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Still on Fire

Abie Rotenberg is back with another Aish album — like the mix of a million Dveykus kumzitzes with a 2020 sound

Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab, Personal archives

 

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here are some artists who give themselves to you, their voices open and translucent and pleading for connection, their limbs dancing along, as if to say

I am the music, here you go.

Abie Rotenberg is the opposite.

There is something unknowable about him, the defining quality in his mellow, somewhat husky voice with its layer of mystery. You’ve never seen him dance on stage and likely never will. Seated at the piano, playing songs that have become anthems of prayer or hope, there is no extra drama, no slump in the shoulders, no exaggerated shake of the head.

It’s always Abie, reaching you on his terms.

Take it or leave it. And the thing is, you can’t really leave it, because there’s nowhere else you can get notes which mix depth and whimsy, where pain touches faith, where personal longing is somehow uplifted and transformed into a collective, national yearning.

You can’t make him completely yours because he won’t fold up neatly into your box: You want nostalgia, but he’s still at it, with a new album coming out and another in the works.

He’s been composing for more than 50 years, somehow managing to reflect the musical truths of every decade — the serious and somber, and also, the cute social commentary and warm humor — although the power of the message is never secondary to the quality of the tune.

On a cold morning in Monsey, where neither of us live, we meet at the home of my in-laws. He arrives bearing a tall cup of coffee, which he will proceed to hold throughout the interview — but I never see him take a sip. It’s as if he’s hanging onto it for comfort — which is actually a fitting prop for a conversation about “comfort” music.

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ike many great stories, this one also starts with a shul. The Rotenbergs, both of whom had escaped Europe, didn’t have much family in America, but they did have a shul. The Kew Gardens kehillah of Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum featured a saintly rav, devoted members, and a spirited atmosphere — and also, the rav’s son.

Eli Teitelbaum was a dozen years older than Abie Rotenberg, but the bond was strong.

“Eli was a king to the kids of the shul and really, a king beyond shul also,” Abie recalls. “Jewish music was a big deal, and he was the pioneer, the founder of the Pirchei choir. He was it.”

Eli Teitelbaum — talmid chacham, judo master, expert photographer, clarinet player — understood something about this new generation, the children of America, that the formal chinuch system hadn’t quite gotten yet. “He knew that kids needed something to keep them excited, that there needed to be frum culture for frum life to thrive, and he helped create that culture. It was very much centered around music.”

That relationship created a cushion that would prove to be crucial just a few years later: Abie was a child, really, just 14 years old, when he lost his mother. It happened suddenly, and the world went dark.

It’s not a topic he wants to focus on, but he does recognize that it’s the sort of experience that shapes a person. The tragedy sent him on a personal journey, and the soundtrack of that expedition eventually became public, as listeners tapped into the reservoir of hope and heartbreak and struggle and triumph and made it their own.

And it was during those difficult teenage years that Eli Teitelbaum went from being an older mentor to a lifesaver.

“He invited me to come join his camp, Sdei Chemed, which he opened in the summer of 1969. It was classic Eli, this crazy idea of making an American camp in Eretz Yisrael, and since he was Eli, he staffed his camp with the most talented and dynamic musical personalities. It was one long kumzitz, led by people like Burry Chait, and there I was, a kid who didn’t even play an instrument. But I enjoyed the summer and came back to America determined to learn how to play an instrument. I was going to get it right.”

By this time, Abie’s father had remarried. The sounds of life returned to the house in Queens, and with it, new strains of music.

“I went to Chofetz Chaim for high school, continuing into the beis medrash, and musically, those were the glory years of the yeshivah.”

Because what happened next was pure hashgachah, the Divine Hand gently pushing two souls in the same direction.

“The mashgiach, Rav Shmuel Niman, arranged a chavrusa with another bochur named Label Sharfman.”

For Abie, there were no questions about the potential learning partner’s approach to lomdus, none of the usual background checks. This was Label Sharfman! From the Rabbis’ Sons! Abie was in.

 

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f course, they also learned.

But the music started to happen, and the dream took on color and shape. The Rabbis’ Sons had disbanded, its members going different ways, and the two chavrusas planned their new group. Label came up with the name — “Dveykus” — and Abie wrote the songs and arrangements.

