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We Can All Sing

His calendar was booked…with upsherens and bas mitzvahs. But Mordechai Shapiro was determined to be a wedding singer. His fresh, fun sound.

 

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Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

T

he staccato beat of the basketball on the asphalt is intense, and the driving rhythm seems to amp up my opponent’s competitive edge. At one point, the ball hits the uneven edge of a filled-in pothole and bounces off the court, and I’m just about ready to flop onto the grass and end the one-on-one right where we are, tied at three up.

The morning started out sunny and beautiful and so quiet on the Monsey cul-de-sac where my in-laws live and where Mordechai Shapiro has come to meet me.

It’s not an interview so much as hanging out — first on chairs, then sprawled out on the grass, then it becomes a walk, and finally the one-on-one that I am perfectly content to end right now, right here.

No, says the singer with sunshine in his voice and what I thought was an easygoing nature, no, no, let’s finish this up.

I reluctantly stand back up and inform him that he’s done, I’m going to win, and suddenly, he’s jumping and ducking and spinning and swoosh, backboard, there we go, game over.

“Nice,” he says contentedly, “good game.”

“ ’Cuz you won?” I ask, teasing, but also not.

He grins. “Yep.”

On the grass, I hear a little about the teasing that was almost a soundtrack to his early years until he learned how to shut it down. Then came years of growth and expanded spiritual horizons, but  life in Eretz Yisrael, too, didn’t come easy. Finally, the young father and husband who knew how to sing came to sing, but there were no takers. And then, one day, the one-man band and singer with a calendar filled with upsherens and bas mitzvahs decided he was a wedding singer, and here we are.

The ball rolls down the sloping lawn, back onto the asphalt, and I nod. “Fine,” I say, “you’re allowed to be a bit aggressive.”

It’s only a bit, because Mordechai Shapiro’s brand — his appeal — is the laid-back, fun-loving youthfulness, the freshness and optimism.

Sitting alone in the empty seats at Lincoln Center, just hours before the lights will go on over the HASC Concert stage, I watch the tension of that final rehearsal. Mordy Shapiro, on his way off stage, stops for just an instant behind conductor Yoeli Dickman — who is so serious he’s nearly trembling with reverence for this moment — and gives him the slightest pinch from behind. The conductor straightens, spins around, then breaks out in a smile when he sees who it is.

I follow Shapiro, trailing him as he walks the web of hallways and dressing rooms backstage. He goes into the assigned dressing room, then wanders out. “Nah, not for me,” he says, “I don’t want to be locked up. Hey look, Nachum Segal!”

In a side room, the good men from Zusha are practicing their hit song, “Baruch Hashem,” and a videographer is capturing the moment. Mordy Shapiro comes in uninvited and positions himself in the middle of their musical huddle, singing along, photo bombing, and interrupting all at once.

The Mordechai Shapiro show has begun.

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M

ordechai Shapiro grew up in Monsey, New York. They sang a lot, the seven Shapiro children — five sons and two daughters. Both parents were musically gifted, the father a baal tefillah — he’s a regular at the amud at Rav Yisroel Dovid Schlesinger’s shul — and the mother with a background as a trained opera singer.

Mordechai, the youngest, attended ASHAR, a respected local modern-Orthodox elementary school. He liked the rebbeim and teachers and found friends. “But there was also teasing,” he remembers. “Sometimes lots of it. There were many affluent kids there, and they found it funny that my father drove the Monsey bus for a living. My father was and is my role model, he’s hardworking and honest and totally there for his family, so his job didn’t bother me. The only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t answer them in a way which conveyed how proud I was of my dad.”

He remembers a school trip to Hershey park. Monsey Tours had sent Elliot Shapiro to take the large group of boisterous children.

“Yeah,” he nods slowly at the recollection, “that was a day. I hope they had as much fun on the rides as they did making fun of my dad driving the bus.”

Music was a big part of his childhood. “My older brother Duvie and I tried out for Miami Boys Choir. He was accepted, but they said that I was too young. My mother told them, ‘Listen, it’s both of them or none of them.’ ”

Not willing to lose the older boy, choir director Yerachmiel Begun accepted eight-year-old Mordechai as well. “My mom would drive us to Brooklyn every Sunday, and she would learn a parshah sefer in the car while we practiced. Then we’d go to Mendelsohn’s Pizza and ad hayom, until today, that’s my favorite pizza in the world.”

