Keeper of the Songs| November 30, 2016
When I heard the news of Reb Ben Zion Shenker’s passing, it became clear to me why the interview from a most inspiring day I spent with the legendary composer and singer back in 2006 was still sitting in my personal archives. Reb Ben Zion was a young 82 then, his fingers dexterously flitting over the piano keys in his cozy Flatbush living room. A harmony of enchanted notes filled the house, accompanied by that distinctive name-brand voice, expressive, stirring, and pleading.
“Oy, oy, simchah l’artzecha… oy, oy, sasson l’irecha…” His voice got stronger as the song continued, until it enveloped us, penetrating deep into our hearts, pulling us into this shiras malachim, song of angels.
That’s how on an ordinary Tuesday morning, we found ourselves taking part in a kumzitz. Reb Ben Zion, his confidant and noted mechanech Rav Aharon Moshe Orlander, and I all closed our eyes and sang song after song — the original Modzitzer “Hayom Haras Olam” flowing into “V’ye’esayu” and the Imrei Shaul’s famous Rosh Hashanah nigun. These are among the hundreds of niggunim Modzitz is famous for, classics of chassidic music in particular and Jewish music in general, and inseparable from Ben Zion Shenker himself, the voice that made them loved for decades by Jews all over the world.
Each time he mentioned a song, Reb Ben Zion would knock once or twice on the table and begin to sing. We spoke and we sang, we sang and we spoke. “It all started one Shabbos morning,” said slipper-clad Reb Ben Zion as he recalled the day he went from being a typical Brooklyn teenager to a true chassid, a Modzitzer to his core and more than anyone else, a symbol of the beautiful music of the chassidus.
“We davened in a Polish shteibel in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Reb Ben Zion recounted, going back in time to Shabbos Parshas Noach of 1940. “The news spread quickly — the Modzitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Shaul (Rav Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub), had just come to Williamsburg, having arrived through Japan via San Francisco. My father wasn’t a Modzitzer — he was a Trisker chassid — but we walked to the Rebbe’s tish after the seudah on Shabbos night.
“There was a big oilam — the shul was packed. I even remember the derashah Rav Levi Yitzchak Kahana gave. He ascribed the pasuk about the dove, velo matza hayonah manoach lechaf raglah, to the Rebbe, whose family name was Taub — Yiddish for a dove (yonah). ‘The Rebbe came here from his exile,’ he said, ‘halevai that he will find rest for himself here.’
“A few months later, the Rebbe was invited to our neighborhood. The tish at night was open to the public but the next morning’s was by invitation only, and the Rebbe pointed to my father who, eager to reattach himself to a rebbe from his native Poland, had become very close to him and tried never to miss a tish even though it meant a long walk.
“I remember it like yesterday. I was together with my father and brother, crowded with dozens of others into the Rebbe’s room, and there was a couch behind the Rebbe’s seat where I spotted a book of sheet music for the Modzitzer niggunim by chassidic music expert Moshe Shimon Geshuri. I was pretty good at reading music, and without thinking I picked up the book and began humming the tunes. Suddenly, the Rebbe turned and asked, ‘Who’s that singing?’
“Me,” I answered meekly, trembling in fear.
‘You know how to read notes?’ he asked me.
“A little,” I replied.
‘Keep singing!’ he instructed me, and so there I was, a teenager singing in front of the oilem.”
From that Shabbos on, Reb Ben Zion knew he’d found his place in the shadow of the Rebbe’s magnetic personality and stirring compositions.
And the Rebbe found Ben Zion. “Whenever the Rebbe composed a new song, he would call me and say, ‘Ben Zion — write it down!’ The Rebbe sang, and I wrote.
“One Erev Rosh Hashanah after Shacharis, I passed the Rebbe’s house together with my good friend Rav Moshe Wolfson [today Rosh Yeshivas Emunas Yisrael and considered among the gedolei Torah and mussar of our generation]. The Rebbe called us up to his room and he taught us his famous composition, ‘Mechalkel Chaim.’ We both listened, and then I wrote down the notes.”
