"A bone that you can’t swallow and you can’t spit out."
February 18, 2015 4:43 PM   Subscribe

"[B]ecause he stays within the religious world, Lipa Schmeltzer is more of a threat to the Hasidic way of life than those who up and leave the faith." Author Batya Ungar-Sargon on Lipa Schmeltzer, [YouTube, also embedded in article] the Hasidic pop star (and now Columbia University student) facing a conservative backlash from rabbinical authorities in his home community, even as his popularity in the Orthodox world soars.

The article interrogates this backlash fairly critically, asking why it has targeted a
" . . . wholesome, campy character who sings songs about being less judgmental, praying to God for help being a better person, and spending less time on your cellphone (“Instead of searching Google, I’m busy making Kugel”)? What could possibly account for sentiments so rabid that, as a Hasidic friend who lives in Monsey put it, “If they would find you in a Church, they wouldn't be as upset as if they found you in the Airmont Shul”?
Lipa Schmeltzer previously on MeFi
posted by spitbull (28 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I had not heard of Lipa Schmeltzer before, and now I am very intrigued. He seems like a wonderful man.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

He is so lovable, but I finished the article feeling a little afraid for him; he is brazenly defying people who aren't used to being disobeyed in the most minute details.
posted by jamjam at 5:31 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of "inside baseball" coverage of Lipa Schmeltzer, including when a group of prominent Ultra-Orthodox rabbis (Gedolim, lit. "The Big Ones"), including several later arrested for corruption in the US, Israel and Europe, forced the cancellation of his planned concert at Madison Square Garden, at Failed Messiah.

The Jew/Beard song, among others, comes from a Yiddish aphorism: "Better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew." Lipa really was a Haredi Jews' Jew in every way except his musical influences; he never would have left if not for his own community's leadership harassing him and depriving him of means to support his family. Orthodox Jews of his background work within their own community-owned businesses, as they do not receive any secular education past elementary grades in their Yeshivahs, which are taught in Yiddish. They speak Yiddish at home and all community events as well, whether they live in North America, Israel, or Europe.

The whole tragic mess is due to some types of Orthodox and Hassidic Judaism collapsing into closed cults.
posted by Dreidl at 5:54 PM on February 18, 2015 [13 favorites]

> “Self-expression is very suppressed in that community,” says Chaim Einhorn,
> a congregant of the Airmont Shul who hails from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods
> of Jerusalem. “So when Lipa does his music like he wants and it’s about
> self-expression, not what the Rebbe wants, it’s very threatening.”

If your faith can be threatened by what songs someone else sings, then it is a very poor sort of faith indeed.
posted by sourcequench at 5:56 PM on February 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

There's an old Yiddish folksong. Transliterated, the lyrics go something like this:

Az der rebbe zingt
Az der rebbe zingt
Zing'n ale khasidim.

In Engish:

As the Rabbi sings
As the Rabbi sings
All the Hasidim sing

Since this is a folksong, the number of verses is, as Tom Lehrer would say, interminable, each one swapping out the verb for something else that all the Hasidim do along with the Rabbi. As the Rabbi laughs, all the Hasidim laugh. As the Rabbi sleeps, all the Hasidim sleep (at this point the singer may throw in a loud snore, for the audience's amusement). So on and so on.

It's all very cute and rustic, but when the song was written, it was meant as an insult. A jibe. A taunt. Look at the Hasidim and their slavish, unthinking obedience to whatever the Rabbi tells them to do.

And the Hasidim loved it. Yes, they said, we follow the Rabbi's example at all times and we're proud of it. The insult backfired, and the Hasidim adopted the song. It is now a beloved tradition.

I wish Schmeltzer the best. I'll have to ask my friend Y-Love (previously) what he thinks of him.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2015 [15 favorites]

There's another Yiddish expression "The rabbi drinks the whole bottle and tells the others to rejoice."
posted by Dreidl at 6:32 PM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm conflicted.

On one hand, I really like what he has to say about the growth of the patriarchal, fundamentalist Jewish movement that's coalesced over the past two decades or so:

Schmeltzer also objects to the rigorous gender segregation. “I always tell these activists who are very strong against ladies and make segregations, that it’s their problem,” he said. “Their problem is they should go for therapy. I tell people, you know who you need to protest? Protest God. God created beautiful people that make you crazy"...He says that ultra-Orthodox Judaism is full of fanatics who are power hungry and who use religious zealousness as a form of control. “The desire for control is a disease, it’s not Judaism,” Schmeltzer insisted.

