NEW YORK — It might sound unusual for a major record contract to be forged in a Boro Park kosher restaurant — but when the rising star is a Belz Hasid, there is no more fitting a forum. And that’s how the deal was inked when 28-year-old Brooklyn born and raised tenor Shulem Lemmer was signed to the prestigious Universal Music Group, it was announced this week.
Later this year Decca Gold, an imprint of Universal Music Group’s Verve Label Group, will release Lemmer’s first album, “The Perfect Dream.” Two haunting tracks are already available, “Bring Him Home” from the hit Broadway musical “Les Miserables,” and the traditional Jewish anthem, “Jerusalem of Gold.” With a soaring symphony accompanying his versatile vocals, the songs’ divergent provenance perfectly showcases his eclectic taste.
In conversation with The Times of Israel on Thursday, Lemmer said that even more gratifying than having a dream realized, is his sheer delight over the thought of reaching people beyond his Boro Park community.
“It’s really exciting. I have a platform to reach different people from different backgrounds. Music is a door opener; it’s a dialogue, it’s a conversation. We have much more in common than we have things that divide us,” Lemmer said in a telephone interview.
Lemmer’s mainstream discovery was a case of karmic kismet.
Graham Parker, president of Universal Music U.S. Classical and Decca Gold, stumbled on videos of Lemmer performing. He was immediately mesmerized.
“I just looked at it with amazement. Basically I couldn’t believe it… When I heard it I could tell he knew what he was doing. He had a glint in his eye and he was in command. Vocally he is incredibly strong,” Parker told The Times of Israel.
Parker knows talent. He’d worked as a part-time cantor in his synagogue, trained as a flautist and pianist. And before joining Universal Music Group in 2016 he was general manager of the classical music station WQXR and The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space and a Senior Vice President of New York Public Radio.
As he said, “I know a good voice when I hear it.”
Parker tracked Lemmer down via his website. The two met in Boro Park in a kosher restaurant and quickly concluded there was the possibility to do something unique.
“The first time I met him [Lemmer] I asked him if he could sing in English. I mean of course he could sing in English, but if he was interested in singing in English. He said, ‘Despite how I look, yes I am,’” Parker said.
Lemmer looks like a typical Belz Hasid. Traditionally, the community speaks in Yiddish and men wear large fur hats called streimels on Shabbat and on special occasions. Women are modest and largely kept out of the limelight. In one London community, there was even a short-lived proposal that women should give up driving.
The insular ultra-Orthodox denomination is a lesson of resilience. Founded in 1817, the Galicia-based sect was all but wiped out in the Holocaust. Today, Belz has one of the largest Hasidic communities, with a home base in Jerusalem and satellite centers in England, Belgium, Canada, New Jersey and New York. The current leader is Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who took the helm in 1966.
Although those living outside the religious world are just getting to know Lemmer’s voice, he’s been singing for as long as he can remember.
“I grew up with music. My mother was always playing contemporary Jewish music in the house. My father played cantorial music. So it was a good mix for young ears,” he said.
Lemmer also had has ample opportunities to perform — at family weddings and as a featured child soloist in his community. While living in Israel for six-and-a-half years he had the chance to record with an adult chorus and upon his return to the US, he joined the prestigious Shira Choir where he quickly became a soloist.
Eventually, despite his parochial upbringing, he started listening to secular opera, particularly Luciano Pavarotti. He quickly moved to Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli and easy listening baritone Josh Groban.
“There is a perception that Hasidic people won’t listen to that music, and many typically won’t. I started listening to it much later and I truly enjoy so many different genres of music,” he said.
Careful to warm his voice every day, Lemmer said he has never had professional voice lessons. Instead he studies his favorite vocalists. The thought of someday collaborating with one of them “is still a dream. I have a big list of people I’d love to sing with.”
Jon Cohen, the international award-winning producer and arranger renowned for his contributions to the Classical Crossover genre will produce the album. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany the singer.
“Shulem’s palate of sounds is absolutely extraordinary and he is the first artist that I have worked with that can authentically and seamlessly move from a classical vocal style to a soul singer. It’s a dream to get a talent like him in front of a microphone,” Cohen said in a statement.
Lemmer’s first social media outing will be on July 24 when the 92nd Street Y in New York City hosts him in a Facebook Live event. After that Universal’s Parker said he wants to introduce Lemmer to a wider audience.
For Lemmer, taking his music to the next level has been both humbling and inspiring.
“It’s been about communicating and sending a positive message. I can stick to who I am and my values. I am staying true to myself and who I am – I am first a proud Jew. I am also a singer,” Lemmer said.