For nearly five decades, Yossi Green’s tunes have been background music as we’ve moved through life
Photos: Jeff Zorabedian, Personal archives
Even before Yossi Green and I get to talking about Yossi Green, we’re talking about Ishay Ribo, whom the veteran composer admires — and his song “Seder Ha’avodah” in particular. I comment that when I first heard it, I found it a bit offensive. The words are sacred, their nusach sacred, recited at the most sacred time of year — is it fodder for artistic expression?
Yossi Green listens politely to my take, and asks a question. “And then what happened?”
I admit at a certain point it grew on me, and I heard something powerful there.
He smiles. “The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said, ‘Better to look in from the outside then to look out from inside.’ That means it’s better to feel the words, even from the outside, then to be inside and take them for granted. The composer is looking at the words his way, from his place, and sharing what he sees.”
He’s talking about Ribo, but not only.
Many words have been spoken and books written on what it means to be a child of survivors. Yossi Green never delivered a lecture or authored a dissertation on the subject, but instead, he took the range of emotions — pain and surprised triumph, loss, and joy of rebuilding — and created a new type of music, essentially writing the soundtrack to the coming-of-age story of a nation in this particular galus outpost, at this juncture in history.
“It started before the pain,” he tells me. “Pain wasn’t the first stage.”
He recalls the many numbered arms in the Satmar beis medrash of his youth and his complete, blissful oblivion about what they represented. Finally, he asked his father why a certain Jew had a number in blue ink tattooed on his arm, and his father, taking the question seriously, suggested that his little Yossel, his ben yachid, ask the man himself.
Yossi approached the gentleman with his innocent question. The man smiled gently. “When I was a child in Hungary, we were among the first families to have a telephone installed,” he explained, “and my mother was worried I would forget the phone number, so she had it printed it on my arm.”
Sitting outside his Seagate home, waves of the Atlantic Ocean lapping at white sand in his backyard, Yossi Green thinks back to that encounter. “It was too soon. No one had come up with a way to tell a story that they themselves weren’t sure was over. There were no words.”
But there was music.
Reb Moshe Green was a Satmar chassid. Before the war, he had been a rav in Temeshvar, Romania. Yossi was born in Israel in 1955, but then his father decided to move to America to be near his rebbe and accepted a position in a Williamsburg butcher shop. In Romania, he and his wife, Sarah Rivka, had two daughters; 18 years later, they had their only son.
Mrs. Green, no less a survivor than her husband, saw a question mark in the eyes of her child, and she knew precisely how to answer it. The answers came in large, square-shaped record sleeves: Shenker. Werdyger. Chabad. Some Beethoven snuck in too.
“There was a Pirchei record that came out when I was about 12 — the one with ‘Ami Maamin’ and a picture of the Kosel on the cover, an original painting by Yisroel Lamm. Some of the Williamsburg buyers took it home in a brown paper bag, to keep the Kosel image out of sight of anyone who might have been offended by it.”
The songs on many of these albums were of a certain style. “It was like a timid, hopeful, broken tefillah, you could hear what we’d just went through and the theme to every song was the same. Send Mashiach. There’s no other plan and no way to survive.
“Actually,” he muses, “Chabad was a step ahead. They had already started suffering before the rest of European Jewry — they had been oppressed for so long, so you could already hear the fighting spirit in their music.”
Deep inside, Yossi Green lived a song built on what he was hearing, but the chords were just a bit different.
“I was born less than a decade after the war, and as I grew older, we started to see signs that there would be a tomorrow. Mosdos, chassidic courts, and yeshivos rose up. People started to figure out parnassah and bought homes. You could hear tentative laughter at simchahs.”
It was a reassuring sound, but also a bit confusing. “Were we okay? Were we still broken? In time, I learned about the balance, the tightrope walked by that heroic generation who carried open wounds but still taught us to laugh.”
Through that confusion, Yossi Green tried to forge a path. “I was a Satmar yingel, with long flowing peyos. We stopped recess every day to watch the heileger Rebbe walk out of his home to the beis medrash — our lives revolving around his. But I wasn’t finding that easy, instant success in the system that my father hoped for.”
There is none of the “my parents never understood me, too much pressure, hard childhood” angst in his narrative, but the opposite: genuine respect and appreciation for what they were encountering.