Music, then sports, filled his days as captain of the hockey and basketball teams at MTA high school.

But it was once he graduated and went to learn in Eretz Yisrael that Mordy found a different sort of song. “I started learning seriously in Netiv Aryeh, and I felt a certain sense of direction in life.”

He recalls conversations with the rosh yeshivah, Rav Aharon Bina. “Rav Bina would call me into his office weekly. He has this very direct way of being mechanech, he would say, ‘Shapiro, atah baal gaivah.’ ”

Mordy laughs. “I guess my attitude, that resolve, could look like arrogance.” Then the singer pauses and says, “Actually, it was probably really gaivah, and I did have to work at it.”

In time, Mordy switched from Netiv Aryeh to Bais Yisroel, his cheap Casio keyboard coming along. “I would keep it near my bed, and whenever I had a few minutes, I played. I needed that.”

It wasn’t an easy transition. “I was suddenly surrounded by guys learning in-depth; they’d been learning this way for years. It was all very overwhelming for me, like diving into the deep end before you know how to swim. I had a very hard first few weeks, and then my brother Aharon told me about a shiur he thought could help me. It was from Rav Ephraim Wachsman about the Akeidah. The message was that sometimes, what appears to be an ending is really a beginning. It helped me tremendously, and that’s when I really got into it.”

Mordechai was only 19 years old when he got engaged to Raquel Guenoun and 20 when they were married. After starting off in America, the young couple made the decision to make aliyah and move to Eretz Yisrael.

From the outset, it was tough. They moved into a tiny apartment in Shaarei Chesed, and Mordechai looked for a way to make it work. He accepted a job teaching special needs children in Katamon, then learned with bochurim at night to supplement his income.

“I would open the building in Katamon at seven thirty in the morning, work all day, and then, at five o’clock, get on my bike and head off to Har Nof to teach.” After that, it was back on the bike, up the hill to the top of Har Nof. “I would come home at eleven o’clock at night, completely exhausted.”

It was a happy life, though: They were in Jerusalem, they had two children, they were living the dream.

But again, he was vaguely aware of a certain disparity between himself and others. “My wife and I would see other American couples and scratch our heads and be like, ‘Whoa, how are people going out to eat and going on vacation?’ But we just shrugged and tried doing our thing, focusing on how lucky we were.”

And then he met the Rebbe.

I

n a small beis medrash in the Old City, the sort of place you might walk by and completely miss, the Rebbe served his Maker.

It was a place that offered satiety to both a beggar desperate for a warm meal and someone looking for a clearer understanding of the interface between the kabbalistic Sefiros. The Rebbe’s eyes were trained to see inside, deep inside — and the externals fell away.

Rav Avrohom Brandwein combined two sacred traditions: his father, Rav Yehuda Tzvi, had been the Strettiner Rebbe, and he too served in that capacity, a rebbe standing in prayer and helping suffering Jews and listening to their problems. But his father had also been the brother-in-law and right-hand man of the Baal HaSulam, Rav Yehuda Leib Ashlag, and together, they had plumbed the depths of Kabbalah. Rav Yehuda Tzvi wrote a sefer called Ma’alos HaSulam, and led a small beis medrash in the Old City dedicated to the study of Kabbalah. After the 1948 surrender of the Jewish Quarter, he was driven out of the neighborhood, but he merited to return after its liberation in 1967.

A few months after reestablishing the shul, he was niftar, his son appointed rebbe in his stead. Rav Avrohom worked for the Israeli government, serving as a rav at an absorption center for new immigrants, but eventually retired to a life spent in the small room with the arched stone walls, learning and teaching.

The man who could see a person’s internal landscape had no use for crowds, for large numbers: He had his people, this rebbe, and he gave himself to them. The central core of his teaching was that the Source of Life is the ultimate Giver, and man’s role in this world is to serve as a font of giving. The more transparent man becomes, the more he can emulate his Creator.

One of the regulars in a shul that drew authentic Yerushalmim from Meah Shearim, dati-leumi, Old City locals, and bright-eyed Americans, was Duvie Shapiro.