Few people know about this special friendship. Reb Ben Zion z”l and ybl”c Rav Moshe Wolfson were extremely close; both were students in Torah Vodaath, and both spent a lot of time around the Modzitzer Rebbe, learning his Torah, studying his avodas Hashem, and imbibing his music.
“Once when we were learning together in the Rebbe’s beis medrash,” Reb Ben Zion recalled, “Rav Yitzchak Hutner was visiting the Rebbe, and on his way out he noticed us through an open window. The Rebbe pointed to us and told Rav Hutner with obvious pride, ‘Ihr zet? Dos zehnen meiner bochurim (You see? These are my bochurim)!’ ”
“Rav Hutner admired the Rebbe very much and visited him regularly. They knew each other from Warsaw. In fact, Rav Hutner was very curious about how the Rebbe composed and would often ask me about this avodah — when he worked on composing and how he went about it.”
For a while there was a third partner to this friendship — Reb Shlomo Carlebach. He had arrived in New York from Europe in 1939 and was a star talmid in both Torah Vodaath and Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, where Rav Hutner gave him semichah. The threesome broke up when Reb Shlomo chose to go off on his own unconventional path, but Rav Wolfson and Reb Ben Zion continued to stay close and even maintained an exceptional musical partnership. Rav Moshe Wolfson has a vibrant musical soul, as anyone who’s ever been to an Emunas Yisrael tisch can attest to. The two often collaborated on compositions.
In fact, Reb Ben Zion’s classic “Hamavdil” was their joint effort. “It was in 1953, and Rav Shraga Feivel [Mendlowitz] has just established the Aish Das institute for training bochurim to be teachers — a precursor to Torah Umesorah. Rav Simcha Wasserman was in charge, Rav Shimon Schwab taught public speaking, and Rav Mendel Zaks gave mussar shiurim. It was run in the style of a camp, but it had a distinctly yeshivish atmosphere. What did I have to do with it? I guess Reb Shraga Feivel was looking for someone to sing… So I walked there with Rav Moshe. On the way, I composed the melody and Rav Moshe said, ‘S’iz ah gevaldiger shtikel’ (it’s an incredible piece). I think it will work if you put it to the words of Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol.’ ”
Ben Zion, Sing!
Rav Shaul Yedidya Taub, credited with rebuilding Modzitz after arriving in Brooklyn, was a gifted songwriter and composed over 1,000 niggunim. According to Reb Ben Zion, there was a marked difference in his compositions during the years of the Holocaust, which were tinged with sadness and melancholy as he tried to assimilate the horrifying news coming out of Europe.
“But most people had no idea of the scope of the devastation,” Shenker commented. “I remember the bar mitzvah seudah of the Rebbe’s son Rav Dovid. One of the guests was a Jewish journalist named Chaim Shashkas, who had just arrived in the US after escaping the Warsaw ghetto. People wanted to receive a report from an eyewitness, and he vividly described what Warsaw looked like when he left. Everyone began to cry. People were anxious to hear news of their loved ones, but no one believed those stories of the crematoria and of the systematic murders.
“A relative of the Rebbe was also present, a scion of the Zvoliner chassidus which was a precursor to Modzitz. He arrived in the States in 1939 for a business exhibition and was forced to stay when the war broke out. When he heard the horrors Chaim Shashkas was describing, he started screaming ‘Liar! Liar!’ The fellow had left his entire family behind in Poland, and didn’t want to believe what he was hearing.”
According to Reb Ben Zion, the Rebbe’s niggunim took on a more joyous character once his own children began to marry. Still, the terrible news coming out of Eastern Europe caused him great distress, yet there was one letter that completely broke his heart. It was regarding his loyal chassid, Rav Azriel Fastag, Hy”d.
Reb Ben Zion was with the Rebbe then, and was the one who made famous the world’s most well-known Holocaust song. He retold the story of its creation — without all the inaccuracies that have sprouted wings over the decades regarding that special song.
