The secular education of a chasidic pop star
Most students at Rockland Community College have not had successful singing careers before they decide to get their associate degree.
But Lipa Schmeltzer is definitely not most students.
A bona fide superstar in the niche world of chasidic singers, Schmeltzer came to RCC as a bit of a renegade. A product of the insular enclave of New Square, he defies easy pigeonholing — as an observant Jew, as a performer, and, yes, even as a student.
At 34, with a wife and four children, Schmeltzer is an older student at a different stage in life. He came to RCC without the type of secular education most college students have and take for granted. Now in his second semester of a two-year liberal and performing arts program, Schmeltzer is grateful for an opportunity that few Skver chasidim have.
“Education isn’t about just making money; you become a different person,” said Schmeltzer, whose speech is almost as rapid-fire as the songs he raps. “Another thing I like about college is you get advisers who see your strengths, and tell you what to emphasize.
“It’s better than putting everything in a box.”
Being put in a box is definitely something Schmeltzer wants to avoid. Although he is ritually observant, sporting peyos, a fisherman’s hat — with a specially made Rockland Community College kippah underneath — and dark clothing, Schmeltzer no longer lives in New Square. As a successful wedding singer, he has built a musical career that leapt far beyond the enclave’s borders, and includes playing Madison Square Garden and street concerts in Israel that attract tens of thousands of people. He blends jazzy pop, rap, and rock styles, mixing lyrics of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.
Using YouTube to promote his songs, he deliver messages to his chasidim, asking them to pay attention to their diet and to their loved ones rather than their phones; to tolerate and embrace one another as Jews, and to support Israel.
Yet for all his success, it wasn’t enough. Something was missing. For Schmeltzer, who did poorly in the rigid yeshivah of his youth, it was a broader education. About three years ago, he was driving by RCC and decided to see whether such a dream was even possible. But he did not have a high school diploma and he was told he would need one.
Schmeltzer called a brother-in-law (as the second youngest child of 12, he has six) in New Square, and asked what he could do. He returned to RCC with a paper that RCC officials said was worthless. He would have to get a GED diploma. Despite English language skills he describes as “like you grew up on a Third World country,” he attended Rockland BOCES and returned to RCC, now qualified to enroll.
“He is probably one of the most creative students I’ve ever taught,” said Joseph Pirone, a professor of psychology who teaches “Adler, Jung, Moreno: Contemporary and Future Perspective on Conflict Resolution.”
“He’ll take a lecture I’ve given and craft a poem about it, one that’s absolutely intense. And when he reads it, they [the other students] just get it in spades what I was talking about. He has a phenomenal ability to take concepts and process them almost through his heart.”
Nonetheless, Schmeltzer’s first month at college was difficult. “I didn’t know how to blend in. How should I dress? Not dress? But I got to know the college culture and how to behave and not behave.”
It is hard to imagine Schmeltzer not figuring this out quickly. An outgoing man with an open personality, he speaks honestly about his struggles with his upbringing. Finding his way wasn’t always easy. In yeshivah, he was the dreamer, unable to focus in school. He was the child looking out the window, or “losing the finger” instead of knowing where it should be pointing.
Music was something that gave Schmeltzer an outlet. His mother allowed him to listen — and grow.
At 20, as the deliveryman for a local butcher, he discovered that the car he would be driving had no CD player for sanctioned music. Someone pointed out the good radio stations, and Schmeltzer says he owes his introduction to secular music to the stations he began to surf. He heard the Melanie Chisholm song “I Turn to You,” and was captivated by its lyrics, “I turn to you /like a flower leaning towards the sun/I turn to you/’cause you’re the only one.”
“I thought this is a love song. How about I turn it to God?” Schmeltzer asked. He was off and running.
“Rhythm was always in my blood.” He can turn the mundane setting of the RCC cafeteria area into fodder for a rap, randomly picking details and rhyming them on the spot.
Around the same time, he married a New Square girl he had never met. He began playing weddings shortly after, bringing in about $100 for each gig.
His popularity grew, and it’s easy to see why. Using details about a bride and groom, or family members, Schmeltzer was able to quickly create toasts and tributes that would appeal to the wedding family and their guests.
It is Schmeltzer’s ability to combine popular styles using acceptable subject matter, that has made him so popular, according to Yossi Green, an Israel-born songwriter who has written for the singer.
“Lipa is not only a star, he is a unique star,” Green said. “He can really rap. Someone asked me to describe him, and I said he has the shortest distance between his ears and his mouth.”
What comes out, according to Green, is what matters. And Schmeltzer knows how to straddle what is fun and edgy with what is acceptable to his core chasidic audience. “He can’t write about love that’s in the bedroom. He can’t write about rebellion or counter culture,” Green said. “It all has to be within the confines of the world that we live in, the Orthodox world.”
Nonetheless, Schmeltzer has found himself embroiled in controversy. His use of technology to spread his music has sparked rabbinic disapproval, as have some of his concerts. In 2008, a concert scheduled for the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden was canceled after 33 rabbis issued an edict against the show. A concert scheduled a year later in the same theater, however, went on without incident.
Schmeltzer is a man clearly trying to find a new path for himself, one that honors his tradition and observance while staying true to the person he feels he has become since leaving New Square. He raised funds to build a synagogue in Airmont, where he says a wide spectrum of Jews come to pray, from “people who only come at Yom Kippur to people who come to the earliest davening” each day. He feels a responsibility to hold true to his past while forging this identity that balances it against the future.
“I know I have a double obligation because people know I’m Jewish and Orthodox,” said Schmeltzer, who recently turned down a chance to perform in an RCC musical because there were too many issues that would violate his religious practice.
“I have to be able to make a kiddush hashem [sanctification of God’s name]. Because I’m a famous Jewish singer, I have to be doubly careful.”
He appears frustrated by the ever-tightening restrictions of the chasidic world, while still adhering to them. His son’s bar mitzvah in March brings up a story about what hat the young man will wear, and the importance of what signals this sends in his home community, where flat-crowned hats rule. “My wife and I decide to let the man who wears the hat make the decision,” Schmeltzer said. His son chose a nice “up hat” he said, one with a crease in the crown and a slightly upturned brim.
Schmeltzer’s career initially took its toll on his marriage, he reported. But the couple has worked things out, and has been together for 14 years. His wife, Miriam, also recently decided to attend RCC. Schmeltzer is enthusiastic and energized by his classes, from his honors psychology class to his performance ones. He brings his maturity and history to the classes, and the other students respond, said Chris Plummer, an adjunct professor who is the director of the college’s Cultural Arts Theater.
“His charisma comes from experience,” Plummer said. “The other students respond to it.”
Plummer said the performing arts department does not often have students who already have successful performance careers. But Schmeltzer is modest about his career and open about his religious upbringing in ways that enhance the class. Schmeltzer wants to keep it that way. He wants his children to have opportunities he did not have, including the one of which he is now availing himself.
“I would do anything it takes for my kids to get a college education,” he said.