Monday, March 3, 2008

A Clash Between Popular Culture and Orthodox Piety from the New York Times

For thousands of Orthodox Jews, the “Big Event” — a concert featuring the popular Hasidic entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer — was supposed to happen next Sunday at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. But fans and organizers were shocked to learn late last month that a group of rabbis had issued an edict against the show, effectively canceling it.

The decree, published in Hebrew in the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia and signed by 33 rabbis, warned that the sight of dancing and singing performers would cause “ribaldry and lightheadedness” that would lure young people away from spiritual purity. It prohibited Orthodox Jews from attending the concert and called on Mr. Schmeltzer to back out.

The ban has inflamed tensions among ultra-Orthodox Jews over how to address the influences of popular culture, and it has thrust what has largely been an internal debate into public view.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose Brooklyn district includes many Hasidic neighborhoods, said the ban had triggered unprecedented dissent and outrage among Hasidim. “In all my 26 years of representing this community, I can’t remember anything that has so shaken the people,” Mr. Hikind said on Sunday.

The growing fame of Mr. Schmeltzer, who weaves pop melodies with traditional Hasidic songs, has troubled some Hasidim, who have chided him for introducing Jewish youth to secular musical styles. Others fear his popularity could rival that of the rabbis, who wield spiritual authority over Hasidic daily life.

In an effort to assuage those fears and uphold the religious practice of modesty, the concert organizers had promised separate entrances and seating for the more than 5,000 men and women who had been expected to attend, and Mr. Schmeltzer had agreed to perform only traditional Hasidic songs.

But that was not enough to prevent two community leaders in Brooklyn from mobilizing opposition to the show, which was raising money for an Israeli charity that finances weddings for orphans. In late February, the two men, Asher Friedman and Rabbi Avraham Shor, demanded that the concert be canceled. Using the text of an edict that had been used to ban a concert in Israel, they warned that the concert would “strip the youth of every shred of fear of heaven.” They said they were acting on behalf of a group of Israeli rabbis, and ultimately, 33 American rabbis signed the edict.

Sheya Mendlowitz, the concert’s producer, said Mr. Friedman and Mr. Shor had known about the concert for months but had acted without warning, just two weeks before the show, causing $700,000 in losses.

“These two activists stirred up all the trouble,” said Mr. Mendlowitz, who has worked in the Hasidic music business for 27 years. “They just wanted to sabotage us.”

Days later, Mr. Schmeltzer, who lives in Monsey, N.Y., announced that he would not perform. In an interview on Rabbi Zev J. Brenner’s syndicated radio program, he said that he had no choice but to obey the decree. “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,” Mr. Schmeltzer said. He then withdrew from a concert in London as well.

When Mr. Mendlowitz canceled the show, he insisted that advertisers, Madison Square Garden and the more than 3,000 ticket holders — who paid between $50 and $500 — would be reimbursed. He added that Mr. Friedman had offered to help offset the losses — but only if Mr. Mendlowitz agreed to retire from the Hasidic concert business, a condition Mr. Mendlowitz rejected.

A man answering Mr. Friedman’s cellphone, who declined to identify himself, refused to discuss the concert.

The controversy has provided a rare glimpse into the deeply secretive Hasidic world. In recent days, debate over the ban has raged on blogs and on the radio, which provide participants the anonymity to challenge their religious leaders. “The rabbis are dictators,” said one writer on the blog Vos Iz Neias. Others defended their spiritual leaders, saying that they were protecting young people. “Our rabbis must know more than we do, what effect this concert, or the performers in general have on our children,” wrote another.

Some critics say the rabbis were manipulated, and one signer, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky of Philadelphia, told Hamodia that the rabbis did not verify the claim that the edict had been approved by Israeli rabbis. “Usually we meet together. This time, with time pressing, we did not meet together, and maybe it was not the right thing,” he said, according to Hamodia.

But Rabbi Brenner said that despite any misgivings, there was no indication that the rabbis were prepared to rescind the ban, which could call their infallibility into question. “They have the weight of the Torah behind them,” he said. “I don’t recall a ban ever being lifted.”

Assemblyman Hikind said he planned to meet with the rabbis involved. “Suddenly, when it comes to faith in the rabbis, there is this big question mark,” he said. “And when you don’t explain to the young people, you lose them, plain and simple.”

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