BROOKLYN – A gaggle of teenage schoolgirls wearing identical shin-length pleated skirts and navy sweaters passes Shulem Lemmer on 13th Avenue, Borough Park’s main shopping thoroughfare. Their heads turn as they walk by. But these modest fan-girls won’t speak to the rising musical star, since that would violate their community’s rule against adolescent conversation between unrelated members of the opposite sex.
On his home turf, Lemmer is famous for singing stirring cantorial and Yiddish melodies in an unusually supple tenor. He can’t walk more than a few steps without being recognized. A kitchen worker at the upscale dairy restaurant where Haaretz interviewed the young singer left his post to politely fawn and ask for a photo.
One of the country’s largest music corporations, Universal Music Group, envisions a far larger stage for Lemmer. But whether the talented young Belz Hasid with shoulder-length sidecurls will be embraced by the music-buying public remains to be seen.
Graham Parker, president of Universal’s U.S. classical music label Decca Gold, signed Lemmer last June. His first step was to have him record an album of English, Hebrew and Yiddish songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, working with award-winning producer and arranger Jon Cohen. Other musicians on Decca Gold’s roster include opera singer Anna Netrebko and concert pianist Lang Lang.
Lemmer is the first born-and-raised Orthodox singer ever to be signed by a major label. (Jewish-American singer Matisyahu was raised nonreligious, became Orthodox and later returned to non-observance.)
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Though the label initially planned to release the album this fall, Parker decided to take his time laying the groundwork for Lemmer to make musical inroads. This means gradually introducing him to an American public unused to seeing Hasidic Jews in any context, let alone singing American standards.
The Decca Gold album includes “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Bring Him Home” from the Broadway show “Les Misérables.” Elsewhere, Lemmer performs with a Mormon men’s choir and an all-male Gospel choir.
Shulem, just Shulem
Lemmer, 29 and married with three young children, has started going by just a single name: Shulem, a la Cher and Madonna. He is intent on breaking out of the modern shtetl walls in which he was raised and reaching a broader audience, though his ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community generally regards the secular world – particularly when it comes to popular culture – as something to be shunned.
In the Belz and other Hasidic communities, lives are circumscribed by a focus on family, religious observance and the Jewish calendar. And though the Hasidic community refuses to even publish images of women in its newspapers, or record women singing – since men are not permitted to hear women’s voices, as they are considered too alluring – Lemmer will likely soon be sharing concert bills with female singers.
He says he doesn’t view his community’s norms as an impediment, but does consult with a coterie of rabbinical advisers about professional decisions.
“It’s a great opportunity to reach a much wider audience and spread a positive message of hope. We can change people’s perception of minority groups like Hasidim, or even people who are just Jewish,” he tells Haaretz about his signing to a major label. “My message is that you can chase your dreams and not compromise who you are,” he says.
His Borough Park childhood was full of Jewish music. The youngest of eight children, his older brother Yanky is the cantor at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue. Lemmer’s father loved hazzanuth and brought Shulem to listen to famous cantors when they visited area synagogues.
Slightly built, Lemmer wears the usual uniform of ultra-Orthodox men: white shirt, black pants, black jacket. His peyes are perfectly curled. The secret to keeping them well-formed, he confides with a smile, is hair gel.
Not only is he the first Hasidic artist to sign with a major label, he is perhaps the only singer on a mainstream label to have a line written into his contract giving him the right to turn down a performance or venue for any reason, at any time.
Conversations with his rabbinical advisers, whom he declines to name, are focused not just on preventing breaches of Jewish law, but also on ensuring that his choices comport with a worldview befitting a Hasid.
While it is obvious that Lemmer wouldn’t sing a duet with a woman (which is prohibited according to Jewish law), some other things are, perhaps unexpectedly, permitted. For instance, he could appear on the same bill as a woman, Parker tells Haaretz.