As a (non-observant) Jew, I feel exactly the same way, and it lightens my heart to hear one of the Haredim saying it like this.

On the other hand, I get the sense that Lipa is very excited to be stepping out of a very insular world, and that his perspective is somewhat biased in certain grandiose ways as a result of growing up in it:

Schmeltzer now sees his talent as a stepping-stone towards something bigger, though he’s not yet sure to what. “What makes somebody into a leader, if not the feeling and the power that [God] is giving him?” He said. “What do you think, in our century, you have a prophet coming down, and tell, I want you to be a leader? It’s the willingness,” he said, which he says he has plenty of himself.

I think that insular, rigid, authoritarian communities need to have the mirror held up for them by liminal figures like Lipa, who's both within and without the collectivity. I will be interested to see what he does and how the communities will react.

And on a completely tangential note, as much as I love that Yiddish is a living, even thriving language, it saddens me greatly that the black-clad Ashkenazim don't think of those of us with other Jewish heritages as their siblings. We Sephardim had a language that mixed Hebrew and the tongue of our home-in-exile, too.
posted by clockzero at 6:42 PM on February 18, 2015 [11 favorites]

I feel that no discussion of non-conformist Hasidic musicians is complete without mentioning Curly Oxide, whose story was almost made into a major motion picture.

And it's an interesting case to contrast with this one. Curly Oxide, ***spoiler for the radio interview*** even though he seemed to be at least as defiant as Schmeltzer, ultimately didn't break with the orthodox way, and today doesn't even want to associate his real name with his past as a rock star.
posted by Spiegel at 7:35 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

After reading about Y-Love, and checking out his music on YouTube, I've decided to send him a letter telling him he's awesome because the comments on his videos by and large do not do this necessary thing. :(
posted by oceanjesse at 7:59 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Update: As I expected, Y-Love speaks well of him.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:15 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

The only reason I quoted Ashkenazi expressions is because Lipa, as Yiddish-speaking Sqvarer Hasid, sings in Yiddish and refers to Yiddishisms in his lyrics. Several forms of Ladino are very much alive - I live in Seattle's Sephardic neighborhood and am taking Rhodian Ladino classes, while one of my Halakhah teachers is a Syrian Sephardic rabbi.

Northern Eurocentric and skin-color racism sure are a thing in many Jewish communities and Israel, tho.
posted by Dreidl at 12:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oddly enough, I was just reading about Llanito, an English/Spanish dialect spoken on Gibraltar. It has many loanwords from Haketia, a Judeo-Spanish language brought from Morocco. That language is a form of Ladino, heavily influenced by Judeo-Arabic from Morocco, which is distinguished from (say) Iraqi Judeo-Arabic because it has a lot of influence from Romance languages, particularly French and Spanish ... honestly, it's a rabbit hole and you could get lost for days.

I think all Jewish languages are presently represented in Israel, so this website probably gives a good idea of what ones are still spoken and by how many people: Ethnologue, Languages of the World (Israel).
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:14 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I loved this article. Thanks for posting.
posted by josher71 at 4:45 AM on February 19, 2015

Thanks, to be honest I posted it because I thought the article was truly well written in addition to being about an interesting subject. I had to triple check that I was reading gothamist, not known for hosting great writing. But this is that and it's why I made the author's name prominent in the FPP. Keep her on your radar, I suspect.

Amusingly the comments are full of people saying "Whoa, this is on gothamist? What happened?"
posted by spitbull at 4:58 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is super interesting and he seems like a sweet guy but I have to say that dance he's doing in the video in the OP is kinda wack.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:16 AM on February 19, 2015

This is a fascinating story. I subscribe pretty strongly to the fairly common belief that aesthetics and morality are separate considerations. And it seems like a critical distinction to me, one that underlies several important tenets about how to appreciate art. Like, without it, you'd have to give up any work of art created during historical eras in which sexism and racism were unexamined premises and that included elements bases on those premises. Without it, you'd never have a reasonable basis on which to separate the content of a work of art from the personality of it's creator. Without it, you'd never have a sure method for differentiating between a movie that depicts something terrible and a movie that endorses something terrible.

