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What inspired the most controversial Yiddish song — the beard song — in which you essentially ask why the exterior is more important than what is inside?
It’s very simple: I didn’t used to touch [that is, trim] my beard, and I was a different character and person, inside and outside. Today I still have the whole [Hasidic] look, I just make it a little nice — the way I’m comfortable. I trim it before the weekend, and I like it.
In the judgmental world we live in, it’s like: “Did you hear? Lipa is touching his beard!” and they think I will become a secular Jew because of that.
When something like this bothers me, I create a song. Let all critics know that if they want to criticize me, they will hear it in a song. That’s how I communicate my feelings.
The [late] Satmar rebbe wanted everybody to go with a beard, yet he made a point that if someone made fun of others who don’t grow a beard, he once said “Maybe he’ll come up in heaven and they’ll ask, ‘Jew, where’s your beard?’ and he’ll come up in heaven and they’ll ask, ‘Beard, where’s your Jew?’”
And I don’t have to tell you that we know people who have long beards and they have no Jewishness in them. Yes, of course, there are good Hasidim with beards. We can’t stigmatize. But unfortunately, in the world, it is stigmatized. They see a Hasid, they put it all in one basket. Which bothers me. I am in college and I want to make a point that I am not the typical guy you see in Monsey. Now they understand it, but when I will need to transfer, I’ll need to start over and prove that I am not your average Hasid. Unfortunately, we’ve had people make a name for us.
I’m taking improv classes, and to talk very clear, we have to talk tongue twister, so I made up this song, “Yid Yid vi den bord, bord bord vi den Yid, bord vi den Yid den bord, vi den Yid vi den bord, Yid” — “Jew, Jew, where’s your beard? Beard, beard, where’s your Jew? Beard where is your Jew? Your beard, where’s your Jew? Where’s your beard, Jew?”
People can write whatever they want in messages and blogs, but one song like this goes like fire. And people wake up to say, “Yes, the beard does not make the Jew.” It may be a beautiful thing if you choose to have it, but don’t judge others who don’t. If you look at pictures before the Holocaust, people were together, with or without a beard. Today it’s so stigmatized. Hasidic schools don’t accept children if the father touches [his] beard. And how many people would want to be different, but they’re afraid?
I was pushed so much that I am no longer afraid. What you see is what you get. I think the water will set itself, and if I’ll continue my faith and do the right thing… like I said in the play: “If you did the right thing, then no one can take anything away from you. Stick to what you believe is right.” And I wrote that play, but I need to hear it.
Do you feel an obligation to the people who, like yourself, are struggling with these stigmatizations and rejection?
Absolutely I do. But this is an interesting question, because some say that I have an obligation the other way around.
I have a song about the pintele Yid — the essence of a Jew — about being pure, about making people happy at a wedding; I have a song about redemption. I have so many good songs, but they like to focus on negativity. Oh, there were problems with the mics. You know, “Spiderman” [the Broadway show] had all the technical difficulties. So what? We’re human; we make mistakes.
There’s a famous joke that God one day told the Jews: “I need the Torah back. You guys are not doing it right.” So on Lee Avenue in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg there were trailers upon trailers of books to bring back to God. And God came down and said: “I don’t know what these are. Where is my little book of Ten Commandments?”
You know, we can’t forget that we need the Ten Commandments. Be good to your fellow human being.
Who are we to judge? Who said it’s the hat and the shtreimel that we wear? It’s all new, and it’s all part of an obsession. We’re copying to fit into a certain frame. Where is the real Jewishness, the real ahavas yisroel [love your fellow Jew], the real love for each other?
We’re all human beings, and my job is to bring entertainment, your job is as a banker and you’re a chef. That’s okay, we’re all different. But why judge?