“It was at a family simchah of the Rebbe, in the middle of 1944, and the rebbes of Kopishnitz, Stolin, and Chernobyl Boro Park took part, as did Rav Yitzchak Hutner. At the end of the simchah, the Rebbe asked all these guests to join him in his room — and I followed. Then the Rebbe pulled out a letter which he told his guests he’d received that week from Switzerland. The writer was together with Rav Azriel Fastag, one of the Rebbe’s chassidim, on the train that was taking them to their final destination: Treblinka. The writer explained how Rav Azriel sang a tune that he composed on the way, to the words of Ani Ma’amin. He then asked everyone in the cattle car, ‘If any of you survives, write this song down and send it to my Rebbe.’ This writer fulfilled Rav Azriel’s last will. He wrote the song down and sent it to the Rebbe.
“The Rebbe turned to me and said, ‘Ben Zion, sing!’ I began to sing, and all of the tzaddikim present began to cry. Rav Hutner though, who knew Rav Azriel back in Warsaw, wasn’t sure about the letter’s authenticity, but that didn’t stop the Rebbe from being particularly attached to this niggun.
15 Minutes of Fame
Reb Ben Zion Shenker’s musical career actually started long before he was a bochur at the Modzitzer Rebbe’s side. It inevitably burst forth when he was a child member of Chazzan Yehoshua Weiser’s famous choir.
“Chazzan Weiser happened to be in our shul once for the bar mitzvah of a friend,” Reb Ben Zion recalled. “He must have heard me singing, because after davening, he asked my father if he would allow me to join his choir. My father refused. ‘I want him with me every Shabbos and Yom Tov’ he replied, and dismissed the notion. The chazzan didn’t give up and approached my mother instead. In the end my parents agreed, but made a list of conditions, all designed to protect me from the spiritual damage inherent in the popular Jewish music of the 1930s. One of them was that I wouldn’t travel out of New York and another was that when we sang in a shul, I would not stand with the choir but rather next to the rav. To his credit the chazzan kept all of his promises, and I sang with him several years.
“Chazzan Weiser once organized a joint concert with the well-known chazzan David Roitman in Pennsylvania. I sang a solo — ‘Mekimi Meiafar Dal’ — and Roitman stood up to see who was singing. At the end of the concert, he asked Yehoshua Weiser, ‘Shayke, who’s the child who sang Mekimi?’ Weiser pointed to me, and Chazzan Roiter pinched my cheek, saying ‘Yingele, you have a future…’ ”
For a while during his yeshivah years, Shenker also had popular short program on a local Jewish radio station. “Someone who owned a radio station once heard me and offered me a slot,” Reb Ben Zion said. “At the time I was learning by Rav Pam, who was then a young maggid shiur, in Torah Vodaath. I asked him permission, as it would require me to leave yeshivah several hours to travel downtown. Rav Pam wasn’t happy about allowing it and sent me to ask the menahel, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz. He actually agreed, but with two conditions: that I return for second seder, and that I not become ‘one of the gang’ at the radio station. So I accepted the offer and sang Yiddish songs and chazzanus on the radio every Sunday for 15 minutes.”
Dreaming of Jerusalem
Reb Ben Zion Shenker’s influence on Jewish music wasn’t relegated to Modzitz, even though he was the one who put the songs of the chassidus on the music map. It spanned generations, and he was considered the recognized authority on thousands of melodies from many chassidic courts — being among the first to make records for frum listeners and setting the stage for modern Jewish music recordings. But he wasn’t just an expert on chassidic music archives; Reb Ben Zion composed over 800 original songs, many of which are sung regularly around the Jewish world by tens of thousands who have no idea where those tunes came from. “Eishes Chayil,” “Yasis Alayich,” “Mizmor L’Dovid,” “V’liYerushalayim Ircha,” and hundreds more that have become part of the Jewish repertoire over the last seven decades.
