| Magazine Feature |

One Mountain Away

Silenced by a deadly virus, Meron’s musicians still play the songs in their hearts

Photos: Flash 90, Ouria Tadmor

It’s 3:30 a.m., but on Lag B’omer in Meron, time takes on a different dimension. If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands who’ve been there, you know the predawn scene: The embers of the hadlakahs are still glowing and the crowd seems to be spinning in a never-ending twirl of ecstasy in celebration of the great light Rabi Shimon revealed to the world on his deathbed nearly 1,900 years ago. While daylight was suspended, he completed his teachings of the Hidden Torah that would become the domain of all the Jewish People and illuminate the dark centuries of exile.

And the music — Meron music — has its own signature style: The clarinet in the lead, with the keyboard, fiddle, and drums in graceful accompaniment, seem to penetrate that deep place in the soul that makes a Yid want to dance faster, jump higher, reach for something he knows is real yet untouchable.

But then, almost imperceptibly, the dancing morphs from a noisy spin to a silent sway, as the wail of the clarinet pierces the air with a different kind of niggun: For the next two hours until sunrise, it’s soulful tunes like the Karliner “Kah Echsof,” the Baal HaTanya’s “Arba Bavos,” and the traditional pre-sunrise finale, “Tiher Rabi Yishmael.” These hours belong to master clarinetist Chaim Kirshenbaum, who hasn’t missed a predawn rendezvous with Rabi Shimon in 33 years.

Until now.

While many COVID-related restrictions in Israel have been eased — stores are open, businesses have begun functioning, and schools are gradually returning to schedule — social distancing rules still apply, and the convergence of multitudes in Meron won’t be happening on Lag B’omer of 2020. While there might still be last-minute changes, the current Health Ministry protocol is that the entire area will be closed to all non-residents, and access to Har Meron will be by special permit only. Still, in keeping with the centuries-old hadlakah tradition, Health Ministry–sanctioned hadlakahs will be carried out in four complexes with a minimum of participants, to be broadcast across the country.

But there will be no tents dotting the surrounding hills, the hundreds of rental units in the moshav will remain empty, and there won’t be any chalakah boys dancing on their fathers’ shoulders to the music of the Meron musicians and the gravelly Yerushalmi voice of Reb Meir Blau, who’s been singing “Bar Yochai” for the last 50 years.

And what of those Meron players, who would never think of taking a paying job on Lag B’omer if it meant missing playing (for free) in the courtyard of Rabi Shimon?

“I’ll tell you the truth,” says Nachman Cohen, who’s been on the keyboard in Meron every Lag B’omer for the past 19 years, from the time he was a 14-year-old bochur, “when the neighbors in my building heard that Meron would be ‘canceled,’ they asked me, ‘Nachman, you’re not going to Meron, so how about if we make a small fire behind our building and you’ll play for us?’

“I told them, ‘Guys, don’t even talk to me about it, it just makes me more upset.’

“You see, playing for Rabi Shimon is so deep, so internal. It could be that we’ll be able to play in the end, that they might let a few hundred people in, but it’s really painful thinking that we won’t be there in the chatzer of the tziyun, carrying the crowd — and ourselves — on the Meron niggunim.”

He says it’s the topic among the musicians these days, who are all feeling broken, “because when you play in the chatzer, it’s like giving your most precious gift to Rabi Shimon.”



Nachman, a Breslover chassid and professional keyboard player and accordionist whose band specializes in Meron-style klezmer music all year round, is grateful that he played in Meron on 7 Adar, the birthday and yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu and a special day of music and tefillah in Meron, the energy of which is still reverberating as compensation. And he and many of the other longtime musicians are consoling themselves with the latest substitute plan: In accordance with guidelines of the local authorities, many of the Meron musicians will gather together on a hill in nearby Tzfas, from where Har Meron is visible across the valley, and their music will be broadcast live all day long.

“It’s not Rabi Shimon’s courtyard,” Nachman admits, “but if that’s as close as we can get, we’ll do our best to bring the simchah of Rabi Shimon to Klal Yisrael, even if we’re 12 kilometers away.”

One of the Meron mainstays, clarinetist Avraham Balti, won’t be part of the Tzfas ensemble, though. That’s because he’s one of the select few who will actually be able to play in Meron — at the traditional hadlakah of the Boyaner Rebbe, the mesorah of which will continue even under lockdown.

“I’ve been playing in Meron every year from age 14,” says 30-year-old Balti, who’s grateful he won’t have to break his streak. “Obviously, though, it’s not going to be the same. I can’t even describe what it’s like to play in the chatzer, among thousands of people dancing, coming from all over, no one caring what group or chassidus you’re connected to.”

The first year Avraham showed up in Meron on Lag B’omer, he stood at the side and listened, watching how every few minutes, another Moussa Berlin wannabe would go up to the bandstand and play. Avraham happened to be a pretty good musician for his age, so he decided to go up see how long it would be before he was pushed out. In the end, he played for a few hours.

“Well,” he remembers, “no one told me to leave.”

Those were the years when it seemed like every bochur who knew which way to hold a clarinet or how to turn on a keyboard wanted a chance to play for Rabi Shimon. Of course, there were super talents like popular clarinetist Chilik Frank, who said that from the time he was a child going to Meron with his father, he would stand by the bandstand entranced, promising himself that one day he’d be up there too. When he was 18, he actualized his dream, playing alongside veteran players Moussa Berlin and Avremele Cheshin.

