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One-stop music shop: In the studio with power duo Yitzy Berry and Eli Klein

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Family archives

Today, you don’t need a live orchestra and a classy studio to make incredible music. Just ask all the singers who’ve been beating a path to Yitzy Berry and Eli Klein, the young yeshivish duo based in Jerusalem who are behind much of the music being produced today. They conveniently compose, arrange, conduct, do vocals, mix, and master — all under one roof. “Of course,” says Yitzy, “I would like to think people also come to us because they like the results.”

The first surprise about Yitzy Berry is that much of today’s most popular Jewish music comes out of this friendly, soft-spoken yeshivish fellow’s one-room studio in his Har Nof apartment.

While his wife Malky is busy in the kitchen making supper for several active little kids, Yitzy and his longtime chavrusa and music partner Eli Klein are in the nearby bedroom-turned-studio putting the final touches on a song for singer Shloime Gertner in honor of the upcoming yahrtzeit of Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk.

Who says you need sophisticated ambiance to put out great music? From these warm and inviting daled amos have emerged MBD’s latest Tzaakah album, Naftali Kempeh’s albums, the Dirshu Siyum HaShas’s “B’zechus HaTorah” and “Orech Yamim,” and dozens of other albums and songs you surely know and love.

The second surprise is that although Yitzy Berry was born into a musical family, this composer, arranger, conductor, and producer never played an instrument until he was 16, and was around bar mitzvah age before he even knew what contribution his famous father made to the Jewish music industry.

His father is the “Suki” of the Suki and Ding team — veteran composer and arranger Suki (Rabbi Yissochor) Berry, whose music has accompanied some of the most popular performers over the last four decades. (Yitzy’s grandfather, Cantor Yechezkel Moshe Berry, is a well-known chazzan, and his mother, Mrs. Chumy Berry, is a composer in her own right — she wrote Avraham Fried’s “Hashem’s the World” and a very early Fried “Keili Ata,” which he sang on an album called Hallel, put out by Suki and Ding in the early 1980s.)

“My father is a musical genius. In addition to writing some of the great oldies — songs like ‘Ki Ayin Be’ayin’ and ‘Keili Chish Goali’ — he did many of the arrangements for the early MBD and Fried albums and wrote lots of those famous intros we know in our sleep. But growing up on Rechov Sorotzkin, I didn’t even know about the music,” Yitzky says. “His official job was mashgiach in Ohr Dovid for over two decades — today he’s menahel ruchani at Imrei Binah — and as kids, that’s all we knew. I knew he played piano, but I had no idea that he was a famous arranger. He never advertised it — he would write music at night and travel back to the US to record during bein hazmanim. Even if he would go to a local studio, it was never something he made a big deal about.”

When Yitzy was a teenager, his interest in music was piqued, and he began to plunk around on the piano. “Everyone told it me was pretty late to start, but I got the bug,” he remembers. “I would sit for hours — my older sister taught me the basic chords, what A minor and D minor mean, and my father gave me a little instruction too. But then I went off to yeshivah, and my new hobby looked like it would be shelved for the while.”

Yitzy was 17 when he entered Yeshivas Kol Torah, but if he thought his hobby was over, it was actually just beginning. Because he became chavrusas with a young musical prodigy named Eli Klein.

 

Eli, on the other hand, didn’t have professional music in his family, although his mother did play piano. In fact, while he would spend hours on his Casio keyboard, she thought he should put his after-school efforts into art instead, as he had a good hand for drawing. He was determined to stick to music, though, and when he begged his parents for a better keyboard, his father, Rav Shalom Klein, asked daas Torah. Rav Klein was told that as long as his talented son would keep his priorities in line — Torah first, then music — they could honor his request. Eli stuck to his end of the deal, and there was no turning back.