“When we were looking through the song list” for the upcoming Decca Gold album, “we made sure that every song makes sense for me to sing as an Orthodox Jew, as a Hasidic Jew,” Lemmer explains.
Songs were ruled out for a variety of reasons, he says. “Some of the songs hinted that they were love songs. One song we really wanted to do on the album was adopted as a theme song by a church, so we didn’t do that. There are always going to be little things that come up, and that’s why I constantly consult with the rabbanim.” There are many decisions where “it’s not black and white,” he says.
Universal is proceeding cautiously with its young Hasidic talent. “We’re releasing singles to build the buzz; we want people to see that he is real,” Parker says. “People make a lot of assumptions when they see someone like him. It’s never been done before. There’s no pathway for this. It’s getting over people’s assumptions.
“We’re trying to get concert promoters to think about presenting him. He’s Orthodox and Jewish, and that raises a lot of questions in people’s minds. We hope that, little by little” making him visible – and hopefully viral – “will reduce people’s concerns. He’s a regular guy singing beautifully.”
Parker has started booking Lemmer to sing “God Bless America” and the national anthem at major U.S. baseball and basketball stadiums across the country. He did so recently at San Francisco’s baseball stadium and Boston’s Fenway Park. It was there, Lemmer says, that it first hit home he has moved beyond synagogues and bar mitzvahs.
Singing “God Bless America” at Fenway has been Lemmer’s most exciting moment to date, he says. “It was a sold-out game right before they clinched the playoffs. The Sox and the Mets were tied. Everyone is screaming and yelling, and then it got quiet,” he recalls. “It was a little intimidating, until I started singing. Then I felt like ‘Wow, I made it.’ It was the biggest audience I ever sang for. I couldn’t believe this was happening, and I thought to myself, ‘I guess I made it to the next level.’”
In some respects, Lemmer is being groomed to be a 21st century version of Moishe Oysher. Like the storied cantor-singer-actor who died in 1958, Lemmer is an entertaining personality, comfortable both in shul and on stage.
That much is clear during his first public performance – which took place at the Upper West Side’s Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in mid-October.
Lemmer is chatty, charismatic and charming, encouraging the audience of some 200 enthusiastic fans to sing along with him on “Jerusalem of Gold” and sing “Happy Birthday” to him in Hebrew and English (it was the eve of his 29th birthday on the Hebrew calendar).
The performance sees Lemmer singing in Hebrew (on “Avinu Malkeinu”; as he started, an older woman sitting behind me said to her friend, “This is what I came for”); Yiddish (“A Bei Gezunt”); and English (“When You Believe” from “The Prince of Egypt,” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and, for an encore, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water”).
Parker discovered Lemmer when he happened upon a YouTube video of him singing “Had Gadya”. Lemmer was singing the Oysher version of the song about buying a goat, which is typically sung at the end of Passover seders. Like Oysher, Lemmer scats with considerable finesse and humor.
The Decca Gold head says that when he saw the video, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing or seeing. “I was looking at the way he was using his voice and his throat, and could see he really knew what he was doing,” recalls Parker.
When the two men first met at a Borough Park coffee shop, they bonded over their shared love of Jewish music – which Parker knew from hanging around Orthodox youth groups in northwest London and, later, when he himself sang as a cantor at Manhattan’s LGBTQ synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
‘Don’t change Shulem’
Label representatives are aware that big challenges lie ahead. Sylvia Weiner, a Universal Music Group marketing consultant who sat in on Lemmer’s interview with Haaretz, notes that major industry events like the Grammys are on Friday nights and Saturdays, “so we’ll have to say no” if he is invited. But, she emphasizes, “We don’t want to change Shulem.”
For the moment, Lemmer is still working part-time at his day job as marketing director for a tech company based in Williamsburg.
And he’s trying to get used to life as a star.
When he took his family to the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park near their New Jersey home during the intermediate days of Sukkot, fans stopped him every few feet.
“Next time,” jokes Lemmer, “I’m going to have to wear a hoodie and baseball cap.”