As best he can recall, Universal Music executive Graham Parker was just looking for a Passover song on YouTube to play for his kids. That’s how he stumbled across Belzer hasid Shulem Lemmer’s a cappella rendition of the traditional ditty “Chad Gadya.”
Parker was immediately hooked. “This guy really knows what he’s doing with his voice,” he remembers thinking. “I was just flabbergasted by him.”
At the time, Parker was the manager of WQXR, New York’s esteemed classical radio station. He soon became something of a Shulem superfan. “I was honestly a little obsessed with Shulem,” he said. “I just was like, who is this guy?”
He began by investigating the “Chad Gadya” video. “It took me ages to figure out: Where was this shot? It’s not in Israel because the Coke bottles are in English, so it’s somewhere in America. It’s clearly not a religious event because they’re filming it. So what is this?” When Parker arrived at Universal Music some time later to oversee their classical labels in America, he would finally find out.
Among other responsibilities at Universal, Parker was tasked with assembling his own roster of artists under a new label, Decca Gold. He immediately thought of Shulem, the Belzer hasid he had never met. “I had a meeting with our chairman where I mentioned the idea,” Parker recalled. “I said, ‘I’m looking at this guy,’ and he said, ‘What are you doing sitting here? Go reach out to him.'”
Parker sent Lemmer an inquiry through his personal website, and offered to come all the way from California to meet him. Lemmer, for his part, says he first thought “it was a joke.” But they agreed and set a date in Brooklyn.
Lemmer, as Parker would discover, is a 28-year-old Belzer hasid who lives in Toms River, New Jersey. By day, he works in marketing for a startup. By night, he sings at weddings, concerts, and other festive Jewish occasions, in addition to building his burgeoning recording career. When we spoke, he had recently returned from performing in Krakow.
At their first meeting, Parker opened with his most pressing concern about the potential project: “Shulem,” he asked, “do you ever sing in English?” After all this time, Parker had only seen Lemmer perform in Hebrew and Yiddish on YouTube, which would not be sufficient for a Universal album. To his relief, Lemmer responded in the affirmative.
“His influences were candidly a little broader than I had initially realized,” said Parker. “He actually knew contemporary artists. He had listened to a lot of different music.” In fact, Lemmer cited to me a wide array of influences from chazzanut and cantorial music to Billy Joel and Pavarotti. “Music,” he explained, “is a universal language.” That’s more than a cliché to Lemmer: It’s why his music is able to reach across cultural divides and touch people of diverse faiths and backgrounds, from his own Belz hasidic community to African-American churchgoers who follow his work online. (Indeed, YouTube videos of his performances routinely receive many positive comments from gentile listeners moved by his voice.)
That first meeting in Borough Park ultimately sealed the deal. “I had him come in to meet the team and we made the decision to offer him a record contract,” said Parker.
So how did that unusual ‘Chad Gadya’ video come about? “It was sefirah,” said Lemmer—that is, the time between Passover and Shavuot when religious Jews eschew live music—”and so we just had microphones” to sing a cappella. When the video of the performance first appeared, Lemmer was worried about its quality, and the fact that he felt he hadn’t fully mastered the whole melody. “I’m a perfectionist,” he explained. Of course, the video has since received over a million combined views on Facebook and YouTube.
Fast forward to this past week, and Universal released Shulem’s first singles off his upcoming album: renditions of Naomi Shemer’s Hebrew classic “Jerusalem of Gold” and Les Miserables’ “Bring Him Home.” He is accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic.
The planned album will feature classic covers like Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” plus an original title track. Music videos of Shulem singing both of the new tracks are set to be released in the coming weeks.
Can Lemmer generate serious crossover appeal without alienating more traditional religious listeners? Will he be the Matisyahu for the Josh Groban crowd? Parker believes he has that potential. “I genuinely see him as immensely talented and it would be amazing if Shulem becomes a major crossover artist,” he told me. “He deserves it. And I think it would do a lot to bridge issues within the Jewish community between Hasidism and Reform and Orthodoxy, where there are so many tensions.”
“This is a big experiment, but it could be something,” he said. “That’s why I decided to take the risk. If I was going to try it, I was going to try it with him.”