Over the summer of 1972, Abie Rotenberg sat in his room and created arrangements reflecting a different sort of sound. “There was a bit of a vacuum in Jewish music. The Rabbis’ Sons were done, there was Carlebach, Pirchei London, and the chassidic music of Ger, Modzitz, and Chabad — but this was softer, mellower. And we used classical sounds, violins. It was new.”

Label recalls hearing those songs for the first time. “I was blown away. The depth of the music was unique, the complexity of the arrangements. It was obvious that Abie was a musical genius.”

They were ready to move ahead and record.

“Where did you get money from?” I ask, and Abie looks at me, intrigued.

“You know something? You ask good questions,” he says.

Dina Storch: Abie’s Legacy Song

 

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ost of the songs on Dveykus 1 were Abie’s own. The “Kah Ribon” was one he’d learned in yeshivah, sung in the yeshivah dining room every Leil Shabbos, and “Lev Tahor” had come from one of the bright lights of the yeshivah world, Rav Simcha Soloveitchik.

It was Abie and Label and Yussie Sonnenblick, who’d been the child soloist of Pirchei and Modzitz and was the perfect third, but there was a problem: They had the songs, the music and the voices, but no production experience at all. “None of us had ever really worked with a studio, and we needed someone who understood that.”

Mutty Parnes, who had co-composed the famous “Ani Maamin” recorded on the 1969 Pirchei record, came highly recommended as a musician who understood the back end as well, and Abie and Label went to meet him.

“We negotiated a bit. He offered to play guitar and help us with production, but he wanted 300 dollars. That was around ten percent of the total budget, so he generously said he would throw in an arrangement. We chose to give him ‘Tzomah Nafshi.’ It was a nice song, and he wrote a beautiful arrangement, but that song never became a big hit or particularly famous.”

The years passed. Mutty achieved renowned as a musician, but he and Abie didn’t speak often.

Then, one night in 2013, Abie was sitting at a chasunah in Lakewood when he got a text from his friend Sheya Mendlowitz informing him that Mutty Parnes had passed away. Abie asked where the shivah was, and learned that it was in Lakewood — just a few blocks from the wedding hall.

He slipped out of the wedding and headed to the shivah house, introducing himself to the children. “We hadn’t been in touch for years,” he told them, “but I’ll always remember your father’s role in Dveykus 1, the way he guided and helped us.”

“Yes,” one of the daughters nodded, “and also the arrangement he wrote for ‘Tzomah Nafshi.’ ”

Abie sat there for a while, then headed back to the simchah. “I walked in during the dinner, and the keyboard player was doing this sweet little waltz, a familiar tune that I had composed over 40 years before. He was playing the arrangement for ‘Tzomah Nafshi!’ ”

Later on, he approached the musician. “Do you play that song often?” Abie asked.

“Not really,” the keyboardist shrugged, “But tonight, I just felt like it.”

Abie has received letters over the years from people whom his music impacted, but this was a different sort of reminder about a deeper, unseen dimension, the threads woven by a pure niggun, and their effect beyond time and space.

 

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bie saw his role as writing and singing songs, but performing wasn’t on his bucket list. After trying it once, he was more convinced than ever that the stage was a place to avoid.

The first time was a Motzaei Shabbos gig at Queens College, where Shlomo Carlebach was performing, and they needed a guitar player. Shlomo himself had broken his leg and couldn’t hold the guitar. Abie was open to the idea in theory, but wanted to rehearse with Shlomo first.

Cute, they told him, but no dice. Shlomo doesn’t do rehearsals. He comes and sings and that’s that.

At 7:30, half an hour early, Abie was backstage strumming, waiting for the singer to come so that he could at least get a song list and practice by himself. By 8:00, Shlomo hadn’t yet come, and by 9:00, they were still waiting. Finally, Shlomo hobbled in and started singing. The first few songs were okay — the yeshivah bochur guitarist able to hold his own — but then it got more complex. “I need more harmony,” Shlomo said at one point.

“I felt horrible, because I knew that I hadn’t done him justice. It was traumatic for me,” Abie admits.