“I actually learned under his father in Yeshivah Ketanah Shaarei Torah,” says Yitzy. “I knew Rav Shalom Klein has a really musical son, but I had no connection with him at the time. In Kol Torah, I met that son, and soon we were learning together. Eli had a keyboard and guitar in the dorm, and while we had our place in the mizrach of the beis medrash for years, we also would talk music, listen to, and analyze the current albums coming out. And Eli, for his part, had a repertoire of songs that he’d composed since he was a kid.”

Then Eli acquired music-recording software, where, he says, “everything happens. All the tracks are on it. We realized it was amazing, but neither of us really knew what to do with it. We never went to sound school, but slowly, we started to figure it out.”

Eli, meanwhile, was on a roll composing songs and recording them on his new system. “I wasn’t looking for fame,” Eli says. “I just wanted to have a ‘home’ for my songs, so I recorded them on the system. Then I decided, why not send them around and see what happens?” And some of those songs would eventually go on to become classics — “Bircas Habanim,” which became a trademark of Ohad Moskowitz, and “Zechor Bris,” made famous by Motty Steinmetz, to name a few.

“One day in yeshivah Eli comes to me literally shaking,” Yitzy recalls. “He said, ‘There’s this big producer in Bnei Brak, David Fadida, and he likes my “Mi Adir, Hu Yevarech” — he wants it for Ohad!’ Then he told me that Fadida works with a yeled pele, a wunderkind named Yonatan Shainfeld, and he wants a song for him too.”

Eli, ever loyal to his friend Yitzy, took a gamble and told Fadida, “I have a friend, the son of Suki Berry, and he can do the arranging.”

That was the pair’s first foray into the professional world of music production, and they agree that it was a tremendous gift, courtesy of Fadida, who decided to give them the chance.

“I wrote all the music out by hand — that’s the way my father did it, and it took me forever — but I managed to put together an arrangement,” says Yitzy. “We got the best studio musicians — Avi Avidani, Avi Singolda, and others — and we did Eli’s ‘Kulanu Yachad’ and ‘Hu Yevarech’ for Yonatan Shainfeld’s first album.”

Fadida was so happy with the first album that he had a new project for the emerging duo: for Shainfeld’s next album, he wanted them to write a song with English lyrics.

“So we sat in Eli’s dorm room and wrote ‘Just Do It’ — Eli brought in a laptop with the software, and we did the lyrics, arrangements, and production out of that room,” says Yitzy. “Until today people tell me that was the pop song of their childhood.”

David Fadida opened the door for them and gave them more projects, but at a certain point, Yitzy and Eli realized they could strike out on their own, creating their own brand of musical service ranging from composition to lyrics to producing, arranging, mixing, and mastering. And they both do everything together.

“On a technical level, today each of us can do every piece alone, but really, we can’t do anything on our own,” says Eli. “Together we create something much greater than the sum of one plus one.”

At first, though, Yitzy left the composing to Eli. “I never thought I could compose,” he admits. “But Eli really pushed me. He told me, ‘Of course you can compose — what do you think arranging music for all the instruments is?’ The truth is, it’s like my father — he never considered himself a composer, but he was composing scores for entire orchestras in his head!”

Still, Yitzy says he’s more of a “studio guy,” while Eli enjoys the stage as well. Eli often plays at events and anchors the afternoon drive slot on the chareidi radio station Kol Chai Music.

“For me, the radio work is important,” says Eli, “because when you sit in the recording studio, you’re shut in your own little world where you don’t always get a sense of what listeners on the outside want. With the radio show, there’s feedback and there are requests — this way we can feel what the people on the outside are interested in, and it gives us a broader perspective.”

But what, in fact, do Yitzy Berry and Eli Klein offer top-tier performers such as MBD, Avraham Fried, Benny Friedman, and everyone in between, all of them beating a path to Yitzy’s apartment?

