In 2008 I was busy preparing for one of my biggest shows, which was scheduled to take place in Madison Square Garden. However, the “Big Event,” as it was called, did not happen that year. I had to cancel it due to a ban signed by thirty-three rabbis.
The New York Times published an article about why the rabbis were so afraid of my music: “The growing fame of Mr. Schmeltzer, who weaves pop melodies with traditional Hasidic songs, has troubled some Hasidim, who have chided him for introducing Jewish youth to secular musical styles. Others fear his popularity could rival that of the rabbis, who wield spiritual authority over Hasidic daily life.”
The Times reached out to me for comment, but I did not respond. I was afraid of further consequences. I was also wary of responding to a non-Jewish newspaper with details about our insular community that should be kept private.
I will not elaborate here on the damage the ban caused me. I will only say that I have been wondering ever since, what is it about my music that can get some religious leaders so excited? Is it a problem because some oppose musical genres due to taste – a matter of subjectivity – or is it because certain musical styles interfere with their version of religion?
Now that I’ve had a chance to study music and the brain, I know just what I would have told The New York Times. Here is what I think: Whether we love or hate music depends on conditioning. It’s not about religion; it’s about what we grew up with.
In fact, many things in every culture are conditioned, such as taste, smell, and visual cues. And in the Chassidic community, more things are conditioned than in other cultures. These include certain gender roles and modes of dress. For example, Chassidim are supposed to dress in black and white – a blue shirt can signal an outcast.
I would have explained to The New York Times that when it comes to musical genres, taste lies hidden in several parts of our brain that have been conditioned to our musical choices. Musical conditioning, in fact, occurs as early as the ninth month of a baby’s life, according to an article by Daniel J. Levitin and Anna K. Tirovolas that appeared in the magazine The Year In Cognitive Neuroscience (2009).
Levitin and Tirovolas helped me understand that opposition to my music is not necessarily a religious opinion but a brain condition. Their research indicated that people who had no exposure to major and minor modes (associated with brightness vs. darkness, or happiness vs. sadness) showed little or no difference when listening to songs in these modes. We can therefore conclude that perception has to do with the genres of music people have been listening to since childhood.
Much of the opposition to me was due to my performing rap music. Like most Chassidic Jews, I did not know what rap was. I first found out about it when I got a booking from a producer who requested that I do “that rap thing for fifteen minutes.”
When I asked what “ that rap thing” was, he told me “the fast rhymes you did the other night while the drummer was performing a solo.” I said “Oh, that’s the rap thing; I can give you more of that.”
Nowadays I think that perhaps my free style developed not because I ever listened to rap but rather from a key childhood influence: the sing-song of the study hall where yeshiva students like me debated the finer points of the Talmud in a complex, rapid-fire delivery. Turning that into rap was not such an unusual step; Jews and others have often adapted musical genres from their surroundings.
It is important to recognize that not everyone’s brain accepts music the same way, and that acceptance depends, at least in part, on how the brain is culturally conditioned. The way we perceive music has nothing to do with religion.
As someone who stands with one foot in my Chassidic community and the other in Columbia University, I hope to change people’s minds. Yes, we can dance on an American hip-hop stage with spiritual movements. If The New York Times calls again, I’ll tell them!