Up Another Level

“The title track, 'Madreigos,' brings me to tears"


"I always seemed to find myself in the middle,” SHMUELI UNGAR admits. “I’m a chassidish guy, but the music I sang on my first two albums, Mach a Bracha and Shmueli 2, leaned more toward mainstream contemporary Jewish music. This new album has a different sound. I’m definitely finding my own voice more, and moving closer to my chassidish roots.”

Shmueli’s just-released third album, MADREIGOS, features 11 brand-new tracks, a mix of Yiddish ballads and words from pesukim — and all with an authentic chassidish feel. There are also three tracks of short but powerful nusach selections. Shmueli is excited about the sound — and he says the singing is his best work to date.

Despite the shift in tone, Ungar stuck with his production team, Naftali Schnitzler and Hershy Weinberger (who composed five of these new songs). “Musically, I know what I like, and we’re a great team. I’m usually around to add my input while Hershy is composing, and both of us give suggestions to Naftali on the musical arrangements. It goes without saying that there are plenty of other legendary arrangers whose music I admire from a distance, but I didn’t feel it necessary to shop around and take a song from this one or that one. I’m comfortable with my team, doing our thing, following our own musical style and intuition.”

One of the album’s showpieces is track eight, “Yosef Mokir Shabbos.” Shmueli was keeping a spot on the playlist for composer Yonah Lifshitz, who he knew would deliver an upbeat song to add more color to the album. When Lifshitz sent him the tune, Shmueli originally had a concept to use it for a song about the Six Days of Creation. Hershy Weinberger, talented lyricist (of “Davenen” and “Meloich” fame) tried to create something, but it just wasn’t working. Plan B was a ballad based on the Gemara’s account of Yosef Mokir Shabbos, who found his rich gentile neighbor’s diamond in the stomach of the huge fish he purchased in honor of Shabbos.

“I wanted to sing the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbos, yet I didn’t want typical Yiddish lyrics. I was looking for more of a grammen style, with the words flowing and running into each other. Hershy worked incredibly hard on it, producing a couple of lines a week — the song held up the release of the entire album — but in the end it emerged outstanding, just as we envisioned.”

The singer’s own favorite? “The title track, “Madreigos,” brings me to tears. The niggun alone is very moving, and the concept, which is based on words written by both the Chofetz Chaim and Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, is that while we ask the Eibeshter to bring us up to higher levels, He has place for ovdei Hashem on all their different varied levels, and all will ultimately enjoy His radiance. That song is a really powerful lesson for all of us.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 841)

Shmueli Ungar