We hosted a roundtable discussion with the Thank You Hashem Nation crew
The infectious “Thank You Hashem” movement, launched by a group of 30-something Five Towns friends, has taken off to become an exuberant, global engine for Jews who want to promote gratitude, positive thinking, deepen their relationship with Hashem, and ignite a broad spiritual spark. There’s the music, the website, and the ubiquitous “Thank You Hashem” swag — all of which are turning gratitude into a natural way of life. To celebrate their latest project, the release for Elul of the album MEVAKSHEI HASHEM in partnership with Mishpacha, we hosted a roundtable discussion with the Thank You Hashem Nation crew Elimelech Blumstein, Aryeh Blumstein, Yaakov Josephy, and their music producer Mendy Portnoy.
WHY IS THIS MUSIC NEW AND DIFFERENT FROM OTHER ALBUMS?
Elimelech: Well, this isn’t the usual “Artist releases album to build his career and get more gigs.” Like all of Thank You Hashem’s projects, this is not for profit. This music is born of personal journeys that we, as a chevreh and a community, have been through, and want to share with others. Musically, these songs are a combination of catchy “hooks,” easy singing, and very deep meaning.
Aryeh: People ask us what our secret is to being trendsetters in Jewish music. Funny, because we’re not here to set trends. Like everyone, we’re struggling with life — and yet trying to stay inspired. We’re trying to figure out what works to help us climb upward, and then share that inspiration.
AN ALBUM OR AN EXPERIENCE?
Aryeh: We saw an issue in the music world. When we were kids, if you got a new album, you used to look at the album cover, take out the booklet and read the write-up and dedication while you listened, which helped you connect and made it into an experience. Just downloading your music and moving on doesn’t have the same effect. We wanted to bring the booklet back, to make these songs an immersive experience. We commissioned original art from Shani Levin to depict the message of each song. The Torah teaching for the essence of each niggun, written by Rabbi Yaakov Klein of the Lost Princess Initiative, is printed in the booklet, too, letting the songs really come to life and make an impact through the senses. Rabbi Klein also wrote the introduction to the album and our rav, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, the rav of Khal Mevakshei Hashem in Lawrence, is featured on the opening track, sharing about the avodah of music. Creating an experience around an album amplifies the connection, and our motto is: We’re not after views, but impact.
THE SONGS ARE CREDITED TO THE BLUMSTEIN BROTHERS — BUT WHO REALLY DOES THE COMPOSING?
Aryeh: Elimelech! He’s a phenomenal songwriter. One of my earliest memories is of Elimelech and my father sitting in the succah composing a song. He must have been nine years old. The words were “Yibaneh hamikdash,” and it was quite possibly the worst song I’ve ever heard, but he’s improved a lot since then.
Elimelech: I knew Aryeh would say that — he’s always trying to say that I write the songs. He’s a big anav.
Aryeh: Elimelech is the bechor, my respected older brother. He started all this, he leads the songwriting, it’s all him.
Elimelech: I’ll tell you the truth. First of all, from my perspective, the song demo is where the songwriting process ends, not where it begins. The songs begin in our shared experiences, in what we have gone through together and lived and learned. They begin in our real lives, and when we write Blumstein Brothers, we don’t just mean Elimelech and Aryeh, either. We mean our chevreh, our community, our families — we’re all brothers, and “Blumstein Brothers” is just the shorthand for all of us.
Aryeh: The actual title “Blumstein Brothers” is a throwback to our grandfather Moshe Blumstein, who supported the family and the community with a grocery on the Lower East Side, named “Blumstein Brothers.” We’re told that Rav Moshe Feinstein was a customer there. Our father and his twin brother, Hilky, were also known as the “Blumstein Brothers” during their singing career, so we’re keeping the tradition going.
HOW LONG HAS THIS ALBUM BEEN IN THE WORKS?
Elimelech: When does the niggun start? Music has always been a big part of what we do. Since Joey Newcomb sang “Thank You Hashem” on his first album, I’m back to composing songs after a long hiatus — Thank you Hashem! We had a lot of gems that we were holding onto, and when it hit us that they could inspire teshuvah, we decided to put out a full music experience in time for Elul, partnering with Mishpacha.
THE “FARBRENGABLE STUDIOS” SYMBOL ON THE ALBUM COVER IS SOMETHING NEW. WHAT IS “FARBRENGABLE” MUSIC?
Aryeh: Ah, that’s the most important word here. The litmus test for any song we consider putting out there is, Is this song farbreng-able? It’s all about farbrengability. And to us that means relatable, singable, meaningful, and impactful. We’ve tried them to make sure, before bringing them to you.
DEEP DOWN, WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOU ARE PRODUCING MUSIC FOR?
Aryeh: Our rav, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, always says that there were different types of gedolim in previous generations. There were the giants who knew Shas and Shulchan Aruch by heart, and there were the great men who were poets and doctors and grammarians. We need so much, so many types of avodah.
Our souls in galus, Reb Yussie says, feel like artists without hands. Their ability to express has been taken away. Part of the reason that our generation idolizes creativity is that the world is preparing itself for nevuah, prophecy. And so musical creativity also means getting closer. Elimelech loves to ask, “What is our avodah?” And the answer is that our avodah here is to be mevakshei Hashem and to combat the darkness of the world. With that goal in mind, we’ll do whatever it takes — partner with NCSY to connect with public school teenagers, or partner with Yad Eliezer to fundraise for the Meron families.
Yiddishkeit is not broken; it’s awesome. The Ribbono shel Olam is awesome. We are just trying to bring out that beauty. In yeshivah — we were in the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, talmidim of Rav Aharon Brafman z”l, to whom this album is dedicated — we’re all taught to connect to the Ribbono shel Olam through Torah. But most of us can’t sit and learn the entire day, so it’s up to us to find ways to keep close through the mundane activities of our lives.
