It's worth mentioning how I first heard about Lipa Schmeltzer—from my grandparents. They'd just flown back to Melbourne from a visit to New York, where they’d attended a wedding made by the Flatbush contingent of my extended family. The groom, my second cousin, was my age, and the wedding was a particularly extravagant affair. My grandparents were raving about how 1. the event featured a bar made entirely of ice, and 2. someone called Lipa Schmeltzer had performed for the guests. "He had a song all about diets!" exclaimed my grandfather. "How did it go, Nechama?" he asked my grandmother, both of them laughing. That was a number of years ago; the couple who were married now have three children. Schmeltzer didn’t cross my mind again until about a year ago, when I clicked the link to one of his music videos, "Hang Up The Phone," on YouTube that a friend had posted, possibly ironically, on Facebook.
Lipa Schmeltzer is a straight-up Hasidic Jew. He's in his mid-30s. His English is bizarrely accented, typical of Jews from New Square, a Yiddish-speaking community founded in the 1950s by Hungarian Hasidim up in Rockland County, New York. He has short, curly peyos and favors goofy eyeglasses, often switching between multiple pairs within the same music video—a Hasidic costume change, if you will. (I've always joked about how glasses are where very Orthodox Jewish men can really go nuts.) He's married with children. He tweets, mostly to thank people for picking him up from the airport, or to show a picture of him on skis, or of him at a shiva visit ("shiva call at the Schnitzler's"). Unlike the success story of Jewish-Reggae crossover star Matisyahu, I cannot imagine Schmeltzer ever having a shard of appeal outside the world of Jewish music. And yet he's the best thing to happen to popular Jewish music in a long time.
Jewish music: an actual genre. I was never much of a fan. Despite my own religious (okay: alt-Hasidic) upbringing, I was raised on a normal musical diet; Van Morrison in my bearded dad's car, AC/DC and Robert Palmer in my bewigged mother's, the nightly Hot 30 countdown on the small yellow bat-mitzvah gifted radio in my room, except on Friday nights. I had friends whose parents didn't allow secular music into their homes, but neither of my parents seemed to really care for Jewish music. So much of it was missing something, sexiness, most likely, and a lot of it was boring. I never wanted to listen to something that wasn't GOOD, and even though, in some circles, choosing to listen to Jewish music is a moral choice, I could never subscribe to a double standard wherein I listened to something solely because it was Jewish.
There were a few exceptions, obviously. One of them was Shlock Rock. Formed in the mid-80s, and apparently still active today, the New York-based group has released some 34 albums. Their website informs me they’re currently on their “Tu Bishvat/Superbowl Tour.” Their shtick is to cover popular songs and substitute their lyrics with Jewish-themed ones. Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" becomes "Learning is Good." The Association's "Windy" becomes "Rashi" (Rashi was an 11th-century Torah commentator in France: Whose three daughters married great scholars? / Everyone knows it's Ra-shi, etc.) Lionel Ritchie's "All Night Long" becomes "All Night Long," which is a song about the custom of learning Torah for the entire night of the Jewish holiday Shavuot. The Beatles' "Back in The U.S.S.R.” becomes "Leaving The U.S.S.R," and is about the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent departure of oppressed Russian Jews who hadn't been able to practice their faith. Even now, when I hear George Harrison's "Got My Mind Set On You," I will often sing the Shlock Rock version, "I've Got My Own Seder Too." It's gonna take matzaaaah…
As you might expect, a number of genres exist under the Jewish music umbrella. The 70s ushered in its own folk scene, popularized by people like the late, great hippie/rabbi hybrid Shlomo Carlebach ("he called me neshoma'leh [rough translation: little soul]," my grandmother will tell you, with a blush). There are the clean-shaved Mormon-faced Yeshiva University boys who comprise the squeaky-clean YouTube friendly a cappella group The Maccabeats. Most Orthodox tween girls (and a few boys, I'm sure) have a crush on at least one Maccabeat, and it's funny how even in this strange and chaste little world, people will still find something to swoon about. And then there's the really frum (the word Orthodox Jews often use to describe their way of life) music—truly its own, mildly time-warped, and often bizarre entity. The frummer someone is, the less likely it is that they will listen to secular music, so current pop music trends rarely make it over the threshold to the musical shtetl. For the longest time, frum music had a distinctly schmaltzy, overproduced sound; every upbeat song had a sort of Latin-sounding horn section (often these become popular wedding songs), and every one of the sadder songs (think yearnings for the Messiah, lamenting historical tragedies, etc.) had an entire string section. Strict Jewish law prohibits men from hearing women sing (lest they have impure thoughts, bless them all), so it's a fairly male-dominated scene, complete with boy choirs, or duets between grown men and young boys, who sing the high parts. The songs are not about sex or romance or love. They are about Shabbos.
