Playing With The Banned


Did the haredi rabbis go too far this time?

That’s the question being asked in some circles after a ban issued by 33 fervently Orthodox rabbinic authorities forced the cancellation of a major charity concert slated to feature chasidic singing sensation Lipa Schmeltzer this week at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden.

The offense?

That the planned March 9 program — featuring separate seating for men and women and widely billed in Orthodox neighborhoods as “The Big Event” (intended to support an all-volunteer organization that funds weddings for Israeli orphans), would cause “ribaldry and lightheadedness” and “strip the youth of every shred of Fear of Heaven and [lower] them into a pit of destruction,” according to the ban.

Published in Hebrew on Feb.

20 in the fervently Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, with language lifted from a decree against such events in Israel, the ban also took aim at the “organizers and singers” for “causing the multitudes to sin,” and warned that they should not be invited to perform at “any joyous gathering or public appeals for charity,” imperiling their livelihood.

The ban came as a shock to the event’s organizers and performers, who claim they secured rabbinic approval prior to the show’s planning, and it led to Schmeltzer feeling pressured to breach his contract and back out, forfeiting his reported $100,000 fee.

Schmeltzer’s withdrawal, in turn, forced the event’s producer, Sheya Mendlowitz, to cancel the show, which had sold more than 3,000 tickets, incurring losses “in the realm of $500,000,” he said, a “good portion” of which was fronted to the producers by the charity.

The whole affair has left many in the haredi world perplexed and others angry, prompting a raft of questions about the genesis and execution of the ban itself, and what it might portend for the future of musical entertainment in the community.

It has also caused criticism of the rabbinic leadership, who, it appears, may have been duped into signing the ban, and who, some people believe, are woefully out of touch with their communities.

“How can they do this?” asked Miriam Hertz, a Brooklyn Bais Yaakov student, on hearing the news. “What about the poor orphans who need this tzedakah money to get married?”

When approached by The Jewish Week, a Flatbush resident who would identify himself only as Mendy, commented: “With all the problems our community is grappling with — teens leaving in unprecedented numbers, prominent yeshivas accused of knowingly employing pedophile teachers, chasidim rioting in the streets of Borough Park while their rebbes engage in public court battles over succession, I am astonished that this is the issue these 33 illustrious rabbis have chosen to tackle.

“Our children need an outlet,” Mendy continued, “and what could be better than a frum concert? Riots are OK, concerts are ossur [forbidden]?”

The Schmeltzer incident is not the first attempt by rabbinic authorities to raise the barrier between their community and the wider culture, and it seems to highlight the tension in the haredi world over how to deal with elements of modernity seeping into their culture. Bans have been issued against the use of television, the Internet, secular newspapers and certain Jewish books, including one that seemed too close to a Darwinian reading of evolution.

Regarding Schmeltzer, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is Orthodox, noted, “there are questions that people have raised. Does this mean the end of concerts? It’s not clear. What are the rules?”

He added that it is important for people to have entertainment outlets, “to enjoy things that are kosher.” And for a community that worries about losing children to a secular culture viewed as hedonistic, many see the popular chasidic music concerts as a healthy outlet.

But not, apparently, leading rabbinic authorities from the Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages, Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, the Lakewood Yeshiva, various chasidic sects and others among the rabbinic authorities who signed on to the ban.

Schmeltzer, who lives in Monsey, earns his living primarily by performing at weddings, but his albums have gained widespread popularity among chasidim in large part because he sometimes sets his own Hebrew or Yiddish lyrics, as well as liturgy, to pop music melodies.

His live performances and videos, available on YouTube, often involve dancing — male only — and humor, both of which have drawn the wrath of critics who feel he is “too goyish.”

His own rebbe’s name — The Skverer Rebbe, David Twersky — did not appear on the recent ban.

How did the others come to sign on to it, and without warning Schmeltzer or the concert organizers?

A spokesman for Mendlowitz, the event’s producer, said that he believes the rabbis who signed were “bamboozled” by extremist activists who disapprove of Schmeltzer’s use of non-Jewish melodies and onstage “antics” that “drive the crowds a little wild,” and who ultimately want to “stop all concerts.”

Such concerts are big business for performers like Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried and others.

The spokesman specifically cited Asher Friedman, a Brooklyn resident who heads Nechomas Yisroel, an organization that pays yeshiva tuition for children who would otherwise be forced to go to public school, and Avrohom Schorr, a Flatbush rabbi, as the instigators of the ban. Mendlowitz’s representative believes that Friedman, with Schorr’s backing, obtained the signatures by using some manner of deception to get the first few rabbis to sign on, and then used those signatures to persuade others to add their names as well.

Numerous calls to Friedman went unreturned, and Schorr, when reached at home, told The Jewish Week that he was “not available to answer questions over the phone.” When asked if he would answer questions in person, Schorr said that he was going out of town for “a couple of weeks.”

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, rosh yeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and one of the signatories to the ban, admitted that the rabbis who signed it did not consult with one another. When asked about the ban’s origins, Rabbi Kamenetsky was vague, saying only that “it seems there was some input from Israel.” He added that he did not think this ban would affect other concerts, because it was issued specifically “for a certain looseness.”

His assessment seems to be contradicted by an advertisement published on Feb. 27 in Hamodia, signed by eight of the 33 rabbis, praising Schmeltzer for backing out of the New York event and another one planned in London, and supporting a ban on all future concerts. Indeed, radio show host Zev Brenner told The Jewish Week that he is “hearing through the grapevine that this ban is chilling any future concerts [and might] seriously affect the Passover entertainment and concert scene.”

Numerous other signatories were contacted but would not comment or did not return calls.

There are those in the fervently Orthodox community who believe that, while the rabbis might have been misled about some of the specifics, they were well aware of what they were doing when they signed the ban.

Binyamin Jolkovsky, publisher of and a close observer of the haredi community, said he believes the rabbis intend to “put a stop” to “the cultural trend” within the Orthodox community that emulates secular society, complete with music “superstars and concerts and Madison Square Garden and billboards.

“It’s one thing when you have the music on when you’re eating dinner, or while you’re driving,” he said. “It’s another when you’re on Avenue M [in Brooklyn] and see this chasidic face with curly payes staring down at you. It’s enough. If there is anyone whose picture belongs on a billboard to literally look up to, it should be a rebbe [not] a chasidic singer, and they’re putting an end to it.”

While legal issues regarding the concert cancellation are sure to go on — and the rabbis are now urging ticket holders for The Big Event not to request refunds so that the charity will receive the money — one observer of Jewish life noted that, ironically, the whole affair might boost Schmeltzer’s career.

Marc Shapiro, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, pointed out that previous rabbinic bans, like those against certain books, have spurred increased interest, and sales, for the books.

“I think 50 percent of the people went out to get them just because they were banned” and the other half adhered to the prohibition, he said.

But Schmeltzer doesn’t seem to feel that way. Interviewed on Zev Brenner’s radio show, he said he felt he had no choice but to obey the ban. “I have a career,” he said. “I have a wife and kids to support, I have a mortgage to pay. I have to get out of the fire.”

Hella Winston, a sociologist, is the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels.”