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The show was unprecedented and is only the start of something bigger to come. With his contemporary spin on Jewish music and copious amounts of personal references to struggles faced by many expats like himself, Schmeltzer has consistently pushed the envelope, challenging his Hasidic aficionados to re-examine their beliefs in the system and resistance to change. His recent album, “Dus Pintele — The Hidden Spark,” boasts 13 tracks: a mash-up of traditional Hebrew, Yiddish and English songs with a unique Schmeltzer twist. Two Yiddish songs in particular sparked tremendous controversy, causing some to revile him as an apikoros, or nonbeliever.
I interviewed Schmeltzer a few days after the show. I asked him about his inspirations, his take on the show’s success, his controversial new album and what he has in store next. He revealed his ambition for the future of theater: to bring back Jewish theater in all its European, pre-Holocaust greatness. If anyone is capable of doing that, of merging the professional Yiddish theater of yore and modern Jewish life, it’s Lipa Schmeltzer.
Frimet Goldberger: How did “Lipa on Broadway” come about?
Lipa Schmeltzer: I’m approaching 15 years that I am in the business. Looking back in the past 15 years, I think I went through what others don’t go through in a lifetime. I figured I have to do something drastic.
What I originally did was, I went to someone who already wrote scripts, and recorded three hours of my ideas on tape. He took it over. Then he got busy and dropped it, so I took it over and worked on it and reworked it. Basically I worked myself on the show. Of course, I had a director and everything. But mainly because of budgeting, I did it myself.
Also, theater is my major at Rockland Community College. I didn’t hire professional Manhattan-based actors, because they would not be as invested in it as my theater classmates who know me well and who I knew would pour their hearts into the performance. They’re treating me like family. The positivity in the room was unbelievable. This wasn’t just a show; it was to validate all my pain and everything I ever went through.
What inspired the two very different characters in the show — the rabbi and the therapist?
I have a shul, and people often ask, “What are you, a rabbi?” The other thing is that I went through a lot and relied on therapy. I also went through a lot with rabbis. So I wanted to be that rabbi; I wanted people to… see the perspective of both.
Speaking of the rabbi, your character in the show made a mockery of Hasidic rabbis and their peculiar dress and behavior. Was that intentional?
Listen, it’s no secret that, um — I am stuttering when I say this, but the truth is that I played it, I should be able to say it — that there is a lot of games [by rabbis]. I think it’s a little unfair that when a rabbi dies, his children become rabbis. A rabbi should be something you learn and work hard for. Unfortunately, those who work hard and get ordained don’t always get the pride and respect. Those who get the pride and the fancy Cadillacs are the rabbi’s sons. It’s okay for a son to take over real estate, but when you are a religious authority… I believe it’s completely bogus.
The diamonds on the shtreimel [the Hasidic fur hat] represented what [the rabbis] have: the kingdom and the silver plates and everything.
Which would you say you identify with more, the rabbi or therapist?
Of course the therapist. The rabbi was only to play off that the guys who come to a therapist have this other life. But through the therapist, they get to discover their real selves. Yes, I am pushing the boundaries, but I also have to maintain certain boundaries. Like in the original script that I wrote, the rabbi asked one of his Hasidim, Mo, “What do you need most?” and he answered, “Love.” But when we practiced it, the word “love” didn’t come out right. In this context, I was afraid it would be misinterpreted by some Hasidim, because growing up it was not a term that we used. So instead Mo responded that what he needs most is validation and acceptance.
Also, the dancers. I had a costume designer and she got the dancers black pants. And they were way too tight. And I thought, “What’s the big deal?” but then I realized that Hasidim will be offended, so I had them put on big tzitzis. All these little details — I have to be so careful of them.