When he signed last year with Decca Gold, Shulem, a working cantor who, like Matisyahu and Drake, goes simply by a single moniker, became the first artist raised chasidic to sign a major record deal. What followed was a major tour, which included the Brooklyn-reared Belzer chasid (full name: Shulem Lemmer) performing during baseball games at Fenway Park in Boston and Citi Field in Queens.
Late last year Decca Gold put out “The Perfect Dream,” a collection of traditional Jewish and secular songs, from “Jerusalem of Gold” to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey hit “When You Believe” (from the “Prince of Egypt” soundtrack).
JTA: How did you start singing?
Shulem: My father listened to a lot of cantorial music. My late sister, she passed away when she was only 23, encouraged me to sing and learn songs. At my brother’s wedding, she pushed me on stage. I was a shy kid and that was kind of an awakening.
My brother Yanky [a cantor at Lincoln Square Synagogue] and I had the same birthday and we convinced my father to buy us a drum set we shared and later a guitar I taught myself to play. When I went on to study in Israel, I quickly made connections [in the music business] there and sang some backup vocals on recordings. When I came back I joined the [Orthodox] Shira Choir [in Brooklyn]. I released an album in 2015 [titled “Shulem”] and started to build a fan base not only in the secular Jewish world but with a lot of Christians, as well. … I want to spread a message of love between human beings through music.
Does being chasidic limit opportunities?
Of course, I’m not going to perform on Shabbos, but there also will be issues that aren’t necessarily that black and white. I would ask my rabbi, based on the situation. I have it in my contract that I can say no to anything that isn’t OK with me religiously. I won’t perform a duet with a woman, for example.
Do you ever get tired of being gawked at in public? Is it worse now as a public figure?
Worse than the stares are the online people who hide behind a screen. I started getting a lot of anti-Semitic hate messages. At first I thought it was just words, but then came Jersey City and Monsey. It became a reality and it’s scary. We do have security.
How do you get the curls that way?
Mousse, and I just twirl them around my fingers.