Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Breaking the Chains

Lipa Schmeltzer (Gothamist)
I remember meeting him for the first time. It was at least 20 years ago. He was the ‘Badchan’ at a Chicago wedding that I recorded in my capacity as a videographer. A Badchan is basically a comedian hired to ‘sing-song’ praises of people honored to do a  Mitzvah Tanz with the bride at the end of Chasidic weddings.  No one had ever heard of him. My immediate response was that this impish young Chasid  was going to be a major star someday.  He was bright, funny, and quick on his feet. I asked him his name, he said, ‘Lipa Schmeltzer’. I will never forget that moment.

Little did I know just how prescient I was. He is perhaps the biggest musical star in Jewish entertainment today, by far. His music is played and sung everywhere by virtually all Jewish bands at weddings and all kinds of Simchos. There is a story about him in the Gothamist that got me to reflect on his career and the fate of his former community, Skvere.

Lipa has been in the news a lot over his career. And not always in a positive way. His music is viewed by his own community of Skvere as not very Jewish. They see it as using lyrics taken from biblical sources and setting them to the tune of  rock and roll music. His hit song called ‘Abi MiLebt’ (Yiddish for ‘as long as we are alive’) was sung to the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’  - a popular rock and roll song from 1961. It was immediately condemned and banned by his rabbinic leaders in Skvere among others.  

Not long after that Lipa was to perform at a concert, called ‘The Big Event’. That too was condemned and shut down before it happened. Investors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Lipa promised not tos sing songs like that ever again. But since that time he has given up trying to keep his promise. The public demand for it was too great. He wanted to satisfy his fans. Which caused one prominent Rabbi to embarrass him at wedding at which he was hired to perform. Even though the songs he sang there were well within the comfort zone of his righteous critics.

Skvere is not a very tolerant town. They do not suffer dissent lightly. That said, the Skverer Rebbe is a very caring individual and goes out of his way for his Chasidim. He famously met with President Bill Clinton just before the latter left office to beg for mercy for some of his Chasidim. They were convicted and sent to prison for using federal grant money for purposes which it was not intended. The President was so impressed with the Rebbe that he ended up commuting their sentences to time served.

But don’t let anyone cross the Rebbe. That can have some pretty severe repercussions carried out by Chasidic vigilantes for his honor. Sometimes ending up with expulsion. Or worse. In one case a Skverer Chasid who tried to set up a Minyan for a hospitalized friend. He suffered 3rd degree burns in an arson attempt at the hands of the Rebbe’s young personal valet. Who on his own decided to defend the honor of the Rebbe. It was against the Rebbe’s rule of ‘no separate Shuls in Skvere under any circumstances’. As was the Rebbe’s wont, he went to bat for the young Chasid who was arrested for that. But the Chasid that suffered burns at his hand was to the best of my knowledge completely ignored.

The control exerted by Skvere over its Chasidm does not end with requiring attendance at the Rebbe’s big Shul. The control in that town was described by both Shulem Deen and Lipa Shmeltzer as total.  There is apparently no such thing as getting an education outside of Skvere. They have little use for any kind of secular education that would prepare them for a decent job. The Chasdim of Skvere are left to fend for themselves with little to sell in the job market.  When one considers the Chasidic ban against any birth control except for reasons of health, a family of 12 or 13 children is not that a uncommon. But the kinds of jobs available to them do not even pay enough for two people to live an even lower middle class lifestyle.

An example of what their financial lives are like was described by Shulem Deen in his (about to be released) book. He was once a religious studies teacher in one of their elementary schools. They were paid in ‘school money’. That is basically scrip printed up by the school that parents are required to buy and use for groceries and the like from vendors that agree to accept it in lieu of real money. The vendors then trade it in for cash at a discount. (Usually something like 90 cents on the dollar.) Of course banks do not accept scrip to pay off mortgages. How teachers got money for that is a question I can’t answer.

And yet this community of about 7000 people is very successful. Thriving in fact. For me, there is not enough money in the world to live like that. But Shuelm Deen’s tells us that Skverer Chasidim seem to love it there.  Shulem Deen who completely lost his faith sometimes misses what he once had. I guess I can understand it up to a point. There is a sense of belonging; a sense of joy in serving God, a sense of camaraderie; an uncomplicated and structured way of life; arranged marriages; and the knowledge that if you play by their rules, someone will have your back. Including (and perhaps most importantly) the Rebbe himself.

But the human spirit will not be denied. When given the opportunity, it yearns to be free. How free is up to the individual. For Shulem that eventually meant breaking free of all the chains of religion. He found his ‘truth’ in atheism. But for Lipa, it meant breaking free of the restrictions of a sect. A sect that denied him the both the education and the tools to get one. He has broken with Skvere and at age 36 is now working towards a degree at Columbia University. But he retains his beliefs, his observance of Halacha, and some of the traditions of his Chasidus.

Lipa is lucky. His talent and success has enabled him to break those chains. But I have to wonder just how many others there are like him that have no realistic options. How many Skverer Chasidim yearn to live better lives? And have no way of achieving it? Were they even to try to get a secular education like Lipa, would they be expelled from their communities or worse? Even if it were to be in a school like Yeshiva University? …which they might see as a greater threat than a secular university? …because it grants what they consider an illegitimate mantle of religious approval for something they consider forbidden?

I am happy for Lipa. But what about everyone else in Skvere and communities like it? These are the fastest growing segments in all of Jewry. And they are the most insular, restricted, and uneducated. And the poorest. Will the bubble burst? Or will they continue to grow internally via a birthrate that will increase their numbers exponentially over the next few generations. How will these future generations feed their children? Will they still be the happy campers that Shulem Deen described in his book? Or will there at some point be a massive revolution? I guess only time will tell.