Oftentimes he’d attend functions where his compositions were played and no one realized that the dignified elderly gentleman in the tie and trim white beard was the composer. “One time,” he said, “I happened to be in the Plaza Hotel in Yerushalayim on Shabbos night. The shul was packed, and I didn’t have a place to sit. In the meantime, someone recognized me and started singing ‘Eishes Chayil.’ The crowd joined in enthusiastically, and after several minutes, the fellow turned to the gabbai and said, ‘Do you know who composed that beautiful song? It’s the man standing in the doorway!’ The gabbai, of course, rushed right over to me and gave me a good seat.”
All kinds of things were the inspirations for Reb Ben Zion’s creations. Some songs held a special place in his heart because of the background to their creation — such as the moving “Shir Hamaalos Samachti B’omrim Li.”
“That was composed on a boat, when I was traveling to Eretz Yisrael for the first time, together with my father, in 1946,” Reb Ben Zion revealed. “Such a trip was pretty rare then. We sailed from the United States on a military transport, and slept on planks. But we had good company — Rav Greineman and Rav Kasher were among the large group of chareidim that were traveling with us. On the first night out, when we were all sitting together on the deck, my father suggested that I work on a tune for the words Shir hamaalos samachti b’omrim li. Here we were coming to the Holy Land right after the Holocaust — who would have believed it? Rav Greineman was so moved that he made me sing it every night.”
The song “V’liYerushalayim Ircha” was also composed on the way to Eretz Yisrael, more than two decades later. “I flew to Eretz Yisrael for the bar mitzvah of the son of a Modzitzer chassid that I had business dealings with. On the plane, I was sitting next to Agudah Knesset minister Reb Yitzchak Meir Levin. He didn’t even ask me my name, but was happy to have a fellow frum Jew on the flight, and spent the whole time speaking about the troubles of the frum community in Eretz Yisrael. I was very moved by what he had to say — Yerushalayim had just been liberated after the Six Day War — and before we landed I felt this urge to compose a song to the words V’liyerushalayim ircha berachamim tashuv. I composed the tune and wrote the notes on a piece of a newspaper I found. A week later, I was invited to a wedding and it turns out that Reb Itche Meir Levin was the grandfather of the kallah. At the wedding they invited me up to sing, and I chose my newest composition, ‘V’liYerushalayim Ircha.’ Reb Itche Meir listened attentively and looked me over from head to toe. ‘Hey, you’re the yungerman I sat next to on the plane!’ he realized. ‘Why didn’t you tell me who you were?’
“Well,’I answered meekly, “you never asked.”
Chassidic Music on a Record?
Shenker recorded his first album in 1956, a breakthrough in the frum music world. “It really wasn’t my idea,” Reb Ben Zion admitted. “There were a couple of Jews who used to come to Shalosh Seudos every week in the shtiebel just for the music, and eventually they approached me and asked me to record songs on a record — they’d cover costs. At the time, I remember thinking it sounded completely ridiculous. Chassidic music on a record? I told them I was too busy, that I didn’t have time for recording studios and all the technical details. But they said I wouldn’t have to worry about anything, just to come and sing; they would take care of everything else. So I sent a letter to the Rebbe presenting the question — the Imrei Shaul had passed away and his son, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, was living in Tel Aviv. At first, I must tell you that the Rebbe wasn’t sure. He was concerned about my doing it and about the halachic aspects, such as someone listening to it on Shabbos. Finally though, he gave me permission, but those fears weren’t unfounded. I found out that Kol Yisrael was playing my songs on Shabbos and Yom Tov.”
Over the years he recorded dozens of albums and composed hundreds of niggunim, but he never used his music as a means to make parnassah. Over the years, top singers in the industry would frequent his home for advice and help on their own songs, and he was ever-generous, because he never saw his music or his talent as a personal possession. It wasn’t a business, it was about making people happy and helping them feel closer to Hashem. And all the money he earned from the Modzitz records went straight back to Modzitz.
The Shenkers lived for many years in Crown Heights before relocating to Flatbush, and Reb Ben Zion initially worked in a family-owned garment factory before moving into the diamond business. Yet despite the fame of his records and the sheer number of his own compositions, when Reb Ben Zion spoke about the biggest gift of his music career, it was unequivocally the ability to give enjoyment to gedolei Yisrael through song. With his trademark phenomenal memory, he remembered every precious moment, every conversation, every niggun he ever sung, in the presence of the generation’s tzaddikim.
