That timeless feel in the niggunim of the Twerski family is a reflection of their legacy – it’s the capacity for accessing ancient worlds of spirit while at the same time connecting to the needs of the newcomer
he shul succah. A tish. The Rebbe sits at the middle of the table, while participants fill the seats down the length on either side --their heads are crowned variously by shtreimlach, Borsalinos, and baseball caps. The Rebbe starts a niggun and by the third note the assembly has joined him, voices rising on a swell that lifts them above time and space and connects them to eternity.
Except for one newcomer. He tries to steal glances at his neighbors’ bentshers and thumbs his own helplessly, struggling to find the words and catch the melody.
“Page 47,” says a voice, and when the newcomer looks up to find the source, his eyes meet the Rebbe’s warm gaze. The Rebbe closes his eyes and has already resumed the niggun. He seems not to have halted his ascent to the heavenly spheres, and yet it is as if he never left this succah that stands adjacent to the shul parking lot. Can a jetliner pilot at cruising altitude offer street directions to a cab driver?
The newcomer, meanwhile, has found his place and is transported along with the chevreh. And as his soul soars on the crest of the refrain, he wonders if his elter zeide sang this song in Europe…
In Denver, Milwaukee, and Flatbush, in the shuls led by the renowned Twerski family, this scene has played out time and again. The niggunim they are leading are, more often than not, their own compositions. Rav Mordechai Twerski of Flatbush, the Hornosteipler Rebbe of New York (and the son of Rav Shloime Twerski of Denver); Rav Michel Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe of Milwaukee; and Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski and his son Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski have all expanded the scope of chassidic niggunim in particular and Jewish music in general.
The timeless feel of these niggunim is perhaps rooted in the family’s capacity for connection that allows them to simultaneously access higher worlds yet remain aware of the basic needs of the fellow Jew in front of them. These melodies have in fact mostly been composed over the past sixty years.
“Ethereal in a grounded way,” says Binyamin Klempner, a Milwaukee chassid who now lives in Eretz Yisrael and works as a life coach, describing the works of his rebbe, Rav Michel Twerski. “As you get more into the niggun, your head is rising higher into Shamayim, your heart is on fire, and your feet are more firmly rooted in the ground.”
The Twerski family niggunim are not only sung at tishen, though – they also serve critical liturgical roles. The Denver branch of the chassidus is known for its powerful melodies that convey the prayers of the Days of Awe. Reb Gidon Japha, a Denverite chassid of Rav Mordechai Twerski who has since moved to Jerusalem, still remembers the first time he heard the Rebbe’s haunting niggun for Unesaneh Tokef.
“I was struck, my breath taken away,” says Gidon. “When the Rebbe got to the words ‘B’Rosh Hashanah,’ it was not possible to have a dry eye. If one didn’t know the words, the melody itself would write them: On Rosh Hashanah you will be written and on Yom Kippur you will be sealed. As the singing brings the meaning of the words to life, the soul aches to sing along.
“Then, the niggun slows: ‘Who will live, who will die, who by water, who by fire...’ -- all told in the stirring melody that continues through the sobs of the congregation as we make the effort to stay with the Rebbe.”
A lawyer by profession, Reb Gidon acknowledges the power of niggun to get a point across. “As someone who makes a living trying to persuade people with language, I can attest — the Rebbe’s niggunim for the Yamim Noraim bring out the meaning of the words. When you hear them, you don’t need to understand the deeper peirush of the tefillos. The music brings out what Chazal intended.”
“I became a chassid of the Rebbe through his music,” says Klempner of Rav Michel Twerski. “Especially through his song ‘L’hodos.’ ” Binyamin himself launches into a rendition of the niggun and is nearly swept away. “The Rebbe told his chassidim that they should sing that niggun on Leil Shabbos. I sing it and it floods my soul.
“I would say that most music is emotions carried by melodies,” Binyamin says. “The Rebbe’s niggunim are stirrings of the heart that arouse melodies.”
Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski, a prolific composer in his own right who wrote the niggun “Hu Elokeinu,” stresses that this mode of composition comes not through skill, but rather Divine assistance. “I can’t say that I made a niggun, all I can say is that the niggun came to me,” he says. Inspiration often strikes when he is alone, behind the wheel. “Occasionally I have to pull out of traffic and use a voice recorder. Most of these end up being lost, unless I somehow remember them later. But I don’t walk around saying, ‘Okay, I have to make a niggun to something.’ It just doesn’t work like that. It’s completely spontaneous. And I consider it a heavenly gift. HaKadosh Baruch Hu plants something in my head.”
