This powerful story lifted the veteran composer out of his writer’s block and restarted the engine
The vintage Journeys series never fails to take listeners for a ride down the pathways of the past, the present, and the soul. After an 18-year hiatus, the release of JOURNEYS VOLUME FIVE is almost a rebirth of the genre of thought-provoking songs with a touch of whimsy, but with one difference. Fans who were expecting to hear vocals primarily from ABIE ROTENBERG are instead treated to an all-star cast of singers, from Shulem Lemmer to Avraham Fried, from the Maccabeats to Baruch Levine.
“Much has changed in Jewish music over the past two decades,” Abie explains. “Unlike years ago, songs in English have become commonplace and so many of today’s wonderful vocalists are not only comfortable singing in English, they are masters of the craft. These contemporary artists do a better job than I ever could. Although I do have my moments on this album, at heart, I consider myself to be a songwriter, much more than a performer. It was far more important to me that the songs be performed better and reach a wider audience than to hear the sound of my own voice.”
Abie notes that the greatest challenge of bringing in all these new voices was to appropriately match the individual talents with the right tracks. “I believe we succeeded in doing so,” he says.
For years following Journeys Volume IV’s release in 2004, Abie had tried to write more Journeys-style material, but found it just wasn’t working. Then in 2018, his granddaughter, visiting for Pesach, shared the story of the Skulener and Vizhnitzer Rebbes’ post-Holocaust matzah exchange. (The first Pesach after the war, the Skulener Rebbe managed to bake a small amount of matzah, yet while each person was allotted just one matzah, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s son brazenly asked that three be given to his father. Right before Pesach, the Vizhnitzer sent two of the matzos back — he knew the Skulener hadn’t saved any for himself.) This powerful story lifted the veteran composer out of his writer’s block and restarted the engine.
“For me, this was a story not just about these two tzaddikim, but a microcosm of all tzaddikim and chassidim throughout the generations. We as a people are so fortunate to have an elevated cadre of gedolei Yisrael who care for us all,” Abie says of the song “Al Hatzaddikim.” It is sung by Avraham Fried, who invested his heart and soul into his rendition.
When son Chananya Rotenberg and daughter Shiffy (Rotenberg) Ochs played Abie their compositions “From the Ashes,” “Journey at Sea,” “The Ring,” and “My Little Town,” there was not only a burst of nachas, but a certainty that another Journeys just had to happen.
“It’s not just that my children have the ability to rhyme and compose a niggun, I was proud to hear how they conveyed important and meaningful ideas in their songs. When my daughter first sat at the piano and sang ‘From the Ashes’ for me, I cried. It was startling that a third-generation survivor could articulate those sentiments.” Not all the songs are about surviving, though. “Chaveirim Kol Yisrael,” sung by Benny Friedman, is a celebration of Mashiach’s arrival. Bella Levitan, Abie’s eldest daughter (who wrote the words to Yaakov Shwekey’s song “Shema Yisrael”), shared with her father a new song called “The Secret.” It is an upbeat, hora-style track — sung by 8th Day — with an important message for us all about reaping rewards for hard work.
While Abie was happy to produce his children’s music, it presented a challenge. “I didn’t want to be left on the outside looking in, and so I had to really push myself to write more songs.”
The country musician Moshe Yess a”h is remembered in a short tribute on this album, and his song “Ain’t No Bishul,” is adapted by Abie and sung together with Moshe’s son Tali Yess. It is a warm throwback to Moshe’s heyday and his creative energy. Because even forward journeys sometimes take us back.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 906)