Cancellation of 'Big Event' becomes a big event

Madison Square Garden concert would have been biggest haredi concert ever.

haredi audience (photo credit: )
haredi audience
(photo credit: )
It was going to be the biggest night of Lipa Shmeltzer's musical career. The venue was reserved months in advance, thousands of tickets were sold, and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been funneled into organizing what would have been the largest haredi music performance yet. The "Big Event," scheduled to take place on March 9 was to feature the popular haredi performer live at Madison Square Gardens singing hits from albums such as "Gam Zu Letovah" (This, too, is for the best) or the more recent "Lipa Baderech" (Lipa on the way). Shmeltzer's albums have gained tremendous popularity within the American Hasidic community due in part to his innovations in fusing traditional Hasidic music with contemporary music styles. But for that very 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. But above all haredim are fundamentally suspicious of entertainment for its own sake, because it goes against the very essence of what it means to be haredi. Rabbis were consulted, and preparations were made to ensure the event was "kosher." Attendees were guaranteed exclusively separate seating for men and women. And the intermission was nixed to avoid unwanted mingling between the sexes. But despite these precautions, just weeks before the event, two community leaders who oppose this kind of entertainment, Asher Friedman and Avraham Shor began circulating a petition to ban the event for "lightheartedness" and "immorality." In the end 33 rabbis stunned the public with an announcement, published Feb. 20 in the religious daily Hamodia, prohibiting the concert. The blogs and radio talk shows were hotbeds of discussion, as people weighed in on whether Shmeltzer and the producer Sheya Mendlowitz should cancel the show. The community was split. Some urged Shmeltzer to continue despite the ban. Many were hesitant to criticize the rabbis but questioned the timing of their announcement and the way the prohibition was handled. Vos Iz Neias (What's New?), a popular religious blog, held a readers poll earlier this week on whether Shmeltzer should pull out. "In today's GOYISHE world its better to have a concert like the BIG EVENT rather then a real GOYISHE concert RM"L. Don't you think so?" one person wrote on the site. Another wrote: "If people would taste even just once true spiritual pleasure they would not even entertain the thought of going to such a concert. In today's world every one is pursuing PLEASURE but the true rich pleasures of life are in a daf gemara." Late Saturday night Shmeltzer signed a pledge that he would not perform, and soon after the concert was officially cancelled. But the decision was not easy. Seventy five percent of the over 5000 tickets were sold, and the show was expected to sell out. "I was supposed to make more money from this than from any show I ever made in my life," Shmeltzer told the Hamodia. But "When 33 Rabbanim from different kehillos sign something, it means that Hashem is telling me, 'Lipa stop this concert; I don't want this concert." On a voicemail message on his cell phone Shmeltzer stresses that "Everything is bashert." Shmeltzer's response made him even more popular than before, and some went so far as to call him a hero for so quickly catering to the rabbis wishes. But the brouhaha has continued well into its second week. Many are wondering why the prohibition came at such short notice, and who is to be held responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars accrued in losses. Some suggest that the rabbis were dragged into signing the ban by Friedman and Shor, who petitioned them to sign the document without ever contacting the singer or the producers of the show to express their concerns. "In the end it narrowed down to two people that went and obtained signatures in a very slimy and shady way, two very dangerous people," said Mendlowtiz, the producer of the show, who has been involved in the haredi music scene for almost 30 years. "If he (Friedman) had a problem with it, he knew about it more than two months ago, he should have called us to discuss it like a mensch, not caused so much chaos and loss of funds." Mendlowitz says he is owed roughly $700,000. Initially Friedman offered to pay part of that sum, but under the condition that Mendlowitz sign off concerts forever. "Who's he to tell me not to do concerts, this is absolutely ridiculous," said Mendlowtiz. "They want to shut down the Jewish concert business, because they don't feel it's the proper place for their followers." Though listening to live concerts with instrumentation for pleasure's sake is technically prohibited in the last section of Hilchot Tisha Be'av, it has never been strictly followed and live performances happen on a weekly basis. Some say it is Shmeltzer's popularity, and the success of the Big Event that eventually sparked the harsh response. Popular singers are relatively new to the haredi world, and Shmeltzer has become a star in ways never before seen. The popularity he has earned is typically reserved for rabbis, and some think that's where it should remain. His popularity is also criticized because many of his fans are men and women who grew up haredi but have chosen to stray slightly from the hard-line approach. They may wear their beards a little shorter or keep their sidecurls hidden. Also at issue is the music itself, which sometimes borrows from non-Jewish sources, and has been perceived at time to poke fun of haredim. Following the ban Shmeltzer agreed to stop singing these songs. "In the end I think this kol korei (public announcement) gave me an opportunity to turn over a new leaf," Shmeltzer told Hamodia. It is his pious attitude, and the fact that Shmeltzer is himself haredi, that makes him more threatening than other less haredi singers who have come before. The fear is he is managing to legitimize music and entertainment many think should remain off-limits. "I see what I do-performing and helping Yidden besimcha-as a shelichus and I use my talents from Hashem to bring joy to people's lives," Shmeltzer explained in a recent interview with Hamodia. "Obviously many in the frum community don't need me to make them besimcha, but many do. That's whom I speak and sing for." Some suggest that the cancellation of the Big Event will significantly impact the future of the haredi music scene, but Medlowitz is confident concerts will continue as they have up till now. "There are many rabbis, and I respect all of them, but I have enough to rely on for what I'm doing."