He talked about the visit to the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz before his passing in 1972. “I was in Eretz Yisrael for the wedding of my nephew, Reb Yechiel Shenker. I was in the Modzitzer shtiebel for Havdalah when the Imrei Chaim’s gabbai walked in and told me the Rebbe wanted to meet me. He told me that the Rebbe was in Assuta Hospital, but would be released within the week, and arranged that I should come as soon as he went home. Sure enough, a week later the gabbai tracked me down and we immediately went to the Rebbe’s home. One of my partners in my diamond business was a Vizhnitzer chassid, and when he got word that I was going to be by his Rebbe he asked to join. To his great disappointment, the gabbai refused, scolding him for trying to ‘take a tremp’ on my visit. On the way there, the gabbai instructed me not to offer my hand, because the Rebbe was partially paralyzed.
“I entered the Rebbe’s room, and he was lying on a couch. When he saw me he said, ‘Here is the chazzan who never gets hoarse….’ Smiling, he explained: ‘I’ve been listening to you for hours from your recordings and you never get hoarse….’ He then said something that I will never forget: ‘You’re probably surprised that I asked you to come, but you should know that I did it out of hakaras hatov, because when I was sick, your songs lifted my spirits.’ He then started to sing the well-known Modzitzer ‘Shoshanas Yaakov,’ and told me he first heard ‘Betzeis Yisrael’ that is now sung in Vizhnitz from the Divrei Yisrael of Modzitz [Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar’s father], while they were in Marienbad together. Few Viznitzers know that it is actually a Modzitzer niggun.”
Reb Ben Zion also had a memorable meeting with the Imrei Chaim’s brother, the Damesek Eliezer. “That was during my first visit to Eretz Yisrael. We stayed in the Babad Hotel in Yerushalayim. On Shabbos Mevarchim Chodesh Elul, we sat close to the entrance of the dining room, which was right next door to the room of the Damesek Eliezer, who was deathly ill.
“Meanwhile, my father asked me to sing ‘Kol Mekadesh’ with the Modzitzer niggun. The whole room became still until someone burst out, ‘Yungerman! Du bist a Modzitzer?’ Later I found out that the man was Gerrer composer Reb Yankel Talmud; after the seudah we sang Modzitzer niggunim together, and he told me that he was zocheh to meet the Divrei Yisrael of Modzitz in Marienbad.
“After I sang ‘Kol Mekadesh,’ the Damesek Eliezer’s gabbai suddenly came out of his room and asked who was singing. Everyone pointed to me. ‘The Rebbe enjoyed it very much, and asked that you come in when you can.’ On Sunday morning after Shacharis, I went to him. The Rebbe was sitting on the porch, ill and weak. He asked me many questions about American Jewry and about Modzitz, and I merited to have a long and matter-of-fact conversation with him. That Thursday, on the 2nd of Elul, he was niftar.”
Reb Ben Zion said he didn’t know why he merited to meet so many rebbes at the very end of their lives, but the same thing happened with the Beis Yisrael of Gur, whom he met hours before the Rebbe was diagnosed with the fatal illness that took his life soon after.
“I had a business partner who was a Gerrer chassid, and he arranged the appointment for before Minchah. But for some reason I was late, and as soon as I walked into the beis medrash, the Rebbe’s gaze landed on me. He looked me over from top to bottom. I was trembling with fear, and my partner was furious that I came late. But then after davening, a yungerman came over and told me that Rebbe was asking for me. We went into the Rebbe’s room, and my partner said to the Beis Yisrael, ‘He wasn’t in Tzfas…’ The Rebbe replied, ‘Yuh, ich veis, otherwise I wouldn’t have called him over.’ They were referring to an invitation I’d received to perform in Tzfas for what I was told was to be a frum audience with separate seating. But when I realized the concert would be mixed, I immediately cancelled. The Rebbe was obviously aware of what happened, gave me his brachah and sent me on my way. Later I heard that as soon as I left, they took the Rebbe to the hospital, and that was the end.”