It would take more than 20 years for him to step back up on stage. At the request of Sheya Mendlowitz, he’d written a song for the second HASC concert. The tune and lyrics of “Who Am I” called for the right singer — someone who could convey the emotion within this anthem of acceptance — and Abie asked Sheya, who was producing the concert, which performer was slated to sing it.

“You are,” Sheya said.

Abie laughed, but Sheya wasn’t joking. He persisted, and Abie finally asked his rosh yeshivah, Rav Henoch Leibowitz about performing. “You have what to offer,” the Rosh Yeshivah replied.

 

 

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n the mid-70s, Dveykus 2 came out (“Kol Beramah,” “Lakol Zeman,” “In a Vinkele”) and Eli Kranzler added his sweet voice to the mix. But other things were happening in Abie’s life, and they weren’t connected to music. Within the beis medrash, Abie was growing in learning, and, according to the mesorah of Chofetz Chaim, he was eager to share his Torah with others.

Meanwhile, Rav Shaya Cohen, one of the yeshivah’s musmachim, was tasked with opening a yeshivah high school in a suburb of Los Angeles, and he asked Abie to join him.

“Reb Shaya brought me and several other younger chevra from the yeshivah to Los Angeles, where we were involved in both teaching and learning. After the year was over, I intended to return to New York for shidduchim, but Reb Shaya heard about a group of Bais Yaakov girls from the East Coast who were visiting Los Angeles that summer, and he wanted them to run a Seed program for girls and women.”

Reb Shaya met the girls and had another idea. Sara Mandelbaum seemed like a good shidduch for Abie Rotenberg.

There is obvious warmth in Abie’s voice. “But my wife, being her, wouldn’t go out with me unless he arranged dates for the other girls as well, so Reb Shaya made it happen… we were the only ones that worked out, though.”

After getting married in the fall, both Abie and Sara spent the rest of the school year teaching in Los Angeles. “But I wanted to learn in kollel, and my wife shared the dream.”

Not just any kollel though. They traveled to Eretz Yisrael where he joined the kollel led by Rav Eliezer Plachinsky, the son-in-law of Rav Aryeh Levine and father-in-law of Rav Shaya Cohen. In a charming little beis medrash in the Mishkenos neighborhood, Rav Plachinsky — a quiet gaon and child of Dvinsk, who’d learned with the Rogatchover in his youth — led a small kollel.

“It was this hidden little corner of the holy city. Rav Refael Levin, a son of Rav Aryeh, would receive people there during lunch. The room was always too cold, so we sat in our sweaters and learned.”

And there was also music. Dveykus 3, produced by Rabbi Mutty Grunberg, was written and recorded during those years, and the spirit of the city burst forward from the song list, leading off with “V’liYerushalayim Ircha.”

“My wife and I lived in Sanhedria Murchevet, and we had a nice chevra there as well. Our friend Mordechai Rosenberg wrote the low part to ‘V’liYerushalayim’ in our apartment.”

And one night, at that time of year when the world itself sings a song, late summer’s rays giving way to the first hint of autumn, an end and a beginning at once, he wrote a different song. “Often, I have the medley first, and then I add the words: For this one, I sat down with the words and the tune came next.”

“Haben Yakir Li Ephraim.” I comment that it might well be his best-known song, then immediately feel dumb because how can you say that if he also wrote “Acheinu” and “Hamalach” and the Journeys’ “Mamme Rochel” and “Neshome’le.”

He kindly pretends he didn’t hear and keeps speaking. “Sometimes the words themselves give all the power, and your job is to let them speak. I think I achieved that with ‘Haben Yakir Li.’ But it also can work the other way. Years later, with ‘Ani Maamin’ (‘Hu Borei Umanhig,’ from Dveykus 4 ), I had the tune first, and Label (who was living in Jerusalem and running a successful seminary) suggested the right words afterward.”

Meanwhile, the Eretz Yisrael years came to a close, and the Rotenbergs returned to Los Angeles, committed to teaching and impacting lives at Valley Torah.

Abie used his music, but he realized that the music wasn’t working the way it once had. “I was asked to bring my guitar to an outreach program for unaffiliated teens one night, and the usual songs weren’t drawing them in — songs like “Am Yisrael Chai,” “Yerushalayim,” and “Yibaneh Hamikdash” weren’t breaking the ice. The kids were cold. I remember the frustration of sitting there and wishing I had a musical way to connect with them in their language.”

