Columbia is filled to the brim with unique and interesting people. But let’s be honest, how many of them can say they have 13 solo albums and are a superstar in the world of Hasidic music? Probably only Lipa Schmeltzer, a GS student and father of four. Music mavens Tom Kicak and Dylan Cooper interviewed the Jewish Elvis himself about what it took for him to reach stardom and what inspired him to settle down in good ol’ GS.
Bwog: What was it like growing up in a completely Hasidic neighborhood?
LS: I’m one of twelve children, the eleventh in the family of six girls and six boys. My father was a holocaust survivor from the Bergen-Belsen camp. I was like a squeezed out lemon after a school day when I was a kid—I learned Judaic studies in Yiddish and Hebrew for most of the day and also learned 30 minutes of English and Mathematics. I only learned from the Talmud and Bible, no English. Everything went by the Rabbi, what he said, goes.
Bwog: When did you realize you had a gift for music?
LS: I couldn’t focus when I was a kid; I’d hum, knock on the table and sing during class. My Rabbis would get frustrated, maybe even hit me with a ruler. I composed my first song when I was 13. I always had an ear for harmony before I knew what harmony was. I would always be in rhythm before I even knew what rhythm meant. That made me feel like I was destined to be a singer.
Bwog: When did you begin performing?
LS: My first performance was when I was 9 years old for a local dinner event for an ambulance service. My father felt singing would take away my head from the books and stray my journey from being a scholar. I started working professionally at 20 years old. I had no idea what I was going to do but I did it and I loved it, and the audiences loved it too. I produced my own CD only a few months later.
Bwog: There seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding your fame. What’s that all about?
LS: My success drew a lot of controversy because the name Lipa was being associated with pop culture. Going to Columbia is not the norm in the Hasidic community—I may be the first. Others have done it, but they left the community. I kept one foot in the community and one foot in the secular world.
Bwog: What made you choose Columbia?
LS: I applied with all types of confusions and I got accepted. At community college, people told me that Columbia is an Ivy League school, and I figured out what that was. Once I was accepted, I realized I can’t turn down the offer. I’m like a kid in a candy store here, there’s so much I could learn. I am here because I want to be with all types of people so I can learn what the world is about and to understand other people. Spending 12 hours a day in Columbia gives me a new life outside of my Hasidic community.
Bwog: How’s your transition been from Hasidic rock star to GS student?
LS: It’s a few years in the making. It’s not an either-or situation. I realized I can bring to the secular people a perspective of Hasidic Jewry, and I can bring to the Hasidic community a taste of the Columbia education. Now I realize that I can do both.
This interview has been edited for clarity
Photo via Lipa Schmeltzer’s twitter