“A few years after my chasunah, my parents were with us on Purim, and I was dressed up, wearing a shtreimel and white socks, not my real Shabbos garb. My father saw me and said, ‘So that’s it, it’s a costume now?’ His comment penetrated, and I started to think about it. He was a genuine chassidishe Yid, and he’d hoped I would reflect the choices for which he’d given up so much. At that moment, I realized that he was right, and after Purim, I asked my wife what she thought. Would she be okay if I started to wear a shtreimel? She encouraged me, as is her way, and I bought a shtreimel for Pesach. My parents were with us for Yom Tov, and when I came down to go to shul on Erev Pesach and my father saw me, his eyes lit up. We walked to shul together that evening, and though we didn’t speak much, it was probably one of the richest, most powerful few minutes we ever spent together as father and son.”
When Yossi was a teenager, his father realized it was time to find a solution for the Satmar yeshivah bochur who was just a little different, and it arrived at an unlikely moment.
“The Satmar beis medrash was one of the largest in New York at that time, with thousands of seats, all privately owned by chassidim. My father didn’t have a seat of his own, but my uncle, Reb Shaya Volf Lev, had purchased a very good seat, and, since he lived in London, it was available to us most of the year. One year on Shvii shel Pesach, my father and I crammed into the single space, as usual. It was in the front row, and the aisle next to us was filled with people who had pushed up in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Rebbe. There was a distinguished-looking Jew there, not a chassid, who was determined to see the Rebbe. He wasn’t large or strong, and the sadranim, in charge of crowd control, were doing their job and pushing the crowd back. It hurt to see this Jew get slammed again and again, and my father leaned over and simply lifted him over the barrier into our seat, so we were now three sharing the same spot. After davening was over, he thanked my father profusely, and my father asked him his name. He said it was Segal, and he lived in Manchester, England. He was visiting his son for Yom Tov, and he’d wanted to see the Satmar Rebbe daven.”
Reb Moshe asked what this Rabbi Segal did, and the English visitor replied that he had a yeshivah.
“My father smiled and indicated me. ‘And I have a bochur.’ ”
And so it came to pass that right after Yom Tov, Yossi Green was flying across the Atlantic seated near the Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yehudah Zev Segal ztz”l, on his way to become a Manchester talmid.
“I was enamored by the Rosh Yeshivah, not just his learning and his shiur, but the message he sent even without speaking. The focus on bein adam l’chaveiro, on generosity, on concern for others, was extraordinary, and it came from simply watching Rav Segal.”
From Manchester, the Brooklyn bochur continued on to Yeshivas HaRama in London, where he boarded at the home of cousins. “It was sort of lonely there. I slept in a large attic room by myself. I was far from home, and I didn’t have many friends.” But he did uncover an old piano with some broken keys, and during those lonely nights, he began to plunk out a few tunes he’d composed.
Knowing that the young man was musically inclined, his English cousins connected him with a local musical personality, a young man who would eventually achieve legendary status. Yigal Calek was a charismatic school teacher and director of the London School of Jewish Song, and he drew Yossi Green close. That relationship would teach Yossi a lot about mentorship, about giving attention and encouragement, and also about when to give a gentle push and say hatzlachah and let go.
During that time, Yigal had negotiated contracts for four upcoming concerts in Brooklyn College, but he was desperate for three new songs.
“I thought he was probably joking, but he asked me, ‘Can you write songs?’ So I played a tune for him, the one I wrote in the attic. He suddenly leapt up and hurried to get a Chumash, opening to the Rashi in parshas Vayechi that tells of how Rochel Imeinu cried for her children, and he began to sing. He put the words “Kol berama nishma” to that tune, which became my first public composition, and in doing so, he taught me just what makes a song. He felt those words, they were bursting out of him, he already had an emotional attachment to them, and when he got to work with my tune, he knew what he wanted to say.”
The song marked Yossi Green as a composer, and he was ready. Ready to lift up a generation with the call of meni koleich mibechi. It’s time to stop crying.
Yossi Green returned to New York with a clearer direction in life, a sense of purpose.
He moved to Boro Park, sharing an apartment with an aspiring singer named Meir Sherman. As Meir launched a singing career, Yossi Green became an official composer.
And there were bigger things happening — two major events that year in 1977. One, he met and married Brigitte, and the other is that he got a piano.
