Nothing rejoices the heart more than seeing the sudden rise of a young person. Fortunately, this time we didn’t have to look too far to participate in this uplifting experience. Twenty-eight-year-old Shulem Lemmer, born and raised in Boro Park, is about to release an album with Decca Gold, a division of the Verve Label Group at Universal Music. Even more intriguing is that Shulem wasn’t even that well known in the Jewish world before his musical talents were discovered by Universal and he joined an international roster of superstars. But the fact is that Shulem is a chasidic Jew, and he is determined that his stardom won’t interfere with his way of life.
“When we originally drafted my contract,” he shares with a smile, “I told them, ‘I’m a chasidishe person, and this is obviously not as simple as it seems. There are a lot of limitations and restrictions.’ They wanted to hear about them, so I explained some of the halachic and hashkafic issues that could arise. The consensus was that if I could remain true to who I am and not compromise any of my principles it would be an amazing kiddush Hashem for the world at large, and even for the frum community. I’m very grateful to Decca Gold and Universal for not only giving me this opportunity, but also for encouraging me to stay exactly who I am and release an album that can potentially reach the whole world.”
Shulem is in my office today with the well-known Jewish music producer, conductor and arranger Yochanan Briskman, or Yochi as he is called, along with Sylvia Weiner, who coordinates all of Shulem Lemmer’s publicity. Ms. Weiner also supervises media relations for Tony Bennett, Danny Bennett and RPM Productions. While I soon learn that in order to land a big contract, a musician has to give up some of his independence, the trade-off is certainly worthwhile.
Shulem describes the moment he learned that Universal was considering producing his music as “surreal.”
“I was at work. I have a regular day job; I’m the director of marketing at a company called Fingercheck. I opened up an email that read, ‘Hi, my name is Graham Parker and I’m the president of Decca Gold, which is a subdivision of Universal. I saw one of your YouTube videos and I would like to meet you.’ My first reaction was that it was probably spam because it didn’t make sense. ‘Graham Parker’ sounds like the perfect fake name for someone trying to set up a scam.
“The first thing I did was forward the email to Yochi to ask him if he thought it was legit. He said yes, and that we should set up a meeting. A few days later we met in Boro Park. I was still living here at the time, although I now live in Toms River, New Jersey. We had a really great initial conversation. The first thing Graham wanted to know was whether I could sing in English. I said, ‘Of course. I speak English!’ He’d only seen the online videos, which are either in Lashon Kodesh or Yiddish. He told me he’d stumbled onto one of my videos back when he still worked at WQXR. It was a wide-ranging conversation. We talked about different genres of music, where my career was going and what I’d been doing up until now, and he explained what Decca Gold does: It’s a classical label division that’s looking to broaden its roster of artists. I was truly humbled. It felt like a dream, but it was real.”
Shulem says that he doesn’t take any credit for this accomplishment. “At the end of the day it’s all about my voice, and Hashem gave it to me. I didn’t give it to myself. ”
“That’s true, of course,” I say, “but you also worked on it.”
“Do you have a voice teacher?”
“I’ve been to a number of voice teachers. My training hasn’t been very formal. I do warm-ups every day. I once spoke with the Chernobyler Rebbe when he came to Toms River,” he shares. “I sang for him and he really enjoyed it, and afterwards he wanted to talk to me about singing. He explained that the words ‘v’hayah k’nagein hamenagein’ mean that just as an instrument sits in its case after it is played and doesn’t take credit for the music it produces, so too should a singer not take any credit for his singing. Hashem created him that way. ‘And not only that,’ he said, ‘it’s Hashem Who is playing through you. You are Hashem’s instrument, which is why you have a responsibility to do it the right way.’”
It is impossible to understand Shulem’s neshamah without knowing about the chasidic community to which he belongs. Shulem is a Belzer chasid, and, in fact, on his first album he sings a moving song based upon one of the Belzer Rav’s tenuos from Birkas Kohanim.
When I express surprise that the Belzer Rav is a composer, Shulem informs me that his Rebbe has actually composed several popular niggunim, including one for the recent chasunah of a grandchild to the words “ki anu amecha,” to which he danced for over an hour.
While the tenuah is that of the Rebbe, the song sung by Shulem was written by Hershy Rottenberg, who composed the tune around the tenuah. After Shulem’s album was released, the Belzer Rav suddenly stopped singing that tenuah.