It’s not every day that Town Hall, New York City’s fabled home to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and other legendary performers, gets to welcome a yarmulke-clad crowd of 1,500. And it is not every day that the yarmulke-clad crowd of 1,500 gets to see one of its own perform on a Broadway stage.
On the last Sunday of 2013, Lipa Schmeltzer, the famous and controversial Hasidic singer revered by many as the “Jewish Elvis” and the “Lady Gaga of Hasidic music” (talk about an oxymoron), took to the Broadway stage to celebrate 15 years of entertainment. The show was the first of its kind: a quasi-musical performed by Schmeltzer, an all-male cast of his theater classmates at Rockland Community College and a band conducted by the legendary Orthodox music conductor Ruvi Banet, as well as a five-man choir ensemble imported from Israel. It rightfully attracted a crowd from all over the Orthodox spectrum: From Satmar fans in traditional black and white who snuck out to attend a forbidden show, to Modern Orthodox Jews who, in their colorful attire, cannot get enough of Schmeltzer’s charisma, talent and Hasidic branding. The seating was mixed — one of the many reasons Hasidic rabbis have banned Schmeltzer’s concerts — and the audience uniformly jubilant.
The show was presented by Airmont Shul, the openly Orthodox, judgment-free synagogue that Schmeltzer built for families like my own, families who left their childhood Hasidic communities in search of a more tolerant environment. Even though I attend services only several times a year, mostly on the High Holy Days, I have come to know my neighbor Lipa Schmeltzer as a kindhearted, ambitious man. He appreciates his modest home and lifestyle as much as he loves the limelight, and he treats everyone crossing his path with dignity and respect.
I came as a neighbor, a friend and a fellow congregant. But I also came as an admirer of Schmeltzer’s perseverance and fearless pushing of boundaries. He has been bullied and shunned time and again, yet he prevails.
The show itself was not all it was cracked up to be. Aside from Schmeltzer’s beautiful singing, the cast was not very professional and was overly melodramatic, and the character development was difficult to follow. Schmeltzer alternated between a therapist in an ill-fitting silver shimmering suit and white fedora and the archetypal, if a bit farcical, Hasidic rabbi in all the glittery and furry regalia. Both characters were inspired by Schmeltzer himself — as a leader of his synagogue and as a man who talks freely about his struggles. The clients of the therapist were also disciples of the rabbi who expressed very different views in the therapists’ chair and in the synagogue — a play on the general dichotomy of Orthodox individuals who struggle with their identities. The clients, especially “Max the Dancer,” personified Schmeltzer and his lifetime challenges as a Hasidic entertainer.
Fans who came to see Schmeltzer got what they wanted: edgy music, the signature quirky costumes and a peek into the entertainer’s life. Behind me on the balcony sat an Orthodox family from Italy whose reverence for Schmeltzer was obvious to me despite the language barrier; and in front of me, I watched the peculiar animation of a group of frum, pious, teenage girls who applauded rapturously and squealed with delight when Schmeltzer came onto the stage, just the way secular teenagers would if Justin Bieber were performing.
For all the criticism Schmeltzer garners, and despite my own opinion that it would have served him better if he waited a few more years to take his talent to Broadway, his fearless trailblazing nevertheless deserves commendation. For an Orthodox man whose trademark Hasidic look attracts a largely ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic fan base to take on a Broadway stage — and to fill up all the seats — is quite extraordinary.
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.
The show’s motto was “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” What does that mean to you?
If I can say this in the open — I was the guy in the longer beard. I was the guy in the black suit. I am judged by everybody in the past year who says: “Lipa changed. He has a smaller beard; he has this and that.”
If you think the world is judgmental, the Jewish community, especially the more radical it becomes, is crazy judgmental.
But I realized that I came a long way. I undertake crazy risks; I do things others have not done. I took 23 credits in school, made a new album, went through all negativity with the two controversial songs and then this show.
The beautiful thing about this is that in two days I will sit in class with 18-year-olds and a professor who has no idea what I did in Town Hall. I am taking a winter session. And that’s the beautiful thing, that it doesn’t get to my head and I feel like I am one of them.
This was a first, for an Orthodox Jew to be on Broadway. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer?