Some might say it’s the way they’re attuned to the young demographic of music lovers and their strong instinct for which songs will or won’t work for today’s listeners. Others might point to their fusion of high professional standards with easygoing, gracious attitudes. Then there’s the integrity they manage to maintain in what can be a very murky world; despite the big names and high stakes they work with, they’ve remained two yeshivah guys, committed to their standards and values.

But Yitzy has a different, more practical take. “When people ask me, ‘What did you guys bring to the market?’ I think it’s the idea that we’re a one-stop shop,” he says. “We do the whole production. Someone comes to us, let’s say, because he wants a song for an album. Here he gets the full package. We’ll compose the song, record it, arrange it, produce it, mix and master it, do background vocals — a total product start to finish.”

That’s how they started doing business with Benny Friedman.

It was six years ago when Yitzy got an e-mail from producer Sruly Meyer, mentioning that Benny had an open spot on his upcoming third album, Kol Haneshamah Sheli. “He liked what we did for Ohad,” says Yitzy, “and he wanted to know if we could give Benny a song, start to finish. So Eli wrote ‘Rak Beyachad,’ and Benny came here to sing it.”

Some musical purists might say that although Yitzy and Eli’s songs sound great, some of the music they make in their studio is not “real music” because they also use instruments that are generated by a keyboard hooked up to the computer. Eli, a musician since childhood, objects to that characterization. “Calling it ‘fake’ music isn’t really true,” he says, “because today we have another option: A person can compose a song on a laptop, but he still has to have a thorough knowledge of every instrument’s sound, its range, what kind of frills it can add, and what its limits are. If I don’t know in my head how all the percussions come together, how I want every instrument to sound and blend together, even the best technology won’t help. So true, you don’t actually have to play them all, but you have to be able to construct an orchestra in your mind.”

There are singers who insist on hiring professional musicians to record their music, but Eli isn’t sure the final product is objectively better. “Is it better to hire a goyish Russian studio musician who’s just reading notes and knows nothing about the soul of the song? Sure, there is a difference between a real violin and the computer-generated version, but the digital soundtrack isn’t necessarily worse. Because in the end, what’s important is that the listener hears a gorgeous finished product, and it touches them. Our job is to create sound that is meragesh, that moves people. Does it really make a difference how I generated it?

“And people often wonder why we don’t have a multi-room studio with the booths and the glass partitions,” Eli continues. “It’s because you only need that when they come with a whole group — the singer, his producer, and others — because they’re going to be making noise, commenting, and eating pizza, so they need to be in a separate booth. But here it’s just the singer and us — it’s very quiet and personal, and this way we can really feel the energy of the singer, give him that push, that extra encouragement that often makes the song better.”

And sometimes, that closeness tells them it’s better not to push, to wait until the singer himself is in a better place.

“We were working on an album for Shloime Cohen and made up to meet him here one night, after he’d been singing in Bnei Brak,” Yitzy remembers. “But standing here in front of the mic, he told us, ‘Guys, I just can’t do it tonight. I’m burnt out. I’m coming back another day.’ He knew he couldn’t give it over to the audience the way he wanted — if he’d been in a cold studio, he might not have been so open, and we wouldn’t have picked up on it either.”

(Malky says that although she has celebrities coming into her house throughout the day, all she does is serve the coffee. “I know absolutely nothing about music,” she admits. “And honestly, I never expected to have people like MBD walking through my living room, but Yitzy is so easygoing and down-to-earth about it — he doesn’t make a big deal about it so it’s no big deal.”)

So what, exactly, does it mean to “do” a song?

“Well, you generally need at least four or five people involved for a song to come out,” Yitzy explains. “A composer has to write the melody, then the singer goes to an arranger, like my father or Mona or Moshe Laufer, and they write an arrangement, and either they or someone else produces it. The producer decides how the arrangement is going to be played, what message the song should bring out. Then the mixing engineer puts all the tracks together. There can be 100 tracks — the drums alone are 13 tracks. There’s also the tweaking of the voice. Trade secret: Every singer has some ‘renovations’ done on his voice.