It was really one package, he points out.
“We went to the bank to open a joint account when we got married,” he recalls, “and I noticed she was keeping a few thousand dollars of her own in a separate account. I thought it was a little strange, but back then, we didn’t ask questions. We kept it inside.”
At the time, Yossi was working behind the counter of a store called Music Maven, whose owners believed that Boro Park residents were ready for a full-service music store catering to the frum community.
Turns out they weren’t, and the newlywed salesman wasn’t bringing home very much.
Less than a year later, the store was forced to close, but Brigitte Green had an idea. She called the owners and asked if, at the very least, they would use their relationship with the piano manufacturer to help her buy her husband the perfect gift. Kimball baby grand pianos went for about $10,000, but young Mrs. Green and the store-owners worked together and got one for $6,000.
“On my 22nd birthday, I came home to the greatest present ever.”
It’s the very same piano that graces the Green home now, the defining piece of furniture in a room that has eye-catching paintings, an over-sized antique harp, and so, so many seforim. The home that was Reb Moshe Green’s investment in eternity.
Reb Moshe Green, whose hands were so full of cuts from his work at the butcher shop that he couldn’t dial numbers on a rotary phone, somehow saved up a few thousand dollars.
“My father called my father-in-law, and suggested they help us put the down payment on a home. It wasn’t a real estate decision — it was that my father wanted me to live somewhere ‘heimish,’ and in Seagate, he felt comfortable because the Seagate rav, Rav Zalman Leib Meisels, had opened a beis medrash here. He was right. I belong here. I need to be here.”
Yossi and Brigitte are in the same house they moved into back then, purchased for about $80,000, a home with a backyard overlooking the ocean, the Verrazano’s soaring arch seemingly planted there for the inspiration of this one Jew at his piano.
And the music started.
Yossi was playing trumpet for Neginah Orchestra in the evenings to make ends meet. Sid Stadler, a gifted musician, turned to him one night between sets and said, “Yossi, you’d make a great salesman. Call me tomorrow.”
He encouraged Yossi to go into the medical supplies business, and until today he’s a co-owner of a company in the industry.
Back then, music wasn’t an industry, and anyway, Yossi Green didn’t go about it like anyone else.
If over the last four decades the Cropsey Avenue exit off the Belt Parkway was a starting point for aspiring singers, the one who first pulled off at Seagate was Sheya Mendlowitz.
“Sheya, who I knew as a kid from Yigal Calek’s New York choir, showed up here with a shy, slim bochur named Avraham Shabsi Hakohein Friedman. He said he wanted to do an album with him. It was the first time I ever met a Lubavitcher chassid up close.”
The host sat at his Kimball piano and tried to find common ground with his guest, a practice he still maintains when he writes a song for someone. “I listened to Avremel talk with such passion about his rebbe. The previous week, the Rebbe had spoken about how when Mashiach comes, ‘No Jew will be left behind.’ I started with the high part, the emotion engendered by those words.”
It became the title track of Avraham Fried’s first album — and unsaid, but clearly expressed, was the sense that something was shifting in the national mood. “We weren’t on the floor anymore, but back on our feet, determined that Mashiach would come, and that with our mitzvos we would bring him.”
The notes of triumph created by Yossi Green launched careers. You heard of Avraham Fried, yes? Of Green’s longtime neighbor Mordechai ben David, right? Green was right there, playing piano at their side and teasing the emotions out of their souls and into the mic.
There was a wave of hits through the first half the 1980’s — songs like “V’zakeinu,” “Ka’ayol Ta’arog,” “Acheinu,” “M’shoch” — and then a bump in the road.
“I was listening to what was popular — boys’ choirs were making a big comeback — and I wondered if my time was up,” Green admits. “These songs were catchy and easy while I was getting complicated. I didn’t know if people had patience any more for what I was writing.”
It was Yisroel Lamm who prodded the composer along. “I didn’t know if I could shift styles, if I was losing my audience. Yisroel told me, ‘That’s it, you give up? Find your message, Yossi, find your voice, find something that you want to share.”
There is an entire shelf in the living room dedicated to the seforim of Ramchal, and another filled with the writings of Rav Moshe Shapira (“My rebbi, even though we never met,” Yossi says, although he was on the coveted list of people who received Rav Moshe’s tapes every week). On the piano, a tower of seforim is topped off by Mizmor LeSodah by Chevron Rosh Yeshivah Rav Dovid Cohen.
