this year’s concert, was organized with communal norms in mind and was to have separate seating for men and women.

“Everyone felt that there was not enough due diligence on the part of the rabbis when adding their signature to this ban,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, a Brooklyn public relations firm that works within the Haredi community. “The outrage was not directed towards the rabbis, it was directed towards the individuals who approached the rabbis in an unscrupulous manner and presented to them false information about the concert.”

According to Friedlander, “The vast majority of rabbis understand and recognize that everyone needs an outlet, and Lipa Schmeltzer, as unconventional as he is, does convey a message of spiritual values that, although transmitted in a very modern and secular fashion, still can have a positive impact.”

Organizers of “The Event,” which was publicly announced last month, began planning it shortly after the cancellation of last year’s concert. This time, given the lack of controversy so far, observers say that they doubt the rabbis are going to issue another ban.

“I think they’re not going to repeat the same mistake,” said Yossi Weissberg, a Brooklyn Hasid who writes reviews about the Haredi music scene. “Last time there was a big backlash. I don’t think they’ll do it again.”

Still, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s controversy, Mendlowitz said that he and Schmeltzer have consulted with some of the rabbis who signed onto the edict, and have received their blessing for “The Event.”

Contacted by the Forward, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia — a revered ultra-Orthodox religious authority and one of the ban’s signatories — said that the rabbinic response to last year’s “Big Event” should have been handled differently. “I regret the way it was done,” he said.

Kamenetsky, though not a fan of Schmeltzer’s schtick — he is “too much of an actor” — said that he nevertheless decided to give his blessing to the upcoming concert: “He came for a bracha, I gave him bracha.”

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