“Our chiddush — and don’t be fooled by the size of our studio or that my kids are running around in the living room — is that we offer the complete package, or any part of it. There still are lots of arrangers and mixers and recorders out there, but we have it all under one roof. That means we can see the total picture, and it’s a real advantage. Of course, I would like to think people also come to us because they like the results, not just because we’re convenient.”

One performer they can take some credit for promoting is Naftali Kempeh, the rising star of the kumzitz scene in Eretz Yisrael and beyond. He was a few years behind them in Kol Torah, but eventually they became a trio in late-night jam sessions.

“He always reminds me of when he was a young kid in shiur alef, just starting to learn guitar, and we already had a reputation as being the music guys in yeshivah,” Yitzy says. “I was in the next room, and I heard him trying to figure out some chords for a song he was singing, which was a little grating, so I gave a yell —‘E minor!’ He came out and saw it was us — he was both embarrassed and flattered.

“We remained close friends, and we put out his first album since he’s our friend, and we were anyway always spending time together. In Hebrew you’d say that we made this album ‘in our slippers’ — an expression that means it was completely informal, unscripted — basically, we were just capturing that informal kumzitz vibe. Honestly, we didn’t think anything would come of it. But it just exploded. He really touched hearts. We’ve now just released his second album, Ana Eileich — it’s the hottest album now among the yeshivah bochurim. He and Eli wrote the songs on it together.”

One of the biggest feathers in their cap is MBD’s most recent album, Tzaakah — Eli and Yitzy each composed several songs on it and did most of the arrangements. Of all the studios, arrangers, and producers at his disposal, the fact that Mordche chose them was, for Eli and Yitzy, a career peak.

“We didn’t think we could go any higher than that,” says Yitzy.

Eli had written the song “Tzaakah,” based on the words of Rebbe Nachman of Brelsov, who teaches in the name of the Zohar that a cry of teshuvah is effective even if there’s no one to hear it except for Hashem Himself. He sent it off to Mordche, who loved it.

For that same album, Yitzy and Eli composed “Psach Lanu Shaar,” and Yitzy even included words in Yiddish. “I’m a born-and-bred Litvak, but my father for some reason decided to send me to Kamenitz for cheder where I learned Yiddish,” Yitzy says. “And Mordche loved it. I couldn’t believe he actually sang my Yiddish words.

“In a way, though, it was like coming home. My mother is a rebbishe einekel, descended from Rebbe Yitzchak of Melitz, whom I’m actually named after. He and his brother Rav Elimelech wrote many chassidishe niggunim that are still sung today. Sometimes I work with chassidishe singers who hear a composition of mine and tell me I must have some chassidic blood flowing through my veins. And when Mordche introduced ‘Psach Lanu Shaar’ on the various Jewish music radio programs, he invariably explained that ‘this is Yitzy Berry’s song, and Yitzy is a Melitzer einekel — listen to the niggun and you’ll hear it.’”

Tzaakah, however, wasn’t their first project with “The King.” Eli and Yitzy first met MBD on Hoshana Rabbah night of 2015, in Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz’s succah overlooking the Old City. It was Motzaei Shabbos, just a few hours after a horrific terror attack in which Aharon Banita-Bennet was stabbed to death as he was making his way to the Kosel with his wife and two young children, as was Rabbi Nechemia Lavi, killed while trying to rescue the family. And just two days before, Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama were murdered in a drive-by shooting while traveling with their four young children.

“Everyone was nervous, scared, and broken,” says Eli. “And then I went up to Mordche and told him I wanted to play him a song I’d written. It was ‘Nekom,’ [from Avinu Malkeinu, “…avenge the spilled blood of Your servants…”]. The time was ripe for this song, and Mordche liked it.” They produced it for him after Yom Tov, and two weeks later it came out as a single.