It’s clear that the composer took the advice to heart and immersed himself in the lyrics, letting the medley evolve from a deep dive into their meaning.
By 1988, he’d figured it out. That year, he introduced not just a new song, but a new genre. And it wasn’t just the connection between words of Chazal and the composer, but how he got there.
I picked up a Breslov pamphlet they give out for free in pizza shops, and it changed my life is not a storyline I ever expected to write, especially not with someone like Yossi Green — but life is full of surprises.
“I was sitting in shul in Boro Park on a Friday night, I must have been around 27 at the time, and I noticed one of those little booklets, it was called Sefer Derech Halimud, or something like that. I was absently flipping through it and began to see things there that intrigued me.”
Torah isn’t meant to be a burden, but a joy. If you know something well, review it again, and you will connect to it even more deeply. Toil is the goal and the reward. No person is stupid, and every neshamah craves Torah knowledge. If it’s not going in, try a different way.
“I was reading this, and I felt a desire to try again,” Yossi says. “I had never experienced that sort of relationship with learning Torah, and I hurried home from shul. That night, after the seudah, once the kids were sleeping, I took a Gemara Berachos off the shelf and opened it.”
One line, like the pamphlet recommended, then the same line again. A third time. Own it. Connect with it. And Yossi Green embarked on a new journey. As he made his way through Maseches Berachos with this new approach, each line filling his mind and heart with light, he encountered the gemara on daf seven:
“Tanya, Omar Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha…”
It resonated. “Every part of it spoke to me. One night, I sat at the piano for hours, tears streaming down my cheeks as I contemplated the idea, the vote of confidence Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave a human being, the capacity of man to bless. The brachah itself — the vastness of Hashem’s compassion — it formed a song.”
But there were no takers. Singer after singer came to Seagate for songs, but this one didn’t speak to them.
It sat there for years, until Yossi gave up. It was too complex for the listeners after all — the naysayers were right.
There was an older Yid, a Belzer chassid, who’d come from Eretz Yisrael for medical treatment, and he ended up in Seagate, next door to the Greens. “His name was Reb Yossel Levi, and I started to learn with him each day, first as a chesed, but in time, I became a genuine talmid. He was special. We actually had an incredible connection that I did not even know about when I started to learn with him.”
At a different time, in Eretz Yisrael, Reb Moshe Green, desperate for a son, had gone to ask Rebbe Areleh, the tzaddik of Belz, for a brachah. That blessing resulted in his ben zekunim, Yossi Green. “And Reb Yossel had been the gabbai who took my father in that day and helped him get the brachah,” he says. “I literally owed him my life, and now I was able to repay the favor, just a little.”
Reb Yossel saw that his young chavrusa appeared distressed one day, and he asked why. Yossi told him about the song, “Tanya,” and Reb Yossel encouraged him, assuring him almost prophetically that the song would become very popular.
Heartened, Yossi tried again. Avremel gave it a shot.
Turns out the people were open to the style, a song created entirely around the message. The opening notes of the song, “Tanyeh, Omar Rabbi Yishmael, ben Elisha,” are meant to evoke the sing-song of the beis medrash, the oldest and holiest niggun in the world.
Yossi created several other pieces, each one reflective of a message the composer wanted to share — but he didn’t have to pitch them anymore. Instead, singers were coming with a plea to “Bring me a ‘Tanya,’ an ‘Aderaba,’ a ‘Shtar Tenoyim,’ a ‘Rotzoh…’”
The ‘90s brought new hits, as Mordechai ben David was drawn to the music created by his neighbor and chavrusa, with songs like “Daagah Minayin” and “Od Yeishvu” showing the versatility of their composer.
It’s fascinating how Yossi Green speaks of lesser-known singers the same way, with the same seriousness as he speaks of the legends. It makes no difference to him if the song was a market success or if it’s on an album selling for 99 cents in the box outside the store, because he believes in his own art: A good song is a good song, whether or not it delivers the ego gratification that comes with creating a hit.