A Song for Everyone
Reb Ben Zion was a loyal Modzitzer chassid, but he shared his musical wealth with other rebbes as well. When the current Belzer Rebbe married off his first grandchild, Reb Ben Zion recorded several new songs and sent them on a disc as gift to the Rebbe.
And while few Vizhnitzers know that their “Betzeis Yisrael” is really a Modzitzer niggun, probably even fewer Lubavitchers know that Reb Ben Zion composed a song for the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 72nd birthday — unless they happened to be at the farbrengen where Reb Ben Zion made a surprise performance.
“It was really a favor for my neighbor Rav Yossel Weinberg [a chassidic scholar and author of Shiurim BeSefer HaTanya who was the first to teach chassidic philosophy over the radio],” Reb Ben Zion said. “Every year for the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s birthday they would write a song based on the perek of Tehillim that corresponded to his year, and Reb Yossel told me that the birthday was coming up but they hadn’t come up with a good niggun. So he asked me to write a song for perek ayin gimmel in honor of the Rebbe entering his 73rd year. Well, that really put me on the spot — I would go to farbrengens, had private meetings with the Rebbe over the years, and knew quite a bit of the Lubavitcher niggunim, but I’d never composed a Chabad tune. He just smiled and said, ‘Reb Ben Zion, use your judgment.’
“So I opened a Tehillim and found the pasuk, ‘va’ani kirvas Elokim li tov — But as for me, G-d’s nearness is good.’ Reb Yossel called me to hear how it was coming along and when he heard that I had something, he asked if I would be willing to come and sing it myself to the Rebbe at the farbrengen. That was a bit of a shock, but he was a good neighbor, so I agreed. When I arrived, they seated me right behind the Rebbe, and Reb Yossel said, ‘When I give you the signal, start to sing.’
“And that’s what happened. At first, everybody was stunned. But then the Rebbe turned around and smiled, so I continued to sing, making the beat a little faster. All of the sudden the Rebbe became very animated, and he started waving his hands. Everybody picked up the melody, and we sang it over and over. My wife was sitting in the women’s section, and a lady who didn’t know that she was my wife said to her, ‘S’iz ungenumen! Der Rebbe hut dos ungenumen! — It’s been accepted! The Rebbe has accepted it!’ ”
The Final Niggun
Back in the summer of 1948, when Reb Ben Zion’s rebbi muvhak, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz was on his deathbed, his son Reb Shmuel summoned Reb Ben Zion to come to his ailing father. This was soon after Reb Ben Zion returned from Eretz Yisrael, where he’d been with the Imrei Shaul where he’d passed away in November of 1947 (the Imrei Shaul’s son, Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, had been living in Eretz Yisrael since 1935).
“Rav Shraga Feivel asked me many questions about the Rebbe’s petirah,” Reb Ben Zion remembered. “I told him that I was present at the final moments on Shabbos night, and saw that the Rebbe’s lips were moving in song. Rav Shraga Feivel asked what niggun it was. I said that as far as I could make out it was the song ‘Bnei Heichala’, composed by the Rebbe’s father, the Divrei Yisrael, zy”a. Rav Shraga Feivel began to cry. ‘Halevai.’ he said, ‘that when I leave This World, I’ll also be zocheh to do so with that niggun.’ ”
When I heard that Reb Ben Zion Shenker passed away, I immediately called Rav Aharon Moshe Orlander. He was Reb Ben Zion’s right hand for many years, and I wanted to reminisce — and really, I wanted to know if that was the tune Reb Ben Zion left This World with as well.
“Reb Ben-Zion died with Hashem’s kiss,” Reb Aharon Moshe says. “He simply didn’t wake up Sunday morning. A week before, just days before his petirah, we had a meeting about his next recording. We went over the song list, discussed the niggunim, it all looked great. On Chol Hamoed Sukkos we had his annual kumzitz, and Reb Ben Zion sang ten new songs that he composed for the first time. He was a non-stop fountain, composing close to 600 songs that were recorded, and at least a 100 more that weren’t made public. But more than being a great composer, he was the protector of the entire legacy of chassidic music and for that his influence is immeasurable.”
