Lazar Lipa Schmeltzer is an American Hasidic singer and composer. He is a headliner within Hasidic and Haredi communities worldwide and has been called "the Jewish Elvis" and "the Lady Gaga of Hasidic music". Schmeltzer has released 13 solo albums as of 2014. In 2008, he was named to the Forward 50 of most influential Jews.
Schmeltzer grew up in the Hasidic enclave of New Square, New York, a village in Rockland County, New York. His grandfather, a Jewish farmer in pre-war Hungary, was murdered during World War II, leaving his father, Reuven, an orphan at the age of 13. Reuven Schmeltzer was one of the 1684 Jews who escaped Nazi-controlled Hungary on the Kastner train and spent time in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp before being released in Switzerland. He and his wife had 12 children and Lipa is the second-youngest.
Lipa married his wife Miriam, also a native of New Square, on August 27, 1998. They have four children.
After his wedding, Schmeltzer tried to find work as a badchen (entertainer) for weddings. Though he had no formal musical training, he began performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs in the Haredi Jewish communities of upstate New York and Brooklyn. He earned a reputation as a natural performer, and began releasing recordings and videos. The first, Nor B'Simcha (Only Be Happy), was released shortly after his wedding. With his thick, round eyeglasses and sidelocks, "outlandish" outfits, and comical YouTube videos, he has rocketed to stardom in the Hasidic music world.
Schmeltzer's music has both gained popularity and generated controversy within the American Hasidic community due to the fusion of traditional Hasidic music and lyrics with contemporary music styles. His performance range includes "hard-driving rock tunes, jazzy shuffles, pseudo-rap numbers, solemn prayers, klezmer dances and jokey skits, accompanied by a nine-piece band and a troupe of actors". He writes lyrics in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. As is the norm in Hasidic circles, Schmeltzer's concerts are gender-segregated.
He has been criticized for introducing "too modern" musical styles to the Hasidic community. Opponents contend that Schmeltzer's identity as a bona-fide Hasid makes it more appealing to a wider Hasidic audience and therefore more likely to introduce contemporary music to their community, which tends to be insular and more reserved.
Schmeltzer frequently contributes his talents for Jewish benefit performances. He has also written songs and performed in response to tragedies within the Hasidic community. After Chabad shluchim Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg were murdered in a 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai and their two-year-old son Moishe was saved, he wrote the song A Letter to Moishe'le. He was part of an all-star group of Jewish musicians who produced a musical tribute to Sholom Rubashkin after the latter's conviction in federal court in 2010. Following the 2011 murder of Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn, he released a ballad called "Leiby Forever" and a seven-minute music video depicting home movies of Kletzky growing up.
"The Big Event" controversy:
In February 2008, a large amount of publicity was generated for a concert at Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theater in New York City featuring Schmeltzer and Shlomie Gertner, under the playbill "The Big Event". On 20 February, a full-page notice was printed in the Hamodia newspaper. The notice stated that it was "a serious prohibition to attend or perform" at the concert and added that it was "forbidden to hire these singers to sing at any party, celebration or charity event."
Following speculation over whether Schmeltzer would cancel the concert due to the ban, on 26 February it was confirmed that he was canceling his performance. He was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "I have a career, I have a wife and kids to support, I have a mortgage to pay, I have to get out of the fire". At the same time, Schmeltzer pulled out of a concert scheduled for later that month in London with other singers.
In the aftermath of the cancellation, questions were raised regarding the ban. Specifically, why the ban was issued so close to the concert date, causing the Israeli charity financing the concert to lose $700,000, and why the wording of the ban seemed at odds with views that had been expressed elsewhere by the rabbis who signed it. In an interview in June 2008, Schmeltzer stated: "If I knew the truth, 'The Big Event' would not have been cancelled ... Many Rabbis have told me that people came to them with false information regarding my concert".
In 2009, one of the signatory rabbis, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, told the The Jewish Star newspaper that he had no problem with Lipa: "As far as I know he is an ehrliche Yid a truly devout Jew."
Three months after the controversy, Schmeltzer released his next album, titled A Poshiter Yid (A Simple Jew), with a cover image and songs that portrayed him as a tradition-minded, Torah-observant Jew instead of the rock idol portrayed by the ban. Since that release, Schmeltzer's concert and recording schedules have increased.
Shortly after the cancellation of "The Big Event", promoters began planning another concert with the scaled-down name "The Event", which went off without controversy before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theater on 1 March 2009. Later the same year, Aderet Records released a double CD and DVD of "The Event".
In 2010, Schmeltzer built a synagogue in the village of Airmont, New York, where he and his family reside. Called the Airmont Shul, it maintains a nonjudgmental and open-door policy toward its congregants.
Schmeltzer attended Rockland Community College, a two-year school which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. He pursued a dual associate's degree in performing arts and liberal arts. On May 18, 2014 he graduated with a GPA of 3.902. Among the courses Schmeltzer completed in college were acting, dance, musical theater, English, psychology and pluralism and diversity.
On April 8, 2014 Schmeltzer received a Chancellor's Award of Excellence, which is considered to be "the highest honor bestowed upon the student body." Schmeltzer was one of three from the over 7,000 students in Rockland Community College to be nominated for the award in 2014.