Between Fried and MBD, his two big-ticket clients, he had more than enough of a professional challenge, yet he opened his door night after night to the hopeful ones, the dreamers, the almost-weres and never-weres and the occasional breakout star: not because he needed them, but because they needed him.
“The most important word in this conversation is shlichus,” Green says. “If you believe in the power of song, you also believe that songs are sent down from Shamayim, they’re not mine, and this isn’t about me. Anyone is welcome.”
Perhaps that explains why Yossi Green seems very non-possessive over his songs. He’s okay with the versions and retakes, the little changes that creep in.
“I’m not detached though, but quite the opposite. I’m very attached to my songs, they live in me forever, but once I give them away, I let go. The singer does his thing. The arranger does his. The conductor does his. They aren’t less capable than I am, and they all add different things. And, he adds with his characteristic humility, “some of these new singers amaze me. I always enjoy hearing new versions and interpretations of old songs.”
I throw some Yossi Green trivia at him. To which lyrics has he written the most tunes? I mistakenly thought it was “Ke’ayol Ta’arog,” which he has three songs for, including the “Tzlil V’zemer” classic and the ballad from Fried’s The Time is Now album that you might still have heard at a recent chuppah, but he actually has four “Ani Ma’amin’s” and seven “Kah Ribbon’s.”
There are songs that never achieved great renown, but in someone’s heart, somewhere or other, that song is sacred. There are songs you hear every day that you don’t know he composed, and songs that you think only belong to you, private property, and it turns out they’re also his. I have at least two personal favorites, staples in my own heart, and until he randomly started playing them on the piano, I had no idea how these oldies came into being, (Okay, if you must know, “Zachreinu L’chayim” and “K’rachem Av,” both New York School of Jewish Song, 1974 and 1976 respectively).
And Yossi has songs in his own heart that maybe aren’t as popular as some of the others (MBD’s “Ne’eman Atah Hu,” for example), and that’s okay. His eye isn’t on ratings but somewhere else.
“I once had a young singer here, he was malei ta’am, and not just the way he sang. I gave him a song that was special to me, the words from Tachanun. ‘Keracheim av al banim’ was the low part, and then the high part was a phrase that I think is unique — it uses all four words for Divine mercy: chamol, racheim, chusah, and chaneinu. It’s such a powerful request, and I felt he was right for that niggun.”
The song came out in 2011 to moderate recognition. A nice song. The years passed, and the singer, who left the industry, devoting his best hours to learning and davening, was in Meron for Lag B’omer: Shragee Gestetner was one of Rabi Shimon’s souls, taken from us that night, and a decade after Shragee a”h released it, the song became a hymn of prayer and pain, a plea for healing and better days.
“The song was there, and when the moment arrived, its message resonated,” Yossi says. “I’m not just dropping clichés when I use the word shlichus.”
Parts of that shlichus take him to places that have no connection to entertainment. “I love Carlebach, his songs are special, but the prevalence of Carlebach minyanim is jeopardizing authentic nusach. Nusach comes from the Maharil, and we have to protect it, so I’ve tried.”
Yossi’s “V’shomru,” (Avraham Fried, My Fellow Jew / Yachid V’rabim) aims to fit in with the standard Leil Shabbos nusach. “It’s meant to start on a low key, then rise and dip and fit right in with the standard Kaddish nusach for Leil Shabbos.”
You win some, you lose some, I’d say.
He’s checking off boxes in his own personal voyage through Shemoneh Esreh: not only writing songs for each brachah, but committed to creating songs that reflect the theme of that brachah, hinting at the inherent plea in each note.
The public will either get it or not get it.
Maybe this is why the composer remains private, essentially, an engine to an industry even as he tends to slip away, trapped in an intellectual journey on the path to understanding a pasuk of Tehillim or a maamar Chazal.
“A melamed called me from New Square one day, he wanted to know if it’s possible that an entire song could collapse if one word is removed. Could one word be that important?”
The composer assured him that it was entirely possible. “I once wrote a niggun, ‘Al Kol Rega,’ for Mordche, where every single syllable in that song is crucial, and if we would remove one, the house of cards would tumble down.”
Yossi knew why the melamed was asking. “Because the Tiferes Yisrael in Mishnayos talks about the song that was used to teach Torah shebe’al peh, and says that when the Gemara uses the term ‘chisurei mechsera,’ that words are missing and must be emended, it’s because the Tanna used a wording that fit better with the tune of “Torah shebe’al peh” and still conveyed the message. This melamed couldn’t understand why the Tanna couldn’t jam a few more words into the tune — that was his question.”