Each Note Had a Cheshbon
“Listening to music as a kid, there weren’t many choices. But Reb Ben Zion was the first in the field, and that’s what I grew up on… we all did. His technique and style were genius… he knew every dreidel, every kvetch. Each note was there with a cheshbon.
“But as great as he was in music, Reb Ben Zion was foremost an incredible baal middos. He was loved the world over. It’s amazing how a quiet, soft-spoken man as Reb Ben Zion has left such a powerful impression across the world, and how the songs he composed seventy years ago are still cherished and sung today. At the second HASC concert, we had a 25-year tribute, a surprise, and Reb Ben Zion came on stage. You should have heard the audience roar.
“Just this past Motzaei Shabbos, I happened to listen to the old ‘Hamavdil’ niggun on the Melava Malka album I produced with Avraham Fried; Reb Ben Zion loved our version of his song. For some reason, something pulled me to that niggun. Sunday morning, we heard the news that he was no longer with us.
Pioneer Jewish music producer
You’re Missing One Kneitch
“Whenever there was a simchah in Modzitz, or for Rosh Chodesh bentshen, I would hurry over to the Modzitz shteibel after davening to hear Reb Ben Zion. He was very melodic, very hartzig. He agreed with music, and at the same time of course, with Yiddishkeit.
“At a surprise Melava Malka with the Modzitzer Rebbe, in honor of Reb Ben Zion’s 90th birthday, the crowd sang ‘Hatoiv.’ He stopped the singing and said, you’re missing one kneitch, this is how you’ve got to sing it.
“As much as he was an icon, he knew his talent was a gift. He was a musical genius and a real anav.”
—Reb Abish Brodt
Singer and veteran “Regesh” vocalist
Not My Ben Zion
“Modzitz niggunim are complex, consisting of three or four parts, the construction being 1, 2, 3, 2. He was makpid on every musical note. Although I’m a Modzitzer chassid, I almost never put out a Modzitze record… I didn’t want to touch Reb Ben Zion’s domain.
“I’m a baal tefillah for 50 years in the same shul so I haven’t heard Reb Ben Zion davening in years, but I remember. He had a soft voice. Others perhaps sang more powerfully, but his voice was sweet, so sweet. Last year, at the age of 90, he still davened Neilah. As a chazzan, I think he was able to keep going because he never abused his voice. He wouldn’t scream or boom, his singing was soft and sweet.
“He was an example of someone who stayed chassidish, refused to be influenced by the non-Jewish style, and still created good music. Maybe his songs were not the newest sound out there, but they were fresh and authentic.
When I was a young kid, I attended a mesibah where he was present and someone asked me to imitate Reb Ben Zion singing. So I did my best, and then they asked his wife, so? What do you think of this Ben Zion? So she replied that yes, he’s a Ben Zion, but not my Ben Zion.
—Cantor Yaakov Motzen
World-renown chazzan (Israel, Canada, USA)
“Reb Ben Zion had a huge body of work which he wanted recorded according to his own interpretations. Together, we produced and arranged his last few albums. His music was very melody driven, the arrangements there just to buttress the music. He understood how to bring out the depth of a melody.
“He was the inheritor of the Modzitz tradition. He would daven slowly, purposefully, and intensely, just as he sang, consistently among the last to finish. He transformed the experience for the people davening with him.
“His expressive powers just kept growing — he was always at the top of his game.
“Music was a part of his avodas Hashem… a tremendous, creative life force inside of him. He certainly enjoyed it, but he also felt a responsibility to use his gift and develop it.”
Klezmer virtuoso, album collaborator (and neighbor)
Sound and Style
“Reb Ben Zion Shenker was my first exposure to recorded chassidic music. We had the Modzitz albums at home and they were listened to constantly. Even though his own compositions were rooted in Modzitz, he had a sound and style that was uniquely his and his songs are a bridge between generations.”
