Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Day in the Life of Lipa Schmeltzer, Ex-Ultra-Orthodox Celebrity

“You can never stop wearing masks,” said Lipa Schmeltzer, eyes on everything but the road, “you can only choose what mask you want to wear.” A few hours into a recent day, Schmeltzer had taken off his entertainer mask—through which he constantly posed and smiled and shouted, to make others laugh—and transformed into a proud Columbia University student. (“I never even heard of the Ivy Leagues!” he said.) His love of “secular knowledge” burst forth like a broken dam. Here was Schmeltzer, quoting an important essay about the nature of identity. “That’s from an essay I’m reading, by Wendy Doniger,” he said, referring to her essay “Many Masks, Many Selves.” “I love the way she writes.”

The idea was to capture a typical day in the life of the most recognizable Orthodox Jewish singer in the world, a man whose “Mizrach” music video garnered more than 1.4 million views on YouTube, a Jewish figure who appeals to all types of Jews, regardless of gender, affiliation, belief, or politics. Raised ultra-Orthodox in the Skverer sect, Schmeltzer quietly left his community in 2010, when he moved from New Square to Airmont, New York. He remained Orthodox and observant but no longer follows the strict rules of the sect he grew up in, especially in regard to secular studies and interactions with women and non-Jews, among other lifestyle choices. Now at the end of his second semester at Columbia University—secular higher education remains a rare occurrence for Skverer Hasidim—he was embarking on a new stage of his already storied life, exploring the boundaries and capabilities of a fluid religious identity. [...]

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