Lipa Schmeltzer is coming to Broadway.
Not a bad achievement for a guy who, 15 or so years ago, was driving a delivery truck for a kosher butcher. Or for a guy who has been described as the “Hasidic Bruce Springsteen.”
The concert/theater piece, dubbed “Lipa on Broadway,” takes place on Sunday, Dec. 29 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall (123 W. 43rd St.).
Schmeltzer is someone who has always been full of surprises and as an adult has refused to be burdened by other people’s expectations.
“They told me I’m a rebel if I become a singer,” the chasidic music superstar said in a telephone interview last week. “I have a lot of chasidishe [people] against me.”
But a lot of them are for him. Jewish music producer and manager Moishe Rosenfeld said in a recent e-mail, “[Lipa and I] met last night at a kosher ‘hipster’ burger joint on the Upper West Side. He was mobbed by young women and men wanting to take pictures with him.”
A typical contradiction in the complicated life of Lipa Schmeltzer.
Schmeltzer is ruthlessly candid and compulsively honest. When you speak to him, his words cascade forward as relentlessly as the beats on one of his music tracks. He readily admits that he has been influenced by a wide range of secular pop stars and genres. He is equally honest, and earnest, in recounting his miserable youth in New Square, a small town in Rockland County, surrounded by fellow chasidim who were less than sympathetic to a daydreaming kid with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
It was music, Schmeltzer says, that saved him. “Music took my head away, it helped me escape,” he recalled. “I started listening to all kinds of music. … Rhythm is in my blood. I just have it.”
Look at any of his dozens of videos on YouTube and you can see it. He’s awkward, and his dress sense is equal parts Elton John (see the eyewear that might charitably be called goofy goggles) and Lady Gaga. But he’s a strong singer, his rap songs flow effortlessly in both English and Yiddish, and his insistent, infectious beats drive every tune. And he seems equally at home in a wide range of genres.
In short, Lipa Schmeltzer is a natural, a self-trained musician of real skill and talent.
If Schmeltzer’s name seems vaguely familiar to non-Orthodox Jews, it is probably because he was at the center of a firestorm in 2008 when a charity concert at which he was to perform was denounced by 33 rabbis. Schmeltzer reluctantly withdrew and the event was cancelled.
Today, he said defiantly, “I would never back out.”
Schmeltzer has ambition, but not the sort you’d expect from a pop star. A couple of years ago, Schmeltzer was driving past the Rockland County Community College. Suddenly he stopped the car and thought about the idea of enrolling for an associate degree.
“College in the ultra-Orthodox world is forbidden,” he observed. “I decided that I wanted to be educated, to make a statement that it’s not right if we don’t get an education.”
He got a GED, entered RCCC and is now one semester away from a joint degree in performing arts and liberal arts, which will lead to a BA somewhere down the road. His classmates and his professors sing his praises.
In the new show, he will be singing theirs, albeit indirectly.
“I want to make a statement about entertainment and tell a story that’s about my life,” Schmeltzer said. “It’s about a therapist and a rabbi and a guy who’s addicted to technology who loses his job. It says that we need to understand everybody and not judge everybody.”
Schmeltzer apparently plays out this entire scenario by himself, singing all the parts in a program that appears to be a hybrid of monodrama and concert.
He paused, then added, “I already got a lot of people who love it and bought tickets, and a lot of people who are upset. This show, I’m not going to make money on it. Even if it’s sold out, I just about break even. But let’s be honest here, we need to reinvent ourselves.”
On one level, Schmeltzer already has. At his core, though, he has remained unchanged in one significant way.
“I’m a completely Orthodox guy,” he said. “Some people don’t like that, but thousands do. And I think I give them strength so they still can be [Orthodox] themselves.”