When I walk into his home for one of our conversations, he is engaged in a phone call with a Hebrew-speaking clerk at a seforim store in Jerusalem, trying to track down a sefer that discusses this particular Tiferes Yisrael.
The concept — the special tune of the Oral Torah — touches Yossi Green in some deep place, dancing around in the recesses of his mind, the words of the Tiferes Yisrael themselves churning into the lyrics of a song.
“I don’t force it. I spend time with the words, research, try to learn more and then see what comes.”
Yossi Green is in no rush. Life has a way of presenting new opportunities, and he’s getting to try different things every day.
A few years ago, Yossi got to access a channel he thought closed to him.
He looks up the lone gadol picture on the wall, a large frame around Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s radiant face, and tells me how a close friend brought the names of Yossi and his entire family to the Rav.
Rav Chaim read the kvittel and offered a two-word brachah: “Yiddishe nachas.”
It was eerie, because that was also the name of the project into which Yossi Green was investing heart and soul.
The Yiddishe Nachas albums gave Yossi Green the opportunity to return to his roots in two ways: firstly, returning him to the world of the boys’ choir, where he’d started his career almost 50 years ago. Secondly, Yossi speaks with a heavy chassidishe accent, pronouncing words like the Satmar cheder yingel he once was — and still, perhaps, is.
“I pronounce the words that way in my mind,” he says, “and composing for boys who sing exactly like that just comes naturally.”
Yossi freely admits that some songs can only work for chassidishe singers. “There are words that need a certain emotion, and fake accents only take away from that authenticity.” (Don’t cancel him for this, though. He’s composed for Ohad, Gad Elbaz, and Dudu Fisher, too.)
He not only respects the younger generation, he draws inspiration from them too. There is a large text group of music industry insiders — singers, musicians, arrangers — called Yossi Green Fans, and one day, as they were discussing his ability to remain innovative and relevant, he himself popped up and weighed in. He credited Yoeli Polatsek of the Zemiros Choir because, “Whenever I feel a little creatively blocked, I call him over, and we spend an evening by the piano and he helps me. New songs, new messages, new areas explored musically, so I want to thank him b’rabbim.”
And the new generation appreciates him too. Yoeli Polatsek and his choir won’t do a gig without singing a Yossi Green classic, which have never become obsolete. Avrumi Berko, whose musical choices create the playlist for a younger demographic, is an unabashed fan. “It’s the character not just of the song, but in every single note. Every word in his songs tells its own story.”
Yossi Green, who doesn’t sing a song at his Shabbos table composed within the last hundred years, might be getting older, but is yet so new.
It’s a standard late night yeshivah dormitory challenge: be magdir the difference between Yossi Green and the other defining composer of this era, Abie Rotenberg. (Listen to “Acheinu” from each, and you’ll know my take: both extraordinary songs, one hinting at Satmar-infused Williamsburg, the other reflecting Choftez Chaim-inspired Queens.)
Aside from mentioning that there are Abie compositions which he’s awed by (“ ‘Neshame’le’ is just so, so magnificent,”) its telling that he reaches for a classic Abie lyric with which to convey his respect. “Throw away your hammer” [from “Time to Say Good Shabbos”] are four words that give the listener a sense of exactly what the song represents, those moments when six days fade away and the seventh arrives. That’s a gift he has.”
Now, listen to Yossi’s “V’zakeinu L’kabel Shabbosos” again. You hear the heimishe version of “throw away your hammer,” right?
That sixth sense for the hidden power of a lyric is evident in a conversation we have regarding the visual production accompanying the article. He doesn’t understand why he needs to appear in one part, and I realize again that he doesn’t realize what the words, “Yossi Green” mean to Klal Yisrael. I quote the pasuk Shmuel Hanavi told Shaul: “Im katan atah be’einecha, Even if you are small in your own eyes, rosh shivtei Yisrael atah, are you not the head of the tribes of Yisrael?”
In a moment he’s energized, our petty discussion forgotten, tossed away like a wrapper. He has found the goods. “Did you ever wonder about that final conversation between Shmuel and Shaul? I get the chills from every part of it.”