The beauty of this is that I attracted people from Monroe [N.Y.], Lakewood [N.J.], Brooklyn… I had someone fly out from Toronto for his son’s birthday for this. I attracted people of all kinds. It’s the first time that I introduced it to this kind of community on such a level. To have a whole band onstage with dancers and do the real moves they do, you know, in Hollywood. I am pushing the envelope by discussing things people in these communities don’t generally discuss: going to therapy, the rabbis’ flaws, etc. But I am still keeping some boundaries, like no women on the show. Not that I believe God has a problem with that, but there’s a comfort zone and if I go out of that comfort zone, I am catering to a different audience.
In college they once brought down a Broadway producer and he heard me sing, and he said, “You know, you could really go out there.” It used to bother me that I could go out and make it in Hollywood. A., in a moment of honesty, I don’t know if I’d get to Hollywood; millions of talents don’t make it. B., I have a clientele of hundreds of young teenagers that are in a sort of jail — they don’t get the opportunity to get this entertainment. For many years they put me through a guilt trip for bringing that in, but that now turned into positive energy. Yes, I bring in entertainment. I need to cater to them and stay strong.
**So you want to push the boundaries, but you still want to remain in your comfort zone. Do you ever see yourself at a point where you can push it further and bring a woman onto the stage — perhaps not to dance, but to be a part of the scene? **
As of this moment, as I see myself, I don’t think I would do it. Between me and God, there may be ways around it.
What’s your takeaway form the show?
I want to bring into the community a lot of theater. I realized onstage the real power of theater. Lately I’m much more positive, but I still look at a negative letter here and there. Something changed in me. I woke up the next morning of the show, and people were sending me criticism on WhatsApp. Whenever I saw something negative, I signed off. Of course there are critics in the professional world. But for me to continue and to do the things I do, I need to focus on the positive.
Playing a therapist, I told “Max” to stop focusing on the negativity. So when I was sitting in front of 1,500 people saying that, I really internalized it.
I would like to talk a little about your new album, “Dus Pintele — The Hidden Spark.” Can you explain what it’s about?
My new album is a lot of cutting-edge new tracks and new messages. I cater to a lot of people who don’t understand Yiddish, and it can be contradicting. I have people often asking me, “Who do you cater to? If you talk Yiddish, you cater to a different audience. Why do you give the message you give? Focus to be a different Lipa than you are. And if you don’t want to do that, go all English and give different messages.”
The answer is, I do the kind of art I connect to. And the truth is that a lot of people speak Yiddish who are with the same mindset as me. And that’s the people I cater to. And that’s only thousands upon thousands of people, and that’s good enough. There are a lot of modern people who listen to me like people listen to Italian singers.
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?
What’s that one controversial line in the song “Dus Pintele Yid — The Essence of a Jew”? And can you translate it for us?
I am taking poetry classes, and I like to write like a poet. I love when my songs have several meanings. I like when people tell me the different things they understood from my song, because that’s a poem — it’s not flat. So I wrote the song (in Yiddish), and I said: “Have understanding for everybody, even if it’s not what you would like to see on that person. Because everybody gets heaven today. The fire of hell is out, because if dus pintele Yid, the essence of a Jew, is always present and burning, Hashem would write all of us into good places for who we are.”
All I said was if in 2014, in this fast-paced world, people’s Jewish essence is still burning, then [hell] is not burning.
The bottom line is, who says that we have to be afraid of [hell]? They say the difference between religious and spiritual people is that religious people are afraid of [hell] and spiritual people are coming from there.
We need to be Jewish and spiritual and do our duties for the love of god. If we do it out of fear, there’s no point. Judaism is a loving way of life, and it has to be a way in which we love what we do. And if we don’t, there’s no point in doing it.
If there’s no pintele Yid, then it’s all garbage. There are people who go around with the whole get-up and there’s nothing inside. Yes, there are good people, but unfortunately the noisemakers are the haters.
For the amount of aggravation and embarrassment I went through, for me to still be loyal to my Judaism, it means I have a pintele Yid and I have a right to say the [hell] fires are stoked. When I close my eyes and finish my duty here, I believe hell will not be burning.
I pray even for the negative people — that they should come to a place where they realize their pintele Yid and love everybody.
So what’s the overall message of this album?
The overall message is to look at the hidden spark of everybody and try to find the good in a person. Could you imagine King David being a Satmar rebbe today, saying, “I fell last night; I went into a place in Manhattan and committed sins”? They’ll fire him. We live in a different world. We want to talk about King David and take inspiration from him, but we’re not that. So we have to look at the inner spark of people and give them the credit they deserve.