Of course, chassidus assigns a prominent role to niggun in avodas Hashem. Rav Mordechai Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe, traces its history back to the very dawn of the movement. “Already from the time of the Baal Shem Tov, neginah became central to chassidus,” he says. “Many of the earliest chassidic niggunim had no words — they were expressions of the yearning of the neshamah. My father used to say the word neshamah is related to the word neshimah – breathing. And the Baal Shem Tov said that these wordless niggunim that used only breath were the neshimah of Hashem, the deepest expression of the soul.”
This fertile ground of spiritual expression has been well plowed for generations, and the Twerski family was granted a generous portion of acreage. “Neginah has always been a very important part of chassidus, particularly in Bobov, which was famous for its niggunim,” says the Rebbe. “I grew up as a child listening to the very long Bobover niggunim and learning them. [The Rebbe’s paternal grandmother was the eldest daughter of the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov.] And on my father’s side, there was a long tradition of niggunim going back to the Zeide Reb Mottele of Hornosteipel.”
The centrality of music to the Twerskis’ service of the Creator has played out in various ways in the current generation. The Milwaukee Rebbe, the Flatbush Rebbe, and Rabbi Dr. Benzion have all issued compilations of their melodies over the years, and various performing artists have also recorded renditions. But perhaps this muse finds its richest expression outside the larger public eye, at simchahs and other family gatherings.
“Singing zemiros on Shabbos was not unique to our family,” observes Rabbi Dr. Benzion. “What was interesting to me was that whenever the family got together, there was always a lot more singing-wise that was taking place.
“Many years ago when I was in yeshivah and my parents were in Lakewood, there was a family get-together at the old Budner’s Hotel. There was a whole bunch of other family that came – my uncle from Denver was there that Shabbos, cousins who were learning in Lakewood came and joined us for the seudos. The zemiros went on for hours and hours and hours. This included all the Shabbos meals, and Motzaei Shabbos went on till the wee hours of the morning. The singing just occupied a very, very prominent place.
“When the family would get together for bar mitzvahs, there was a lot of time together that was just social time, very casual, but a lot of that was spent singing. I remember there were these niggunim from Modzhitz – these long, complicated ones they refer to as ‘operas’ — some of which our family knew, and we would be singing them. It was just natural, it just fit right in.”
Even with the abundance of other musical talent in the family, the Rebbe in Flatbush singles out his uncle Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski for particular praise. “He has instructed us that his matzeivah should say that he was the composer of ‘Hoshia es Amecha,’ because he has been mesameiach so many people with that niggun. He is extremely musically talented — he taught himself piano as a child. He also retains niggunim very well. Whenever the family gets together, he’s able to recall so many, including the very long Modzhitzer niggunim.”
And Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s son Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski carries that affinity into the next generation – albeit with the technological assistance available in our time. “I have an archive here of literally hundreds of Modzhitz niggunim — it all occupies about 11 gig on my hard drive,” he reports with a chuckle. “Now, baruch Hashem, we have hard drives. In the old days, if people weren’t able to write musical notation, they needed to memorize these things.”
This willingness to use a hard drive to store Modzhitz niggunim appears straightforward but is perhaps profound. It might say something about how the Twerski family views the role of Yiddishkeit at this late stage of history – using the tools at hand to forge connections. Reb Gidon Japha sees the same dynamic at work when Rav Mordechai Twerski applies niggun to tefillah.
“The Rebbe has a great ability to bridge his mystical strength and that of his illustrious ancestors with the ever striving souls in his kehillah,” says Reb Gidon. “The Rebbe does so with his niggunim, chanted with his sonorous baritone voice. Those two things alone brought the essence of davening to us and gave us ‘permission’ to join with him to meet the malachim poised to bring our tefillos On High. This is the power of niggunim and the greatness of the Rebbe — being able to bring those who daven with him to those great heights.”
SONGS OF A DYNASTY
Composer: Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski
“I composed this in Eretz Yisrael. I was in yeshivah there as a bochur, and was notified by my parents that there were shidduchim being discussed. My reaction was to go to the Kosel to ask for some Heavenly assistance (Hashem did a great job!). This niggun came to me together with the words while I was walking to the Kosel. I used it for my chuppah, and it gets played by most of my children’s as well.”