Over close to five decades, Yossi Green has found a way to grasp fire, reaching for the loftiest words and explaining them in his unique way. He’s revealed the potency in each letter, built bridges between ancient lyrics and contemporary souls.
But there are still words that float before him, not yet attainable.
At his very core, he is a child of Hewes Street, watching as an exalted figure toiled to breathe life into a generation that had been near-broken, hearing the desperate call for redemption, the burning desire to be whole again.
The Satmar Rebbe would end off his every derashah with the prayer that we merit seeing a more perfect world, “B’hisgalis kvoid Shumayim, umein.”
Those words signify the hope, the goal, the reason we sing at all, and Yossi Green is reaching for them, even as their tune eludes him.
Because that hope too is part of the tune, the confidence and anticipation adding yet another layer of harmony.
The thousand songs he’s already written are almost gone, glided away to encircle others, a million personal gifts to his nation — but the song he will yet write is his, and for now, it’s the only song in the world.
My favorite Yossi Green song is “Daagah Minayin.” The advice the lyrics give (the past is gone, the future has not yet arrived, and the present is but a blink of an eye — so why worry?) is certainly a serious lesson, but it’s presented in a somewhat amusing way. The tune also has, for the most part, a serious sound and stays mostly in the minor key, but it includes some humorous motifs and turns. To me, this is Yossi’s most unique and successful combination of lyric and melody.
One of the great indicators of a song being right for the lyrics is when people actually daven to that tune, and my own under-tallis playlist includes more than one Yossi Green song. I can’t say that the first time I heard his “V’haarev Nah,” on MBD’s Double Album, I was taken by it. The whole album was iconic, and there were songs that became much bigger hits. But that song, and particularly its enduring connection with the words — the hopeful opening notes beseeching to “make it sweet,” culminating with the powerful request first for anachnu, then for tze’etzaeinu, and then the tzetzaei amcha beis Yisrael — lived on in my mind, and often on my lips as well.
Now, having gotten to know the composer a bit better, and getting a glimpse of that burning desire for understanding, I realize that there’s a reason it resonates: He wasn’t writing a song, but davening for Torah, and this was the tune he used.
There are many different types of songs: sad and happy, sophisticated and very basic. Some songs, however, are an event. Not just a nice song, or even a very nice song, but an experience that goes well beyond musicality.
When I first heard the song “Omnom,” which Yossi Green composed for Dedi Graucher, it was a kind of culture shock for me, in a good way. I was suddenly thrust into worlds I hadn’t known existed.
The very complex melody, which is more of a creation than a composition, deserves a discussion of its own. But the surprise, to me, came from the words themselves. True, Yossi had already broken the mold with “Tanya,” “Aderaba,” and “Ki Hamitzvah,” so we knew to expect novelty and innovation from him — but this was a new language.
Not pesukim, not gemara, not even a tefillah.
It was from Ramchal. Not the Ramchal we were familiar with from Mesilas Yesharim, or even Derech Hashem. This was from Da’as Tevunos.
There were no search engines back then that could give me context, help me understand the words and their message. I had to simply hold on to that silver-jacketed cover with the minimalist graphics and to read the words, again and again, as the music played.
Omnon, hinei zeh hu, mechuko shel hayichud ha’elyon, levado, levado, Baruch Hu.
Indeed, behold this is it, from the construct of the heavenly singularity alone may He be blessed.
That’s how it began, the tune reflecting the chant of one learning Torah.
Then, something happened.
Shekol zman shehu rotzeh, meiniach ha’olam lihyos so’er v’holech beyaldei hazman eis asher shalat ra be’alom.
For at any time that He wants, He leaves the world to its own devices, vulnerable to the caprices of time, as the forces of evil dominate the world.
Stop. What are “yaldei zman?” It sounded so mystical, but what did it mean?
Onward. “V’lo od, elah she’eino me’akev al yedei hara hazeh me’asos kol asher bekocho la’asos.”
And not only this, but He does not prevent this evil force from doing everything in its power.
Wow. There are negative forces in the world, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu allows them to exist. This is from the “construct of the Heavenly singularity” (what an awe-inspiring phrase).
The situation looked more and more frightening. Then the tune suddenly changed, just like that. It was now comforting, trusting.