Then he heard a song which changed everything.

“I heard ‘My Zaidy,’ by Megama, and, what can I say? It blew my mind. It just blew my mind.”

(Later, Moshe Yess a”h of Megama would move to Toronto and appear as a guest vocalist on several Journeys albums. “He was a unique voice, a unique talent, and a unique person,” Abie says.)

Abie realized that he could use English words and not compromise the integrity of a niggun. The first song he wrote is elegant in its simplicity — it comes not at you, but from within you, the song of the setting sun that you recognize even if you never heard it.

The sun is going down, it’s shining through the trees, another week’s gone by, become a memory…

Once he started, there was no turning back. He was visiting a secular Jewish library, looking through archives, when, behind glass and under lock and key, he saw a relic from the past, an artifact of prewar Jewish life.

“A faded set of Shas. I stood there looking at it and thinking that it was a hostage, trapped by these people — look, but don’t touch! — when a few miles away, volumes just like it were being celebrated in yeshivos and shuls.”

The words came forth. The tune wasn’t his, but it was right. So right.

“Growing up in Teitelbaum’s shul, we had the zechus to hear Rav Sholom Schwadron, a frequent guest of the Krohn family, daven for the amud, and he used this niggun for Lecha Dodi.”

 

For the people of my town to take me home,

And they’d sing and dance and hold me high when they carried me away,

To my little wooden shul where I would stay.

 

But it was someone else who found my hiding place,

And to America he sent me in a crate.

And the men who took me off the boat, they said I was a prize.

But they were Jews I did not recognize.

 

And in a case of glass they put me on display,

Where visitors would look at me and say,

“How very nice, how beautiful, a stunning work of art,”

But they knew not what was inside my heart.

 

And across the room I saw upon the shelf,

Some old friends of mine who lived back in Kiev.

A silver pair of candlesticks, a menorah made of brass,

We’d all become mere echoes of the past.

 

So if you hear my voice, why don’t you come along,

And take me to the place where I belong,

And maybe even sing and dance when you carry me away,

To some little wooden shul where I could stay.

At the crossroads of the vibrancy of the rebuilt Torah world and the cluelessness of secular American Jewry, Abie heard the cry of those worn volumes.

(At that point in my life, I was all about Diaspora and Carlebach and “real” music, but after I was married for about two weeks, my new wife and I were talking about music and how it can make you feel. She had a song in mind, one song she wanted me to hear, and there, in the parking lot of the Palisades Mall, near the Lord and Taylor entrance, she popped in the tape and played “Conversation In the Womb” — a story about birth as an allegory about This World and the Next. I’d never heard it. But we sat in the car and listened to the song five times in a row, neither of us able to speak. And I knew what she meant.)

 

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y 1984, the rebbi/teacher salary wasn’t doing it for the growing Rotenberg family, and it was time to go back to Toronto, Sara’s hometown.

Abie stayed in chinuch for a while, teaching in Etz Chaim, but later on joined the family fashion-accessory business, where he works until today.

There was Dveykus and Journeys. And Abie — who will only take the amud in his shul, the Agudah, when he has yahrtzeit — was doing more public appearances, as both Sheya and Ding encouraged Abie to take part in concerts they produced. But even during those highly creative years, there was more.

“Watching my children grow up inspired me to look for ways to communicate with kids using music, which has the potential to be such a powerful tool to teach values. That’s how the Marvelous Middos Machine was born. Rabbi Shmuel Klein, who was a menahel at Etz Chaim at the time, was asked to be the voice of Dr. Middos and became a creative contributor to the series as well.”

I have a question, and I’m trying to find a respectful way to ask it:

He was Abie Rotenberg. He’d touched hearts with Dveykus and then changed language and genre and did it with Journeys. Why hurt the brand by doing kids tapes?

He hears the question and looks at me for a long moment and says nothing, and I imagine he’s wondering if I even get it, get what he does, what he’s been doing all these years. It’s a 2020 question. Abie started recording five decades ago, when singers didn’t worry about their brand or image.

