November 12, 2019

Shulem Lemmer: The Impossible (Chasidic) Dream

For nearly 100 years, the legendary British recording label Decca Records has released albums by some of the greatest artists of our time, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley and the Rolling Stones.  

In a rare move, Decca Gold, the label’s classical subsidiary, recently signed a young Chasidic Jew, 28-year-old Shulem Lemmer. A Belz Chasid who was born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and now lives with his wife and family in Toms River, N.J., Lemmer goes by the recording name of Shulem.

Although Lemmer works in the tech world and serves as a guest cantor at various Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey and New York, he was discovered by Decca Gold President Graham Parker when Parker was searching for Passover music to share with his family. He stumbled across a YouTube video of Lemmer singing “Chad Gadya,” and the rest, as they say, is history. 

To date, Decca has released two of Shulem’s singles, Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Bring Him Home” from the musical “Les Miserables.” His debut album, “The Perfect Dream,” will be released this fall.

Jewish Journal: When did you first start singing?
Shulem Lemmer: Music has always been part of my family’s tradition, as my father played cantorial music in our home and my brother, Yanky, who is a cantor in New York City, often studied and practiced. Although I am six years younger than him, I absorbed a lot of what he was learning. I started singing at family events when I was very young, and I had the opportunity to hear and observe many singers in our community at various events such as bar mitzvahs and weddings, and, of course, during prayers in synagogue.

It was a good, but informal, training ground. Although I never received what I would consider formal training, I am a good listener and researcher, so I learned singing techniques from a variety of sources and in particular paid close attention to singers that I admired, such as Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried. For a short time, I studied bel canto technique with a teacher [and] would watch YouTube videos on vocal warmup techniques and learned quite a bit.

“As a cantor, I am used to singing early in the morning, with no microphone and certainly no musicians backing me up, so all of this is a major learning curve.”

JJ: What type of music will be on your debut album?
SL: [Graham Parker and I] looked for songs that had a positive and inspirational message. I have listened to opera, [Luciano] Pavarotti in particular, but also Josh Groban and Stevie Wonder. With that in mind, we chose “Bring Him Home,” from “Les Misérables,” which I really loved, as the message is about what a parent would do for a child — even give up his own life. 

It was important to also include traditional songs, so “Jerusalem of Gold” was a natural choice. Also choosing the right producer to work with was essential and Graham introduced me to Jon Cohen, who is based in the U.K. and has a great reputation for contemporary classical types of projects, so that was a great fit. Then the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was brought in for [those] first two singles. 

It has been a whirlwind and I am still getting my bearings. As a cantor, I am used to singing early in the morning, with no microphone and certainly no musicians backing me up, so all of this is a major learning curve.

JJ:  What do you hope to do with your music?
SL: Ultimately, to inspire, connect and unite people.

Matt Robinson is a freelance writer and teacher in the Boston area.