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No Laughing Matter

Rachel Ginsberg

Reb Yonason Schwartz has been calling up mechutanim for the mitzvah tantz for the last twenty-three years, but he says that the minute it becomes routine, he’ll bow out of the business. “I get emotional at every single wedding. Each one is an entire universe,” says the world-class badchan with the silky voice whose popular CDs have become staple listening in Jewish homes.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

For Reb Yonason Schwartz, being a badchan is not about fun and games.

Loosely translated as a “jester,” a chassid knows that it’s anything but. At a chassidic wedding, the badchan is the link between heaven and earth, weaving his lyrical verse as he summons the honored relatives to the mitzvah tantz — a dance that, according to tradition, joins the souls of the generations together.

“A good badchan is really a family therapist,” Reb Yonason says. “He has to be highly intuitive and chap the nuances of the family dynamics. He has the capacity to make shalom between relatives, or fan the flames of controversy. I don’t even know most of the families I do weddings for, but after doing this for more than two decades, an hour of getting family details is enough for me to know what to say and what not to say.

“Sometimes one word can destroy a family,” he continues. “Let’s say there are several brothers; one is a rosh yeshivah, one is a rav, one is a mesivta rebbi, and one is a plumber. So if I call them up as the dayan, the rosh yeshivah, and the baal chesed, I’ve slaughtered him. You have to be so careful not to trample people’s kavod.”

Also an Orphan

Reb Yonason Schwartz’s unusual gift of lyric (“the rhymes just come spontaneously when I hold the microphone”), together with his silky, penetrating voice, puts him in a class by himself. His popular series of recordings, most of which are in Yiddish and whose titles begin with “A Gutte” (e.g. A Gutten Shabbos, A Gutte Voch, A Gutter Yid, A Gutte Niggun, A Gutte Neshamah, A Gutte Besureh), contain chilling songs that can bring a person to tears and intense feelings of spiritual longing, and others that extract a giggle at some of the foibles of modern society.

But every song has its twist: in one, called Unteren Chuppah (from A Gutte Besureh) he tells the story of a boy about to be married, whose father is deathly ill. As his wedding day approaches, the chassan begs his father to promise that he will escort him to the chuppah. “I promise that your father will walk you the chuppah,” his father responds. Shortly before the wedding, the song continues, the father passes away. The chassan falls on his father’s fresh grave and cries, “You told me that you would walk me to the chuppah!”

His father appears to him and says, “I promised that your Father would walk you to the chuppah, and he will. Hashem is the Avi Yesomim, Father of the orphans, and He will escort you to the chuppah.”

The song, like so many in his repertoire, isn’t so far off from his own life experience. He says the personal challenges he’s gone through are his biggest inspiration, and have given him the ability to connect to the pain and struggles of his listeners.

Reb Yonason’s mother passed away at age thirty-one, when he was just ten years old. At age twenty, as a chassan newly arrived to the US, he too went to the chuppah without a parent. Those painful, unstable years of his youth left a mark on his heart that makes him a profound empathizer.

Young Yonason and his sisters were looked after by the Belzer Rebbetzin, a childhood friend of their mother’s who promised the dying Mrs. Schwartz that she would care for the children. “She’s kept her promise to this day,” he says.

Schwartz didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in New York (hard to believe after listening to his articulate, energetic English diction). With no support forthcoming, he took on a menial job that kept him busy from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Yet he loved to sing, and occasionally performed at weddings after hours — until his boss said to him, “What are you doing here? You belong in a studio. Go sing!” And so, six months later, Yonason Schwartz the badchan emerged.

But his big break came three years later, at the wedding of the Belzer Rebbe’s only son. Top badchanim were appointed to entertain the crowds at the mitzvah tantz and the week of sheva brachos. When Yonason, who flew back to Israel for the wedding, filed past the Rebbe for a brachah, the Rebbe said, “Nu, and when are you going on stage?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t invited up,” he told the Rebbe. On the spot, the Rebbe appointed his former ben bayis to the Motzaei Shabbos sheva brachos.

“As I began to sing about the Rebbe, a little boy, whose father had been killed in a car accident, hopped onto the Rebbe’s lap,” Reb Yonason recalls, describing how he began to weave one rhyming couplet after another. “I faced the Rebbe and sang, ‘this is not only about zchus avos, but about the zchus of young boys you’ve merited to raise.’ I meant to say, when I was a young boy you held me on your lap, and here is another little boy. But it was really me.”


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