But with this story, you've got the moral authorities within a very tight-knit community making moral objections to aesthetic differences. I'm not Jewish myself, so I'm sort of taking the article's word for it, but it seems like the things separating this guy's work from work that they deem acceptable aren't violations of the community's moral law even in a tecnnical sense. Like, there's a rule, I gather, asserting that sung music must be performed in the correct language? And that's the language he's singing in? And the songs have to be on worthy topics, and his songs are?

So instead they're objecting to the aesthetic elements, like "disco beats", but where in the holy texts, or the commentaries on the texts, are you going to find the rule against a specific beat pattern? I suspect you won't. I suspect you'll find much vaguer imprecations against something like "lasciviousness", but that's completely in the ear of the listener, isn't it? Where exactly is the line drawn?

I'm sort of bowled over. The article's got me wondering about whether or not a whole lot of things that I've never been able to understand about fundamentalist Christianity aren't rooted in this same difference of outlook, where they fail to distinguish between moral concerns and aesthetic concerns and I think they're distinctly different (and that one of the two isn't the proper area of concern for priests, rabbis, ministers, or imams.)
posted by Ipsifendus at 6:24 AM on February 19, 2015

I think these ultra-Orthodox groups are similar to fundamentalist Christianity in that they see "the world" , the secular one, as a corrupting and dangerous presence, and that's the principle that guides them into distrusting "disco beats", which are of "the world". I'd expect that they would vehemently reject separation of aesthetic and moral concerns, too.
posted by thelonius at 7:08 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think these ultra-Orthodox groups are similar to fundamentalist Christianity in that they see "the world" , the secular one, as a corrupting and dangerous presence, and that's the principle that guides them into distrusting "disco beats", which are of "the world".

You are 100% correct, and there are plenty of books about Christian rock as the Devil's music to confirm it.
posted by clawsoon at 7:28 AM on February 19, 2015

I don't speak a word of Hebrew or Yiddish, but man, this guy can kick out the jams. Team Lipa!

Also, whatever happened to that other guy, the Hassidic rapper dude? He was big for a while.
posted by gsh at 7:47 AM on February 19, 2015

I think it's better to try to understand Hasidic Jews on their own terms, rather than trying to understand them through the terms of the dominant culture.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:48 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're thinking of Matisyahu, gsh. He's still big. But he's from a less conservative sect.
posted by spitbull at 8:12 AM on February 19, 2015

And of course, attending to Lipa Schmeltzer's own defense of his work is to consider Hasidic culture "on its own terms," since he is a product of Hasidic culture, continues to swear his allegiance to the faith, and is not attempting to defy or leave the sect. A community's "own terms" may well include dissenting voices from the central authority in that community. So the question of who speaks for a Hasidic perspective or experience may not be so simple to resolve.

I think that's why I liked this article so much, exactly. It doesn't reduce the Hasidic community to a monolithic stereotype at all.
posted by spitbull at 8:40 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

And of course, attending to Lipa Schmeltzer's own defense of his work is to consider Hasidic culture "on its own terms," since he is a product of Hasidic culture, continues to swear his allegiance to the faith, and is not attempting to defy or leave the sect.
Of course it is. I was talking about posts comparing him to fundamentalist Christians, who are coming out of a really different cultural and theological framework.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:50 AM on February 19, 2015

Ah, ok, sorry for misunderstanding your point as a critique of the article itself, A&C.
posted by spitbull at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2015

What a fantastic article.
Hard not to see it as a movie -- Fus Loyz (Yiddish for Foot Loose).
posted by third rail at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was talking about posts comparing him to fundamentalist Christians

Are you saying that the groups are not similar in the way that I observed, or that you object to comparing them?
posted by thelonius at 10:15 AM on February 19, 2015

I'm really not sure that their primary reason for rejecting disco beats is that they see the world, the secular one, as a corrupting and dangerous presence. There's probably an element of that, but I think the main reason is that it's seen as not-Jewish, and adopting things that are not-Jewish means that you're less part of the community. And in Skver and some other Chassidic groups, the community is everything.

So it doesn't even get to the point of discussing whether disco beats are corrupting: nobody (at least initially) was arguing that Lipa was corrupted or likely to become corrupted. It was just that his musical influences were obviously and undeniably extra-communal; people couldn't pretend that his music was a product of the community culture. The fact that he was ostensibly still part of the community made it worse, paradoxically: it turned him into a role model for people who wanted to dip their feet in forbidden waters.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:02 PM on February 19, 2015

That's a good point, thanks.
posted by thelonius at 12:53 AM on February 20, 2015

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