It’s Just My Opinion| January 3, 2023
Music is that extra-sensitive, personal topic that seems to bring people out of the woodwork with their staunch opinions
TO keep Erev Shabbos a bit more interesting, every Friday, I send out a text to friends, relatives, Hatzolah members, shul lists and more — about 800 people in all — where I pick a song that somehow relates to the week’s parshah, a Yom Tov, or something in the news. I usually get a one-word response or nothing at all.
Last year on parshas Vayechi, however, I sent out a text that generated lots of unexpected action: I forwarded Abie Rotenberg’s vintage and much-loved “Hamalach Hagoel” (Dveykus IV, 1990) and added a personal note: “Very possibly the greatest Jewish song ever. Abie’s tune, with the words from this week’s parshah, are perfect.”
Of course, no one — on my list, at least — could let such a comment go without putting in their two cents. It became like a vote. I immediately got bombarded with opinions, some agreeing, many offering their own selections.
“Wait, what about MBD’s ‘Mashiach’?!” one friend responded, while my brother Yosef Chaim was more generous: “So beautiful! I listened to it five times.” Yaakov Salomon of the 1970s Simchatone group commented, “It certainly ranks in the discussion.” Nachum Segal came back with, “A truly legitimate claim,” and one famous singer replied, “Definitely one of the best!”
I smiled to myself, knowing I’m entitled to my own opinion, but happy it was pretty much corroborated. After all, people don’t want to be told what to think, and music is that extra-sensitive, personal topic that seems to bring people out of the woodwork with their staunch opinions. Still, I figured this “parshah” was over… until Shabbos morning in shul. During the kiddush I was practically accosted. Dr. Michael Zelefsky, a well-known radiation oncologist who usually remains quiet in such discussions cornered me: “I might have agreed with you had Carlebach’s ‘Mimkomcha’ not been in the equation.” Later, at Minchah, famed outreach personality Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald emerged as the leader of the opposition, telling me, “Not even close, Ding... not even close.”
After Maariv, I told Rabbi Buchwald that I wanted a moment of rebuttal.
“When people judge a song, they take many factors into consideration. How the words fit in, what the tune does for you, how it makes you feel, and many other factors,” I said. “It is said that music can take you to the highest levels of kedushah or, chas v’shalom, in the opposite direction. When I hear the song ‘Hamalach Hagoel’ and close my eyes, I can picture Kol Hane’arim on Simchas Torah, the children crowded around the bimah with a tallis over their heads as they sing the song in unison. There’s something magic in that song that it transports me to a higher place spiritually.”
I remembered something Baruch Levine once said at a HASC concert: that a real composition, whether it’s fast or slow, happy or sad, must convey the message intended by the words. When we sang “Hamalach Hagoel” at my grandson’s bris two years ago, I felt that same magic.
Now, I want to share two interesting tidbits about the song that Abie once mentioned to me. He said that when he composed it, the niggun totally flowed until the last four words, “v’yidgu larov b’kerev haaretz,” that follow on the heels of the rising energy of “v’shem avosai.” He came up with a bunch of options but couldn’t decide until the last moment.
When he finished composing the song and played it for his wife, she listened and commented, “Neh!” Abie was surprised — he’d actually thought it was pretty good — but then she added, “It’s too fast.” So Abie slowed it down a bit, they both agreed it was special, and apparently so did everyone else — especially me.
Back to my little text: After I got home and made Havdalah, I went to check my phone, wondering if there were any late additional commenters. There was one from my buddy Zale Newman, a composer and producer in Toronto, whose answer was most diplomatic: “Possibly. Possibly not, too.”
That was last year. This year, I’m sticking to my guns: I’ll be sending out the same song, and no, I haven’t changed my mind. I realize that to claim one song is the greatest out of tens of thousands is a very strong opinion — but it’s mine.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 943)
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