There are a handful of people who dominate the little corner that is, basically, “contemporary Hasidic music,” most of whom reside in New York and sustain long careers releasing records through tiny labels, and occasionally performing to very large audiences, often sharing the stage with each other. There isn't a lot of competition, and the music is so dated that it never really dates, showing up at every Orthodox wedding or bar mitzvah, in perpetuity. One of the godfathers of the genre is a gentleman by the name of Mordechai Ben David (a relative of mine, actually, although we remain unacquainted), who essentially invented the contemporary Hasidic genre in the 70s. People have always loved MBD, as he's affectionately known. Just watching some songs on YouTube, I'm amazed and embarrassed at how many I actually know, and not cursorily. He's in his 60s now and he's still revered, wholesome and gracious as ever. There's none of this crises-of-faith-via-Twitter business
we saw with Matisyahu, whose beard-shaving episode and decision to leave Orthodoxy still has some people feeling super bummed.
Regardless of his audience's non-exposure to secular culture, Lipa is truly a Hasidic pop star in the Lady Gaga-era; a generous, gracious, and outrageous self-made showman. What sets him apart is a persona that manages to seem incredibly adventurous and creative, while still remaining traditional. His employment of rapping (often switching between English and Yiddish), samples, beats, Michael Jackson-like vocal affectations, silver face paint, like-nobody’s-watching dance moves – these are all things that could make him ripe for ridicule. But they don’t. They just seem brave, and awesome.
His music videos are weird, funny and most importantly, good, even if they do feature songs about how Jews should use their cell phones less and instead spend more time with their families and/or God (“Hang Up The Phone,” presumably a sort of response to Gaga's “Telephone” video. Sample lyric: everyone is phoning / to the wall I’m talking / my friend’s with his Bluetooth / together when we are walking). The videos feature extended intros, narratives, and costumed dancers executing choreographed dance routines—all his dancers are noticeably religious men, and if you're literate in frum, you'll notice that all the men are different kinds of religious men; even if Lipa is just for the Jews, he's for ALL Jews. Even me, kinda, it turns out.
Doesn’t the montage of Lipa performing, Lipa mingling with fans, Lipa dancing (albeit a bastardized Macarena) and Lipa just hangin’ out remind you of Robyn’s “Hang With Me” video? If it were set in downtown Jerusalem, let’s say, and Robyn was a slightly paunchy Hasidic man who wasn’t so much a good dancer as a person who just really loves to dance. It’s in Hebrew (sorry), but here is the entire song, translated: east, west, up, down, north, south / those of us who were pushed away will come together / from all four corners of the world.
And here’s the aforementioned “Hang Up the Phone,” featuring Lipa and his all-male crew as androids, after hours at a Boro Park electronics store. Silver-faced Lipa rhymes ‘Google’ with ‘kugel’, and ‘e-mail’ with ‘himmel.’
Like most of the fun stuff in pop today—the "Call Me Maybe"s, the "I Love It"s—Lipa's songs are best enjoyed by ears listening both earnestly and ironically. For especially sheltered audiences who don't know about goofy music videos, Lady Gaga, or Elton John and his wacky glasses, these are some good songs. For people who do know about all those things, here are some great songs, and isn't it fun how there's some weird Hasidic guy behind it all.
Wikipedia tells me that, currently, Lipa is pursuing a dual associate's degree in performing arts and liberal arts at Rockland Community College. Nobody from New Square goes to college, let alone finishes high school. They go to yeshiva. For reasons like this, Lipa occasionally receives sideways glances from some members of the Hasidic community. It's behavior that's modern, and modern behavior poses a threat any insular religious community so invested in preserving its own purity. There’s a fear of anything new, or of anything that’s difficult to categorize.
In 2008, days before Schmeltzer was scheduled to perform at Madison Square Garden, a full-page ad appeared in the biggest Haredi newspaper, stating that, according to a number of rabbis, it was forbidden to attend the show. No reasons were given. Lipa made a quick decision to cancel the event, costing the financiers $700,000. Not only was the origin of the ad never discovered, but it seemed that a number of the rabbis who had supposedly signed the ad actually had no problem with Lipa. The ad was false, it seems, and probably the work of a recondite band of Hasidic thugs—some version of a self-appointed neighbourhood watch. They’ll never listen, but I’ll say it anyway. Guys, relax. Lipa Schmeltzer is good for you. Now dance.