Ve’afilu magia briyos ad hadiuta tachtona, efes ki lo mipnei zeh yovad olamo, ki hamemshala lo levado, vehu asah, vehu sovel, vehu machatz, vehu yirapeh, ve’ein od milvado.
And even if His creations reach the lowest level, still His world shall not be destroyed. Because the dominion is His alone, and it is He who made the world, and He who tolerates, and He who crushes, and He who heals, and there is none other than He alone.
Then came the last part, the peak. This wasn’t just faith, but a complete expression of confidence.
V’hinei zeh yaseid chazak le’emunas Bnei Yisroel, asher lo yerach levavchem me’orech hagalus velo m’mimeruso hakasheh.
And behold this is a essential principle undergirding the faith of the Children of Israel, that they shall not lose heart despite the protracted exile and its harsh bitterness.
Aside from the words, the tune and the arrangements, there was something else there: Yossi’s own voice, his emotion.
Until then, no one knew what Yossi Green sounded like. He was a respected composer, maybe the most respected composer, but it was other people singing his songs. When it came to Dedi, Yossi Green entered the studio too.
His voice isn’t unanimously beloved: it’s like “galah,” — you either love it or hate it; there’s no middle ground. I love it (not galah, yuck) — the voice and approach of Yossi Green. It’s hard to explain it, just like it’s difficult to explain his music, but his voice and method of singing adds layers of depth and meaning to the songs.
He had since sung on many albums, but that marked the beginning and it was like nothing I had heard before.
That song, sadly, was perfectly timed, premiering just as the Oslo Accords were signed, just as Rabin and Arafat signed a paper ushering forces of evil into the world. The security situation in Eretz Yisrael became very scary. Buses were blowing up, hundreds of Jews murdered, and that song gave comfort and hope, a reminder that nothing is random. Things don’t just happen without reason. He crushes and He heals.
Almost 30 years have passed since “Omnon,” the words of the Ramchal as presented by Yossi Green, appeared in my life, and I still get emotional whenever I hear it. It still brings comfort, faith, and optimism in the face of all the capricious winds of the passage of time, the yaldei hazman, whatever it might mean.
Even if you don’t know Yiddish, you can intuit the storyline of “Ah Sheinem Chulem” (Avraham Fried, Aderaba), from the melody itself. There’s wonderment, tentativeness, a tinge of disbelief, as the song starts. There’s grandeur and confidence as the dream takes on vivid contours. And then the fantasy is punctured and all the joyous anticipation deflates as the melody drops back into muted klezmer chords, the sound of galus.
Then comes the chorus — loud, proud, unabashedly hopeful. You don’t have to understand every word to know that this is the song of Jews in exile, still trusting, still hoping, still holding onto the knowledge that some dreams do come true.
I vividly remember when Shwekey 2 came out, I was a sixth grader, and I was immediately captivated by the song “Vena Al Tatzricheinu.” It wasn’t just the novelty of the words, but more so the way the high part seemed crafted to fit the tefillah — it was so perfect. I listened and listened again, urging my parents and siblings to listen as well. It was entrancing. I have since had the zechus to work with Yossi, and see how it all comes together, the avodah of letting lyrics speak through music, and then creating the right setting for it.
But I know, now, that it’s something a child can feel as well. Authenticity always works.
The diversity of his works is staggering, from alte heim niggunim to contemporary sound to musical scores like the HASC concert opening. The first time I heard “Yedid Nefesh,” which Avremel recorded on his We Are Ready album, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of how it all came together. It was just perfect.
If I’d have to choose from among the songs I was privileged to record, I’d say that “Mah Yedidus” is special because the way Yossi wrote each stanza with its own unique melody to fit the words perfectly, yet maintaining an overall smooth flow for the entire song. It’s Yossi’s genius.
“Od Yeshvu Zekeinim Uzkeinos.” Yossi’s beautiful composition draws us into the idyllic vision of Zecharyah HaNavi.
I never fail to feel the joy of those children playing when that line is sung. It is a prime example of how a melody can play a part in peirush hamilos, the translation and understanding of the words being spoken.
“The Crack of Dawn” from my Moshiach album is my all-time favorite Yossi Green composition. He has so many great songs, tunes, and lyrics, but this song is a personal treasure.
—MORDECHAI BEN DAVID WERDYGER
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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