The first haredi pop star

Lipa Schmeltzer's music draws both fans and controversy.

By MICHAL LANDO
July 3, 2008 08:38
The first haredi pop star

Lipa Schmeltzer 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy )

There is more than one way to serve God, the popular but controversial haredi singer Lipa Schmeltzer aims to tell his audience on his new album, A Poshiter Yid, or "a simple Jew." One of those ways is music. Given that this is his first album to appear since a group of 33 prominent rabbis pressured Schmeltzer to cancel what would have been the biggest concert of his musical career and challenged him to reform his ways, that message is more radical than might first appear. The March cancellation of "The Big Event" just days before Schmeltzer was scheduled to appear in the 5,000-seat Madison Square Garden caused an uproar among Orthodox Jews, who battled it out on Internet blogs, radio shows and religious publications for weeks on end. Months later, producer Sheya Mendlowitz is still waiting to be reimbursed for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he claims he is owed. He and the rabbis are in negotiations over who should cover the costs. But judging by the success of his new album, and by its brazen message, Schmeltzer seems to have emerged relatively unscathed. Rarely does a night go by when he is not on stage; his performances at local weddings are in high demand and songs from his new album are already making the rounds at local simcha halls. Released a few months after the ban, this album is the singer's subtle retort to critics who have tried to undermine him by calling his music "treif" and a threat to Yiddishkeit. "Whatever you are, you can be a simple Jew," Schmeltzer explained in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "The world is changing, but you still want me to be the same," Schmeltzer sings in the title song. In another, he challenges people to resist social pressures and think for themselves. These and other lines on the album offer subtle critiques of the closed haredi world that has made Schmeltzer's musical career far from simple. "I say the truth because we have to be honest with God," Schmeltzer said. IN THE past few years, Schmeltzer's albums have gained tremendous popularity within the Orthodox world - due in part to his innovations in fusing traditional hassidic music with contemporary music styles. But for that same reason, his music has also been criticized and rejected by more conservative elements in the community. Some say he relies too much on the outside world for inspiration; others suggest his music pokes fun at haredi life. More than anything, critics of his music are responding to the mere fact that Schmeltzer has become the first haredi pop star, something unheard of in a world where entertainment for its own sake is eyed suspiciously. The popularity he has earned is typically reserved for rabbis, and some think that's where it should remain. "Most of the time, the critics can't even say what they don't like about my music," Schmeltzer said. "When someone doesn't like it, they say it's not Jewish - but there is no such thing." People are afraid of anything new, and yet their lives are full of new things, Schmeltzer notes. "One wants a new car, another wants new music; what's the difference?" asked Schmeltzer. "Some rabbis today don't know the reality of what's going on with the youth. "People have access to everything, and you have to give them kosher entertainment. Once it was thought that music interfered with studying, but it provides some fresh air." "Everything in the secular world, if it's not a real sin halachically, will eventually come in. It might not reach every house, but it will come." The Internet, Schmeltzer said, was proof. "People say don't use the Internet, but everyone has Internet." Borrowing from the secular world should not in itself be a taboo, the singer said. "Everything God created - you can make good and bad out of it... Everyone interprets what's good or bad, for some it's their rabbi, for others it's their therapist." The ban on "The Big Event" was signed by 33 rabbis, haredi and non-haredi alike. It was the most significant ban of its kind and brought together rabbis who otherwise wouldn't be caught at the same table. But Schmeltzer is not new to controversy. These attacks have been trying the singer and his family for years. "Sometimes people don't realize I have a whole family who are affected by it," said Schmeltzer. After one such ban, he remembers returning home to hear his father crying on his answering machine. "When I was young, I felt I had done something bad and I fought with myself," said Schmeltzer, who grew up without any formal music education (his father was afraid it would interfere with his studies). But since then, Schmeltzer has come to realize that singing is not a choice. "Music is my life," he said. "I saw that I couldn't stop myself despite all the pressure. It doesn't matter what it takes, this is what I do." Though some fans tell him he made a mistake by backing out of the Big Event, Schmeltzer said he had no choice. "I have a mortgage to pay." MEANWHILE, BUOYED by an outpouring of public support, Schmeltzer appears to have emerged unfazed. "It has only made me stronger." In less than two weeks, his new album sold close to 20,000 copies, far more than his previous album did in the same period, according to the singer. In the world of haredi music, a successful album rarely sells more than 40,000, which Schmeltzer hopes to top over the next few months. This is all despite the fact that he is barred from advertising in any of the six main haredi newspapers. Instead, Schmeltzer relies on alternative advertising, such as blogs and YouTube. A message from the publisher of "Country Yossi," an on-line magazine, encourages families who are retreating to the Catskills for the summer to pack Schmeltzer's new album. "Don't forget to pop Lipa's record-breaking, #1 best-selling album Ah Poshite Yid into your car's CD player! Then turn up the volume, rev up the engine, and leave Borough Park behind in the dust." A year ago, the singer said he would have been afraid to include a song in English, but recent months have only served to make him more steadfast. The latest events "took Lipa Schmeltzer to a different level," he said of himself. And while he was made to swear off rap-like riffs, nothing else about his music has changed. "My style, I am going to continue to do," said Schmeltzer. "If I sell music from 20 years ago, why should people bother listening? Some people want to fix a car today with technicians from 200 years ago." Schmeltzer is committed to keeping his music new and fresh to suit the needs of his audience. And judging by the title song, it appears that the singer thinks God understands him. Like a baby whose "mother understands very well what the child wants, so I talk openly to my father in heaven and believe he understands what I want," Schmeltzer sings. Music, Schmeltzer claims, is just another way of serving God. "The more you can do good, saving people, the better," he said. "We are a tiny percentage of the Jewish people, sesame seeds. Instead of pushing people away, we have to make Judaism look beautiful."


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