Composer, musician and entertainer
He Made It Look Easy
“He was the consummate creative genius who made it look easy —and to him it probably was. His catchy, singable, original compositions are all classics that have survived the test of time and will continue to inspire all who hear them.
“I met Reb Ben Zion once and I was impressed by the unassuming humility and pleasant demeanor of this titan of Jewish music. He was a teireh, zeese Yid, blessed with a prodigious talent that he used productively throughout his life, promoting ahavas Hashem and yiras shamayim.”
—Yossi Toiv a.k.a Country Yossi
Composer, singer, radio show host, magazine publisher
Favorites for the Moment
“I recalled the many hours I spent listening to his amazing recordings, many of which are eternal gifts to the Jewish people. Reb Ben Zion was a gifted artist — with a unique voice and a machine-gun like coloratura, he was able to capture the hearts of his listeners.
“Different moments call for different favorites. His epic classic ‘Eishes Chayil’ is sung around the world before Kiddush on Friday night. His ‘Yosis Alayich’ gets the crowd dancing at every wedding. His ‘Mizmor L’Dovid’ is sung the world over at Shalosh Seudos. His ‘Hamavdil,’ which I recorded on my Melava Malka album, ushers in the new week in such a beautiful way.
He once told me that many years ago he underwent an operation. As a thank you to Hashem that all went well, he composed ‘Hatoiv’ — which has been sitting around for 20 or 30 years and only recently became a huge hit. I love this song so much that I started singing it as the final song at my concerts.”
Chassidic music superstar
Songs for the Leviim
“He took words that fit the mood of the melody, it was tzugepast, it worked. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can feel the message, because it fits the niggun so perfectly. I believe one reason his music is so powerful, is because he sang to the people. It doesn’t matter if you understand music or if you don’t… if you have a neshamah, you can connect to his music.
“In many ways his music didn’t change because he kept that Jewish authenticity. In later years, there was more rhythm to his melodies. But every song is Yiddishe music, it’s got the hechsher, the stamp of Shenker.
After a concert in 1997, I asked Reb Ben Zion what it means to him that Yidden around the world are singing his niggunim. He replied that when he writes a niggun, it doesn’t concern him whether it’ll be number one on the charts. He hopes that it will be a song the Leviim will be able to sing in the Beis Hamikdash.”
—Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky
Chazzan, Park East Synagogue
Making People Happy
“When I was editing his music, it happened that he would say, I’m hearing a sound. And I didn’t get it. After listening ten or fifteen times, I finally found it, while he kept asking me, you don’t hear?? He picked it up instantly, over the phone. When we went to classical concerts, if the orchestra was off with one note, he turned to me and said, ‘They made a mistake.’ And despite this, if a chassid would tell him the Rebbe sang one of his songs differently, he would concede, if that’s how the Rebbe sang it, that’s how it ought to be.
“He would make up a song at a simchah, jot it down on a napkin, and get up to sing it. The music wasn’t about him, he felt it belonged to Klal Yisrael. And he had an encyclopedic mind. He knew the old Rebbes, their genealogy, every shul, every street. You would listen to him talking details and you had to wonder, did he ever live in Europe?
“It happened often that after singing for two solid hours at a yahrtzeit tish, people would stop him, ask him to sing this song and that song. And he would. He would sit down and sing for another hour. The guys all had tape recorders and I remember once, someone was disappointed, his battery died. So Reb Ben Zion said, ‘okay, I’ll wait. Go get another battery. There are so many private tapes out there, it’s almost a movement, people circulating their tapes.
Editor of Reb Ben Zion’s recordings
Never About Him
“It was his love of authentic, inspiring, Yiddishe neginah and he had such a strong desire to share it with others. That’s why he enjoyed kumzitzen. Never about him, it was kulo lishmah, always about the music, about the people, that they should appreciate a hartzige niggun.”
—Rabbi Eli Cohen
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 637)
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