There were other talented players who took their rightful place as well, Nachman Cohen and Avraham Balti among them. “If you were good, they let you stay an extra five minutes. If you were really good, they let you play half an hour,” Avraham says.

But there were also dozens, perhaps hundreds of others, who dreamed of their half hour of fame playing for the dancing throngs. The small bandstand became packed with people waiting their turn to play — often discordantly, ruining the smoothness of the music as they tried to accompany the more professional musicians. About 15 years ago, there was a movement to organize the players, get rid of the off-key amateurs, and give the professionals allotted slots. Since then, Avraham has his chazakah: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., just as the chalakahs are getting underway.

Avraham won’t have his usual slot in the chatzer this year, but he’s not planning to leave after the Boyaner hadlakah is over. “They say Meron will be empty during the day, but who knows? I’m sure there will be some who get permission to enter. Anyway, I’ll be there. I hope I’ll have some people to play for during the day, so we can all join in the simchah of Rashbi. If I see that they authorities are letting a few people in, I’ll be so happy to play and help make the simchah. I feel like I’m the rep of all my musician friends, so it’s a big zechut, and also a big responsibility. I feel like the weight of the entire hilula is on my shoulders.”

Truth to tell, Meron on Lag B’omer hasn’t always been so packed. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, in the pre–Yad Ezra days — when hachnassas orchim meant a box of biskvitim at the tziyun that someone schlepped from Jerusalem, along with thermoses of tea and lukewarm jugs of petel — the righteous men of Eretz Yisrael would travel to Meron to sing, dance, and pray on Rabi Shimon’s hilula.

And the music was different too. Today people think the extent of Meron music is “Bar Yochai” and “Amar Rabi Akiva,” but Meron niggunim go back to the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov, to the tzaddikim of previous generations.

Back then the main musician was a tzaddik nistar named Avraham Segal. He worked as a porter at the Haifa docks, and on Lag B’omer he would come to Meron with his clarinet — he had a reputation for being the best klezmer player in Israel. Then, on Lag B’omer of 1952, a young bochur and clarinetist named Moussa Berlin, from the yeshivah in Kfar Haroeh, traveled to Meron and was so taken by Avraham Segal’s music that he decided to come back every year and play alongside him.

In 1973 he succeeded Segal as Meron’s lead clarinetist, and in recent years he’s created another chazakah: At 2 a.m., he and his klezmer friends are present at the hadlakah at the kever of Rabi Yochanan Hasandlar a bit further up the mountain, playing the old Meron niggunim that in today’s modern music milieu are all but forgotten.

This year, Moussa, 82, is still hoping he’ll get a permit to enter Meron, but if not, he’ll be joining his fellow musicians on that Tzfas hilltop, where other veteran figures who’ve been playing in Meron for decades — Reb Avraham Noach Bender on organ, David Tzvi Weinkrantz on accordion, and Binyamin Berzesky on clarinet, to name just a few — are planning to join in the hilula from afar.

Moussa, considered the father of all the klezmorim and to whom so many are looking to for consolation this year, sent out what he calls a “nichum aveilim” letter of sorts to his colleagues.

“I don’t think it’s worthwhile to overextend our efforts on this, trying to outsmart the regulations and sneak into Meron,” he says. “This year Lag B’omer is like Maamad Har Sinai for the Hidden Torah. Hashem told Moshe to cordon off the mountain, that no one could go up. So this year, let’s accept the Torah of Rabi Shimon in a different way — everyone should stick to the rules, make their own small celebrations, and in the end it will be like one huge fire.”

Shalom Steinberg, a drummer who’s been playing for years in Meron with his friends Nachman Cohen, Avraham Balti, and guitarist Nachman Helbitz, has long-standing roots at the kever of Rashbi. His older brother Chaim Steinberg, a Yerushalmi wedding drummer, has been in charge of both the sound system and the drums for the last 35 years, and it’s become a bit of a family business to go up the week before Lag B’omer to set up the system.

Shalom was just a kid, but would stand by the bandstand for hours watching his brother and the others, and, having done a little drumming himself, one time about 20 years ago he decided to join the crush of bochurim waiting for a turn to play.

“I didn’t think I was so great,” he says, “but I saw that the others who went before me were even worse. They were trying to play back-up for Meir Adler and he was really getting exasperated. Then I went up and started playing, and he said to me, ‘Hust mir geratevt [You saved me].’ ”

Shalom remembers Meron on Lag B’omer when he was a little fellow after his own chalakah, before the days of the massive crowds that grow exponentially from year to year. This year, he says, it feels like there’s a hole in the cycle, something so fundamental missing.

“The year 5780 will go down in history as the year of the hole,” he says.

But he’s not planning on filling up that hole by going to Tzfas with his friends. “For me, it’s either Rabi Shimon or staying home. There’s nothing that can take the place of playing in Rabi Shimon’s chatzer. I can’t explain it. It’s really such a tiny courtyard, but it just keeps filling up and stretches. When you see it empty, you can’t imagine how it can hold thousands of people.

“For me, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And when you’re playing there, you become part of it, the backdrop to all that simchah and prayer, and it’s not about you anymore, not your performance and not your ego. You’re just the facilitator. So this year I’ll live with the hole and next year, im yirtzeh Hashem, we’ll be playing and dancing with Mashiach.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 809)

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