Ultimately, people need validation, not to feel negative when they walk into a shul. I think my shul serves this purpose. I went into a shul once in Monsey before I had my own shul. Someone wanted me to lead part of the morning services, and one guy said, “A guy that 70 rabbonim signed against him, you’re giving him this honor?” I never stepped into that shul again. Now I get flak for allowing a guy who supposedly doesn’t observe Shabbos to get an aliyah. I don’t have to answer to anybody; it’s between me and God. I didn’t see if he observes Shabbos or not. I have to believe everybody what they say about others? I see a good Jew, wanting to come daven on Shabbos, I give him an aliyah.
Would it matter to you if you knew this guy is not observing?
I don’t want to go into that conversation. There are certain things I can say I believe and certain things I can’t. The reason why is because if the Halacha says clearly that if I see someone drive to shul, I can’t give him an aliya, I can’t come out and say “Hey, I disagree with Halacha.” But definitely, whatever loophole I can find to push the envelope, I will do it.
It has to be within a comfort zone, and it can’t go on and on. The bottom line is, there are a gazillion loopholes. The Halacha was written thousands of years ago.
The guy that I gave an aliyah was someone who finished close to a thousand blots of gemura [rabbinical commentary] then his father ended up a drug addict and went through a crazy, dirty divorce. And he comes to my shul. He doesn’t get paid for it; there was no Kiddush, no cheesecake. He came because he felt the need on the holiday to feel connected. So I have the opportunity to punch him in his face and tell him to get out. Or I have the opportunity to give him an aliyah. You know what, if they want to write and say bad things about me because of this, then so be it. I want to go to hell, if they believe in hell, I want to go there for giving an aliyah for this guy. Let this be my last problem.
Why do you brand yourself as a Hasidic superstar?
It’s not something I brand myself as. I was born and raised in New Square [N.Y.] and started to sing with zero education and just with God-given talent. Now I do see an advantage that people look at me that way, because I can make change in that community. If I’m not mistaken, the number of Jews in world is 14 million. How many are ultra-Orthodox — what, a million? To be just a secular superstar, maybe that wasn’t why I was sent down here. There is lots of good secular entertainment. Maybe I was sent to be specifically for the niche of the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox, where people are starving and need a cup of fresh water and this entertainment.
The bottom line is, the world is changing and we’re not going back. I don’t think I’ll wake up tomorrow and people will say we decided to give up cars and go back to horse and buggy, we decided to give up cell phones and go back to telegrams. It just doesn’t happen. Even rabbis with all comfortabilities from microwave to cars, they take it. But somehow, with entertainment, they get all, you know, because it’s a new thing. Before I came around there were singers, even good singers, but not the kind that they run after them for autographs. And they look at [the fame] and ask: “Who’s Lipa’s authority? Who does he ask what to do? He can’t just do it.”
I have an IQ, you know. I have God-given talent. I am not doing crazy things. I am pushing the envelope. I am an entertainer. I’d rather die having made 100 mistakes that I regret than doing anything at all. I’m experimenting; I’m a human being, and that’s okay. “Yeah, but you’re famous, you have a responsibility, you can’t make mistakes.” Yes, I’m famous, and therefore I have a responsibility to show everyone it is okay to make mistakes.
I think I have an advantage that I am giving this for people where it’s needed. People tell me I can be really big in the real world. I am in a place where I am needed. The secular world has plenty good entertainment, they don’t need Lipa. But people in this community do.
I am filling a gap to bring cutting-edge Jewish entertainment for the younger generation. And this is what I’m doing, and I think I’m doing a damn good job!
So what’s next?
I don’t know. The truth is, school is next. I need to hide myself and be a good student and get good grades again. Not that I have bad grades now, but I was very overwhelmed until now. I want to go back to doing weddings, little shows, but not to undertake so much pressure. Continue my education and not be under the limelight all the time. One day I can be Lipa on Broadway and the next day I can be in school. Do weddings, shows, go once a week to hospitals to cheer up the sick; be a good student, a good father to my children, a good husband to my wife, and a good leader to people of my shul. When I feel I have more energy to do something crazy, I’ll definitely come up with stuff.
This story has been edited for style and length.