Composer: Rav Mordechai Twerski
“About 23 years ago, on one of our first visits to Eretz Yisrael, we had come for the chasunah of Tzvi and Shoshana Gelt [of Denver], and were staying at an apartment owned by Dr. Yoel Unger in Rehavia. The apartment had a balcony with a view of the walls surrounding the Old City. It was when I was looking at the walls that the niggun came to me.”
Composer: Rav Michel Twerski
This Pesach-themed niggun was released on the disk The Music of Rabbi Michel Twerski Volume 2 in 1998. In the meantime the Rebbe has composed some hundreds of niggunim, and confesses that he cannot recall the exact circumstances surrounding this particular one.
Composer: Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
This niggun was written approximately 56 years ago, when he was serving as the assistant rabbi to his father, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe ztz”l, at the shul in Milwaukee. The wedding of his brother Rav Michel was approaching. During Shacharis he came to the verse “Hoshia es amecha” when inspiration struck. The niggun became famous when a Chabad choir recorded it for inclusion on Lubavitch Nichoach in 1960. In all likelihood, it was only the most recent instance of a Hornosteipel niggun being transplanted to Lubavitch (see sidebar).
Composer: Rav Mordechai Twerski
“I wrote that niggun approximately 50 years ago. I was a bochur, around 17. The words were originally ‘Chaneinu, Hashem, chaneinu, ki rav savanu buz’ [Tehillim 123:3]. It was a time when my father was quite sick. The niggun was a tefillah, that Hashem should bestow revealed chein v’chesed. If I remember correctly it was during the winter. My father was in and out of the hospital a lot in those years.
“My father liked it right away. He adopted it. People in Denver remember it as my father’s niggun. Because that’s how people knew it.”
Musical Ties to Chabad
Rav Mordechai Twerski, the Hornosteipler Rebbe of New York, passes along an interesting historical note regarding the provenance of his family’s niggunim. When his namesake, Rav Mordechai Dov Ber of Hornosteipel, founded the chassidus in Russia, he had a baal menagein named Reb Boruch who produced a great many compositions.
Concurrent with this era in Hornosteipel there was an interregnum in Chabad of six or seven years, between the petirah of the third Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, and the fourth, Rebbe Shmuel, known as the Maharash. During this period many Chabad chassidim cast about for a chatzer that would offer a spiritual home. As Rav Mordechai Dov Ber was a grandson of the Alter Rebbe’s daughter Devorah Leah, a significant number of them gravitated to Hornosteipel. Chabad’s family connection already exerted a powerful influence on Hornosteipel; with the influx of these chassidim, there was now a reciprocal relationship. And that included a musical dimension.
“It was a natural fit,” says Rav Twerski. “They were coming to Hornosteipel at a time that was really the heyday of the chassidus. They learned a lot of Hornosteipler niggunim during that time, and brought them back with them when they returned to Chabad, when the Maharash became Rebbe. A lot of the niggunim popular in Chabad today have their roots in Hornosteipel. There are also a lot of Mordechai Dovs in Chabad today, which dates to that period of connection.”
Right There with Us
Binyamin Klempner says his favorite niggun of the Milwaukee Rebbe is “whatever I’m singing at the time.” Nevertheless, he confides that the Rebbe’s English ballads have a special place in his heart. One of these, “The Forest,” has etched a permanent impression on both his and his wife’s lives.
The song can be found on The Melaveh Malkah Experience, a collection of recordings of Milwaukee Motzaei Shabbos gatherings with the Rebbe. Binyamin had put the cassette on to play when his wife went into labor with their first child. When the tape played through to “The Forest” — an allegory of a king who sends his son into exile in the woods — it elicited a deluge of emotions.
“The song describes how the prince has lived in the wild so long, he’s forgotten his life in the palace, and now he thinks the forest is his natural home,” Binyamin recounts. “I started thinking about this neshamah we were bringing into the world — it’s leaving its place under the King’s Throne and coming into this world, with all its inducements and temptations and traps. How will it remember where it comes from? I broke down in tears.
“It wasn’t just a cassette playing on the tape deck. It was the Rebbe right there with us, giving us a schmooze.”
(Originally featured in Heartbeats: Special Music Project, Succos 5777)
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