Another car pulls up, and producer Doni Gross enters my in-laws’ home, joining the party. It’s sort of symbolic, because we’re at the point in the conversation where I’m wondering what was left for Abie.

He’d done it all, Dveykus, Journeys, Lev V’nefesh, Aish, and Middos Machine. If every 15-year-old frum kid wouldn’t use the word “legend” about the classmate who hits a half-court shot, that would be the term I would use. He’d written books — not just the Journeys Songbook, but also a novel, The Season of Pepsi Meyers (Feldheim), and a heavier Torah work called Eliyahu Hanavi (ArtScroll/Mesorah), a look at the prophet through the prism of Chazal.

So where does he get inspiration to go on? And why even bother?

Doni is younger than I expect — young enough that he looks at Abie like a star-struck admirer. Doni, the sort of guy who carries speakers in his attaché case, sets them up and connects his phone. This is Aish 3. The music that fills the room sounds like someone took the Dveykus of a million kumzitzes and mixed it with Doni’s 2020 sound — the clarity and depth and harmony and sleekness that define so many contemporary albums that feature his touch.

“He’s back.” Doni — producer, engineer, and arranger of the newly-released album — looks at Abie and smiles.

Abie, still holding his coffee, turns to look at his partner. “It’s amazing. He brought me to this point.”

I often get coworkers to say nice things about each other, but here the legend is gushing about his devotee. “He sees commercial viability, and he sees artistry, and he knows how to mix them. Besides that, he’s like Walmart, he does it all — he can compose and write music and arrange, and he’s a digital engineer. His ear is exceptional — he can hear a recording and he can tell if the singer is smiling. He’s also holding in learning, so he really connects to the music on a ruchniyus’dige level, which is important. He drove us to perfection with this album.”

Composers regularly send demos to Doni Gross. I look at Doni and ask, “Why do you need him? You have artists eager for your time, you have other projects. Why invest yourself in this one?”

“You know why? Because the sound they all want is what they call ‘Abie-ish’ — that’s the goal.”

Doni pushed Abie to do another Aish, a sequel to the albums Abie and Shlomo Simcha had released together in 1997 and 2003.

Why that one as opposed to another Dveykus?

“Abie only did two Aish albums, and he works so well with Shlomo — their voices complement each other so nicely,” says Doni. “From their first album, four out of nine songs are still regularly heard, more than 20 years later. On any given night, you can hear ‘Ilan’ or ‘Mi Adir’ at a wedding, ‘Habet’ is a kumzitz staple, and ‘Yedid Nefesh’ is sung in so many shuls. His hit-song to regular-song ratio is unequaled in Jewish music.”

 

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he idea of another Aish album came when Shlomo Simcha was recording his own album, Ani Kan, with Doni. “Doni was pushing for this, he felt that it was time for another Aish,” Shlomo recalls, “and to be honest, I felt like if it was going to happen, it would have to be through him. I don’t think that there’s anyone else who has his ability, who understands today’s tech, the current musical vibe, but still has such respect for the history of Jewish music, such appreciation for the classics.”

Shlomo brought his Toronto neighbor, partner, and close friend Abie to the table. “Doni isn’t bashful. He can be very direct about his ideas, but we took him seriously. Before he made any suggestions for this new album, he listened to all the old Aish stuff, the fast, the slow, again, and again, until it was in his blood. He came to us prepared.”

Doni, for his part, understood who he was working with.

“I loved this project because there is so much hartz,” Doni reflects. “If I’m working on a slow song and I feel nothing, that to me is a failure. That’s not why we have music. Music is meant to impact you — and here, with Abie and Shlomo together, it’s straight emotion.”

But the market is much more saturated since the last time an Aish album came out.

“It’s true,” Doni agrees, “that there’s more competition and more quality stuff out there. Pitch-correction and technology has made us so much more sensitive to how music sounds, so perfection is expected.”

Abie disagrees. He puts down his coffee. “Wait, we were always sensitive, and that didn’t change. But back when we were paying 125 dollars an hour for studio time, we didn’t have the luxury of spending so much time in pursuit of perfection.”

