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It's Our Song Too

Yisroel Besser

From director of the IDF Rabbinate Choir to the first Belz albums and early MBD, Mona’s decades-long career as the most celebrated arranger and conductor in Jewish music

Monday, October 02, 2017

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“The challenge isn’t when you’re in trouble — then you know to look to Hashem. It’s when you’re on top of the world and everyone is calling, to remember that we’re nothing and it’s not us doing it” (Photos: Eli Cobin, Family archives)

U ntil I met Mona Rosenblum, I was sure he’d match the cool first name. But the gentleman who comes out of the Bnei Brak apartment building to greet me doesn’t look like I imagined a “Mona” to be — artsy and casual. Instead, he looks like a rebbi or vigilant kashrus mashgiach, his hat jammed securely on his head, peyos wrapped tight around his ears, avreich-style dark suit jacket flapping in the breeze.

He leads us into the apartment in the way of someone unaccustomed to this sort of thing. He generously pulls out the chairs and places a closed bottle of water on the table, but forgets about the cups. A few minutes later, he realizes and sheepishly hurries back to the kitchen.

There is kind of a silent laugh in his eyes and he chuckles audibly and often, seemingly amused by his own story. He’s generous with stories and commentary, but it’s when this celebrated conductor, arranger, and composer of modern chassidic music is seated on the dark bench near the large piano that he’s most natural, words flowing as easily as the fingers that dance across the keyboard. Music, in his retelling, isn’t an escape, or even a passion. It’s an identity: The moment he learned about self-expression, the music started playing and it’s never stopped.

Niggun of Tears

The Rosenblums, Reb Ephraim and Bluma, arrived in postwar Eretz Yisrael broken, like so many others. They had two sons, Yitzchak and Moshe Mordechai, but the house was largely defined by its quiet.

“My father,” says Mona, “wasn’t a big talker. He was very much a Gerrer chassid in the way he kept things inside.”

 

It was a song, a niggun, which was the lone vehicle of expression. Mona begins to sing it, a well-known chassidic slow tune, with no words. “It’s a Vorka niggun. My mother never cried, not a single tear — but whenever my father sang this niggun, she would weep uncontrollably.”

One morning, Bluma was carrying little Moshe Mordechai through the streets of Ramat Gan, and suddenly, inexplicably, she began to talk. And talk.

“She told me about another three-year-old — the same age as I was — her daughter, a sister about whom I’d never known. My mother had been in the process of handing her child off to a sympathetic non-Jewish neighbor when a waiting Nazi lifted his gun and shot the baby, killing her.

“I know,” Mona pauses, “I know that today, people would question my mother for sharing that with a child, but that’s what happened. And I remember it as if it were today. I heard what she was saying, I got it. I felt like I couldn’t cry, that if she was being so stoic, I had to be tough for her sake. I fought it off for a few minutes, choking back the tears, and then, suddenly, it came out in a gush, tears and pain and powerful emotion.”

That day, three-year-old Mona effectively started making music, even if he didn’t know it yet. “Something had opened inside of me, a new channel of feeling, and it found expression in music. Whatever opened that day has never really closed.”

He closes his eyes. “Baruch Hashem.”

And his mother, who inspired it, saw her son rise to the top of his profession. “Until she passed away a few years ago, she would join us for the Shabbos seudos — and she was always in a good mood, never emotional or heavy. But my children knew that during Shalosh Seudos each week, when I would sing that song, the Vorka niggun, the tears would come. That’s when she cried, then — and only then.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 680)

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