HOW DID YOU MATCH THE SINGERS — JOEY NEWCOMB, ARELE SAMET, ZUSHA, 8TH DAY, MOSHE STORCH AND OTHER INCREDIBLE TALENTS — TO THE SONGS?
Mendy: We didn’t. Hashem makes the plans, kind of like 40 days before the song is born. It just fell into place, and once we heard the artist singing it, it was like, “How could it not be made for him?”
MENDY, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED?
Mendy: Last winter, I was living in Eretz Yisrael and visiting my wife’s family in New York. Moshe Storch reached out to me and asked me to produce a song that he was singing for TYH. I did my thing, but I had no idea what I was getting into.
Aryeh: He sent us that song, “Shomati/Take Us Home,” and it was a masterpiece. We’d been struggling to get the niggun out there, and Mendy’s arrangement struck all the right notes, brought to musical life all the intentions we had. We invited Mendy over to farbreng with us, and he came and played. Besides his super talent, it was clear to us that he was one of us — as much as he didn’t appreciate it at the time. We looked at Mendy and we said, “We want to hire you to run our studio.”
Elimelech: We didn’t even have a studio, but we knew we wanted to build one, and we knew we wanted Mendy. He just has that koach.
Mendy: Two or three weeks later, for personal reasons, we found ourselves compelled to leave Eretz Yisrael and move to the East Coast of the United States.
Aryeh: I can only imagine how hard that was, leaving Eretz Yisrael and all your own side of the family. But it was fortunate for us. Mendy called and asked if there was any truth to our offer. Things moved forward — he had a hand in producing every track on this album.
MENDY, YOU’VE WORKED WITH SO MANY ARTISTS OF ALL STRIPES. HOW IS IT DIFFERENT TO BE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF FARBRENGABLE STUDIOS AND WORK WITH THE TYH CREW?
Mendy: When I work with someone on a song, I generally connect, but not usually in a long-term way. But with this project, with these guys, it’s really concentrated. We’re building something together.
WHICH SONGS IN PARTICULAR HAVE MADE THEIR MARK ON YOU?
Aryeh: That’s a tough question — but I guess if I had to choose, it would be “Mevakshei Hashem.” Named after our shul, Khal Mevakshei Hashem, it represents everything that we are doing and accomplishing together. One Motzaei Shabbos, the chevreh was sitting farbenging in shul at Melaveh Malkah. After Reb Yussie’s Torah, someone took out a guitar, and the song just emerged — so it comes straight from our hearts. Reb Joey Newcomb, who is our baal tefillah in the shul for Yamim Noraim and who’s a vital part of TYH’s appeal and success, collaborated with Mendy to make this song something special. There’s contemplation, searching, and then there’s dancing for joy, because there’s nothing as joyous as searching for Hashem. And because simchah is a big part of avodah.
Mendy: I would say “Baalei Teshuvah.” It was the last song I played back in Eretz Yisrael. My entire apartment and studio were packed up, my life there was drawing to a close, and I played “Baalei Teshuvah.” But there’s also another piece. I sent the music to one of my musicians, not a religious guy, for him to record the guitar track. He told me that he was playing the music when he came to the part where the music breaks down into the Vidui tune, and he suddenly felt the need to say “Shema Yisrael” and “Baruch Shem.” He said it aloud, completed the music, and the very next morning, he told me, he decided to put on his long-abandoned tefillin. Now, I would never in a million years describe or consider myself as a kiruv person, but just through my regular day’s work, a guy felt a wave of emotion that brought him to Shema Yisrael.
Elimelech: I was once sitting next to Yossi Green at a Lipa concert, and I commented that one song Lipa was singing was absolutely the best song. Yossi told me that each song has its moment, and is the best song in that moment of time. It then gives way to another song whose time has come. I believe that.
One song which is very precious to me is “Lev Avos.” You’ll see that we have incredible singers on this album, but the “Early Shabbos Band” who sings “Lev Avos” is a new name. They’re a group of friends from shul who’ve been singing and learning and growing together for the past ten years. To me, that represents the best of the TYH movement — a group of friends coming together to farbreng and encourage and inspire each other. We sing every Erev Shabbos, and this song was composed by one of our chevreh, Yossi Schwartz. Mendy did the arrangements, and our aim was, to quote 8th Day, “to put that farbrengen in a bottle” and spread it via song. To record the song, we set up a studio in the basement of our shul and sang it there together after Havdalah on Motzaei Shabbos. Thank you to Mendy for being so open to new artists and musicians.
HOW DO YOU FIT ALL THE THANK YOU HASHEM NATION PROJECTS INTO YOUR LIVES?
Aryeh: You should be asking that to Yaakov here. He’s the one who was in the Thank You Hashem office at 6 a.m. this morning, and most other mornings, to work on all the logistics and the graphics before he puts in a full day’s work managing a healthcare agency. Yaakov is the one who sits and works on getting our songs, blog posts, and shiurim out there. He’s also the graphic artist.
Yaakov: When I’m working with such choshuve people, I can squeeze it in. Thank You Hashem for the ability to partner with the chevreh and get the message out.
Aryeh: And we have a lot more in the works – a beautiful Shabbos album to help Yidden connect to the pnimiyus of Shabbos, an album for kids teaching the fundamentals of chassidus through music, some exciting new projects with Avraham Fried, Joey Newcomb, Betzalel Levin, Bracha Jaffe and Shaindy Plotzker, and new emunah podcasts. We’re grateful that we can keep inspiring Yidden.
לע״נ הרה"ק ר' ישעיה ב"ר משה מקערעסטיר זיע"א
לע״נ הרב אהרן מרדכי בן ר׳ שלמה זלמן זצ״ל
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 873)
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