Doni laughs and finishes the thought. “So what we did with this project is we pushed Abie to be Abie. When he’s with a talent like Shlomo Simcha though, he’s ready to give away every solo. Abie would call me and say, ‘Doni, listen, I don’t need to sing so much, that’s not what this album is about.’ And I would have to explain to him that of course he had to sing, there is no one who can transmit a song quite the way Abie does. So now we have that, plus Shlomo, and they’re not just two people singing, they’re a group. Their harmonies are perfect, and they bring out the best in each other. The layers are perfect.”

Shlomo Simcha explains why it works. “Sometimes, you’re at an event and you hear amazing singers, some of the best, but they all sound similar. What happens is, everyone wants to find their own sound, to distinguish themselves from the others. So they do things differently and then they don’t sound like themselves. But Abie and I are so different — and that means we each do our thing, singing the best that we can. It’s very authentic.”

“Shlomo has this amazing range,” Abie says, “more than me. But now that I hear the finished product, I hear what Doni envisioned for both of us, and it’s very special.

“And Rivie sings too,” he adds, referring to his long-time collaborator Rivie Schwebel. “We used a song I wrote a while back, for his 40th birthday, so he joins us for those solos.”

Something happens then. Just a bit of Abie Rotenberg’s cool lifts, and he’s excited, speaking with real enthusiasm as he leans forward on the couch.

“Maybe,” he says suddenly, “maybe we’re going to do another Journeys this year too.”

Fifty years after he first stepped into a studio, he still has dreams.

He lifts up the guitar the photographer has dug up, not so much playing it as owning it — it is the slave, and he is the master.

“I guess there’s still gas in the tank,” I say, and Abie Rotenberg, the man who has found words for devotion and ache and healing, who can effortlessly craft a sentence that will make you feel hot or cold, sad or happy, looks at me with interest, pleased with the phrase.

“There’s still gas in the tank,” he repeats, as if hearing the words for the first time, and he starts to strum.

What do you consider Abie’s legacy song? 

I don’t know other composers who can take words and say pshat in them with the tune like Abie can.  One song in which I feel Abie really pulled back a curtain on what was happening, at least for me, is “Kol Berama” [Dveykus 2]. We’ve heard so many tunes to the account of how Rochel mevakah al banehah, but I don’t know if anyone conveyed the pain, the desperate longing, the power of a mother’s love, the way he did in that song. Rochel, Rochel…you can hear all of it, the midrashim and Chazals about Rochel’s dreams and hopes and yearning. “Mamme Rochel” [Journeys 4] came later, and is probably more well-known, but the vort had already been said decades earlier.

Another one is “Ani MaAmin B’emunah Sheleimah ShehaBorei Yisborach Shemo” [Dveykus 4], because he took one of the Rambam’s Thirteen Ikarim — not your conventional source for lyrics — and found a way to articulate in song just how deeply we feel it.

—Yisroel Besser

I worked with Abie on a number of recording projects, including the 4-part series of the Middos Machine and more. Not only is he very talented, but he’s a baal regesh who emotes poignantly through his music. One particular song that’s always moved me is “Memories” [Journeys 2], which evokes the imagery of elderly Holocaust survivors who struggle with their losses. The scene of an old zeide recalling a child from a different time strikes a personal chord, as both of my parents endured similar losses. I once told Abie that if I could choose a single achievement of his that caused me to be envious, it would be writing that song.”

—Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein

Director of publications and communications for Torah Umesorah

Some would say “Joe DiMaggio’s Card” [Journeys 3], some would say “Memories,” but I think it’s “Neshome’le” [Journeys 2] because its lesson is literally the point of life, and the impact never fades. Of course, “Acheinu” [Lev V’Nefesh 1] is so famous, probably his best-known contemporary song, but to me, “Haben Yakir Li” [Dveykus 3] will always be special. It takes so much to write a song like that, and Abie gave us part of his heart in that song.

—Baruch Levine

Singer and songwriter

Although the moods keep changing, Abie’s legacy can’t be broken down into just one song — it’s all one long “journey.”

—Sheya Mendlowitz

Producer

“Time to Say Good Shabbos” [Journeys 1], and “Memories,” and “Father Please Tell Me” [Journeys 3]. “Kol Dodi” [Dveykus 2] has always been one of my favorite Hebrew songs.