But if Yitzy and Eli thought they’d reached their peak with an MBD album, they soon realized the summit was in a different direction: Dirshu organizers asked them to write two songs for the worldwide Siyum HaShas events, to be sung by Motty Steinmetz, Ahrele Samet, and Zanvil Weinberger. Today, “B’zechus HaTorah” (a joint collaboration) and “Orech Yamim” (Yitzy’s composition) have become anthems of the Torah world.

“As soon as we had the words to ‘B’zechus HaTorah,’ we knew we struck gold,” says Eli. “As long as we wouldn’t ruin it with a substandard tune, we knew it was something that could touch everyone.”

The words, taken from the Midrash in Vayikra Rabba, express how those who study Torah protect all of Am Yisrael: “When Klal Yisrael said naaseh v’nishma, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, ‘In the merit of Torah and Am Yisrael, the world will be saved. For the sake of this rose, the orchard will be saved.’ ”

“It’s a song for people who are living, learning, and supporting Torah, to be mechazek the olam haTorah, a song for a historic occasion in honor of the Torah. Many songs talk about tefillah and Torah, but not many are about kavod HaTorah,” Yitzy says. “It was incredible — Rav Chaim walks in, and our song is playing, and all the roshei yeshivah are dancing to our song. You can’t get higher than that — that was the real peak.”

Because that’s really where their hearts are. “If you’d asked me ten years ago what I’d be doing at this stage in life, I’d have answered that I’d probably be a meishiv in a yeshivah,” Yitzy admits. “When I started playing piano as a teenager, my mother asked my father if they should send me out for piano lessons, and so my father went to ask one of the gedolim he was connected with. He came back and said, ‘We shouldn’t push for it. If it happens, it happens, but we should give him the option to sit and learn — and if the music is really in him, it will come out.’”

And in another ten years? “We daven that we’ll be able to continue inspiring people. That’s really what keeps us going,” says Eli. “There’s nothing like having an idea that expresses something important, and being able to put it to music to reach others. You know, many people send us their songs but often I tell them, ‘You’re still in elementary school. This isn’t developed yet. You took a nice pasuk and stuck on a melody, but that’s not enough. That’s not a good composition. A good composition has something special in it, something that can touch the listener, that goes deeper than just some arbitrary notes tacked onto a pasuk. It has to penetrate on multiple levels.’”

So how do they write a song? Sometimes, they say, a singer has a favorite theme or perek of Tehillim and wants a song generated from that. So they go into that space, see what it says before, see what it says after, read what Rashi or other commentaries have to say, in order to really feel the text and create an appropriate melody.

And how long does such a project take? “It can take us two weeks or two minutes,” says Eli.

I would like to see how this works, I tell them. “How about if I pick a pasuk and you compose a tune?” So I take out my Tehillim and flip through — and there it is, the perfect pasuk, full of heartache, pleading, and angst, from Chapter 69: “Hoshi’eini Elokim ki ba’u mayim ad nafesh — Save me, Hashem, for I have sunk in muddy depths and there is no place to stand; I have come into the deep water, and the current has swept me away.”

Eli sits down at the keyboard, and Yitzy picks up his guitar. They strum and test and try a few chord progressions and get the cadence, and after about five minutes the studio explodes in the most exquisite song: “Hoshi’einu Elokim, hooooshieeeni (repeat), ki ba’u mayim aaaad naafesh oy oy oy oy oy….”

We have a hit, no? This is so exciting! I’m already waiting for the single to come out, envisioning my name in the credits alongside these two music greats.

And then Yitzy breaks the news: “Forget it,” he says. “It will never work. The niggun is good, but the words are too heavy, too depressing. Maybe in Europe in 1940, but I just can’t imagine bochurim of 2020 at a kumzitz or Seudah Shlishis singing about drowning.”

Well, that’s one reason Yitzy Berry and Eli Klein have found themselves working with the most popular singers of the day. Because when your vision is 2020, you know the sound of the times.

 

(Originally Featured in Mishpacha, Issue 801)

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