Battling Over Hearts and Minds With Hasidic Songs and Live Performances

Live music performances have led to one of the most bitterest cultural wars among ultra-Orthodox.

"Welcome," read the message on the giant screen, as the audience made its way slowly into the stands. "A historic occasion to mark the 11th day of Nissan, 106 years after the birth of our master and teacher, may he have a long and good life. Amen, the king and messiah."

The birthday of the Lubavitcher rebbe that was celebrated last week by members of the messianic faction of Chabad was merely a pretext for the mass event. The messages in the political speeches, too - against concessions in Jerusalem and so forth - were merely the wrapping for the promised, forbidden fruit: a performance by the two world-famous super-stars of Hasidic pop, Mordechai Ben-David and Yaakov Shwekey.

And when the lights finally dimmed, the tense eyes of the producers, the emcees and the artists on the grass at the Ramat Gan stadium were turned up to the stands: Would the benches be filled? Had the threats of the political activists had an effect? Would the music win the day?

"That's how it is with the ultra-Orthodox," said the master of ceremonies, media personality Menachem Toker, who calmed the crowd. "You tell them 7 P.M. but they come at 9."

This was yet another round, and certainly not the last, in one of the most bitterest cultural wars in the ultra-Orthodox community in years. There are rabbis who forbid any kind of performances, even those where there is a hermetic separation between women and men. They are certain they have identified the breach in the wall through which young people steal out from the isolated, ultra-Orthodox ghetto. On the other hand, there is a huge audience dying to hear Hasidic pop, as well as artists, producers and investors who will do everything possible so these performances will indeed take place. The last always prefer events that are identified with religious Zionism or Chabad, which is anyway considered a stepson by the ultra-Orthodox public. They know the members of the central streams of ultra-Orthodoxy will come anyway.

But last summer, on the eve of a planned appearance in Jerusalem by the singers Avraham Fried and Shwekey, something happened: The most senior rabbis published an edict against "the terrible breach in our camp, the evenings of songs and the concerts in which singers and cantors appear to sing before mixed groups of men and women." They threatened a boycott of the artists who would appear despite the ban. Then, too, the extent of obedience to the rabbis was examined - the artists came, as did a crowd of tens of thousands, but since that event several other planned performances were canceled.

The Shas role

When Yaakov Shwekey, who lives in the United States, accepted the invitation to appear at the Ramat Gan event, he turned to his rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and received permission "since the leading rabbis of Chabad, as well as the management, have committed themselves to having total separation between men and women and will put up fences and many kinds of barriers," as Rabbi Yosef wrote him. The rabbi had the impression that "the entire purpose and the main point of the gathering is the need to strengthen [the belief of] many of those who will hear it. From all of the above, it seems to me that it is possible for him to go the event and to make the participants happy."

The event in the Ramat Gan stadium was to a large extent a political demonstration against Shas but, strangely enough, it was held only thanks to the indirect permission granted by Shas' spiritual leader.

Now, as happened last year, it is the Guards of Sanctity and Education, headed by Rabbi Motke Blau, who are at the frontline of the war. Rabbi Yosef's permission spoiled the plans of Rabbi Blau, but nevertheless he threatened i n advance that he would send his people to the stadium to take pictures of those who violated the rabbis' orders and hit them in their soft underbelly - with matchmaking, throwing them out of educational facilities, denouncing them.

Now as then, many people ignored these threats, as did two Gur Hasidim who went to the performance from Ashdod. "I have a life of my own," one of them said. "I work, and so long as my rabbi has not explicitly forbidden it, I can do as I wish. I don't care what Blau says."

Shwekey told Haaretz, "It is not the rabbis, but rather the activists who tell lies to the rabbis. These are lies from A to Z. They say that men and women are together but here, you can see, there is full separation here. Nothing is of interest to the activists; they don't care that there are a million Jewish kids who don't know the 'Shema Yisrael.' What bothers them is a kosher event that is meant for the ultra-Orthodox. They are simply disturbed by the fact that there is happiness in the world."

Blau said in a telephone interview, far away from the stadium, that what disturbs him is the veneration of the singers. "I can show you videos of events like that," he said. "What does it look like? Michael Jackson! Lighting, lighters, idolatry, worship. It could be that they would have an evening meant only for men, but only when there is a real reason connected with the Torah, like bringing a new Torah scroll. An event of the type they want is not suited to the ultra-Orthodox public. Period."

The stalls at the Ramat Gan stadium were filled, but each side claimed victory. The producers said at the end of the evening that there had been 20,000 people in the audience while Blau, who relied on his detectives in the stadium, reported only 5,000, "most of whom were from the lunatic fringe or the margins of the ultra-Orthodox camp." One of the producers, Oyzer Druck, explained that in this battle at all events, it would be the music that would have the upper hand. Contrary to the struggles being waged by the ultra-Orthodox public against external factors such as the Shefa Shuk supermarket chain (for violating the Sabbath), he said, "Here it's a struggle that relates to the youth, and the rabbis have no control over the youth. The rabbis don't give the youth any kind of prize - it is forbidden to go to the movies or to performances. So what is left? To read [the ultra-Orthodox writer] Haim Walder? They have to get a bit of freedom. It is the holiday between terms now."

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