—Dina Storch

Songwriter

Which of Abie’s songs never got the attention it deserved?

Abie and his friends put out an album called Achva back in the 80’s and he has a song on it called “Le’olam Lo Eshkach” (later released by Yeedle on his Together album). The song is magnificent and, in my opinion, never took off the way it should have.

—Baruch Levine

“Ki Lecha Tov Lehodos.” It was one of Abie’s very first compositions, thanks to Judge Noach Dear, who in 1971 founded a band called Clei Zemer (he’d been a Pirchei singer as a kid) and asked Abie to contribute some songs for his album. The niggun also appeared on the 1975 Shivat Tzion album with Rabbi Motty Kornfeld, and was included on JEP II to the words of “Times of Joy.” It was a big hit at the time and is still a great song, but most people have no idea that Abie was the composer.

—Sheya Mendlowitz

When I had the zechus of singing at Abie’s daughter’s wedding, I sang “Prok Yas Onoch” from Devykus 5. It’s such a powerful niggun but for whatever reason, it never spread the way I thought it would have. I sing it every Shabbos.

—Rivie Schwebel

“Min Hameitzar,” from Dveykus 6. You can feel the “meitzar” and also the total and complete futility of “mah yaaseh li adam.” It’s poignant. Don’t listen to it if you’re doing something else.

—Yisroel Besser 

What line or lyric in English moves you in a special way?

So throw away the hammer, there’s nothing left to do, go on home and find the gift, that’s waiting there for you, from “It’s Time to Say Good Shabbos.”  Its entertaining and endearing and so powerful.

—Miriam Israeli

Songwriter

The lyrics in both “Neshome’le” and “Conversation In the Womb” [Journeys 1] have always moved me in a way that gives me a peek into the World Before and the World After. In an easy to understand way, Abie brings light to the ultimate reason for our existence in this word.

—Dina Storch

All the hippopotamissus and hippopotamisters have hippopotafeelings too, from “I’m a Hippopotamus” [Marvelous Midos Machine 1].

—Baruch Levine

And who will stand before the world, knowing what to say, when the very last survivor fades away, from “Memories.” It speaks to our generation, and every day, we’re reminded of how relevant it is.

—Rivie Schwebel

Singer and album collaborator

But most of all tell me, for I cannot see, Is there G-d in heaven, does He know of me? from “Little Kite” [Journeys 2]. Abie touches gufei hashkafah in an almost whimsical way, but expresses the fact that not only is there a Master, but that it’s personal, that yes, Hakadosh Baruch Hu cares if I make a brachah or holds back from saying lashon hara. It’s like Abie climbed down into the souls of people and discovered their secret worry and wonder — and then, you go back and hear his call of “Hu manhig lechol haberu’im, vehu lavo asah oseh veya’aseh lechol hamaasim (from “Ani Maamin”) and you marvel at the whole picture he’s painted for us.

Also: We ignored our grief, to the world’s disbelief and never, no never stopped learning, from “Lulei Sorascha” [Journeys 3]. There was no time in history when these words weren’t true. Every bochur, every yungerman, every balabos who fights off stress and pain and worry to learn Torah is part of that miracle. Just look around, especially over the last month, and you see that that’s really our essence — a nation that has never, no never, stopped learning. The ahavas haTorah that pulsates through the song — Rava farvos haltz du nisht vi Abaye — is the sound of an open Gemara, a hot tea and good chavrusa.

 —Yisroel Besser

No more could she hold back the tears, she cried out the sorrow of so many years… G-d’s love is but hidden, in time we’ll know why, but the heavens had told her it’s all right to cry, from “Teardrop” [Journeys 2], the ballad of an elderly woman who lost everything but her faith. So powerful.

And there’s Then we are not so different, we are very much the same, you do know who I am, I’m just like you, from “Who Am I” [Journeys 3], which really explains why it’s become the anthem of the special needs community and their families.

—Sheya Mendlowitz

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 797)

Baruch Levine: Abie’s Legacy Song

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein: Abie’s Legacy Song

Yisroel Besser: Abie’s Legacy Song

Dina Storch: Abie’s Legacy Song

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