“My brother would daven there,” Mordy remembers, “and he brought me into the circle. The first time I met the Rebbe, I felt like he understood me.”

Mordechai would walk from Shaarei Chesed to the Old City, so he could daven in the presence of the Rebbe. There was a kiddush every week, Erev Shabbos farbrengens, Melaveh Malkahs. Always, the Rebbe would turn to the young American. “Reb Motti,” he would say, “a niggun, nu?”

With time, Mordy started to feel the strain of his daunting financial juggling act. “I was completely worn down from the long days, and my wife began to wonder if we should consider moving back. We decided to speak to the Rebbe.

“The Rebbe didn’t think that there is any other place other than Eretz Yisrael worth living in, but he gave us his blessing. He told us that my parnassah would come from music in America, and he also said something else: that one day, we would come back to live in Eretz Yisrael, this time for real.”

The Rebbe was niftar in 2013. Along with their three daughters, the Shapiros have one son, named Avrohom, for the Rebbe.

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S

ettling in Queens, not far from his in-laws in West Hempstead, Mordechai Shapiro tried to break into the music business. He knew he could sing, but there weren’t many openings for the earnest young man with the sweet voice.

“We had three children at that point, so I had to work to get through the day. I didn’t expect things to come easy, and they didn’t. I played as a one-man-band at birthday parties and bas mitzvahs and even the occasional bar mitzvah, if I was lucky. I also taught music at Hebrew Academy of Nassau Country, committed to doing whatever it took.”

But even as he schlepped speakers and equipment through pouring rain and sweltering heat, pounding out the hits of others, he had a dream. He wanted to be a wedding singer.

He’d been in the Miami Boys Choir for years, and he knew some people in the industry, so he started to call them. “You know how it is, this one’s busy, that one would love to help,” he shrugs. His generosity isn’t a pretense — he speaks sincerely, as if he understands the unreturned phone calls. “These are all kind people — they run to visit sick people, or bring chizuk to those who need it — it’s just not an easy industry to break in to.”

Others might have given up, but the teasing of his early years had given Mordy Shapiro just a little bit more resolve and focus. He isn’t others.

He pushed, and eventually, Neshoma Orchestra let him do a chasunah when their usual singers were all booked. Mordechai Shapiro bounded onto stage and he’s never come down.

F

rom the outset, his brand was a bit different than anything out there.

It wasn’t just the fact that Mordechai Shapiro always looks like he’s having the time of his life. There was also something in the sound itself.

“Look, I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home, I went to coed schools, I was exposed to one sort of music, and then my whole family shifted — we all became close to the yeshivah world. That shift has a sound, and that’s what you’re hearing.”

It’s the sound of fun, but also of the vulnerability, the wonder, the freedom to explore, and the joy of coming home.

On the Machar album, there is a song called “Niggun Simcha.” It was a favorite in the Rebbe’s beis medrash in the Old City, and Mordechai Shapiro sang it in tribute to his rebbe. If you listen closely, in the final seconds of the song, the singer whispers something: For my rebbe.

You might miss it, and that’s fine too. “I’m not pushing my rebbe into the song. If you hear it, great, if not, that’s also fine. But I had to say those words, right then.”

Earlier this year, he released a song called “Friends.” It was written in tribute to his own best friend, Chaim Kasnett, who drowned while traveling in India.

It’s a happy, upbeat song, with lyrics celebrating friendship:

Take a drive,

Down the highway of life,

Give me five,

My friend…

“Chaim would understand that we mourn him this way, by honoring friendship. I miss him terribly, but I rejoice in what we had. He wasn’t about tears.”

But there is another song that makes Mordy Shapiro cry. Called “B’Yachad,” it was written in tribute to Yachad, the OU’s National Council for Disabilities. The lyrics celebrate inclusion. As he talks about the serious undertones in a song heavy on cute lyrics, I hear the audible crack in his voice as he intones words that seem so generic: “I like to be with friends and to connect with them, I like to feel that I belong…”

That might be the secret of Mordy Shapiro’s appeal — not just the voice and the energy. At the core, he’s every guy in the audience, just trying to belong.

I point this out and instead of answering, he sings the next part of the chorus. “We aren’t quite the same, but really that’s okay, I know that we can get along.”

“Look, special needs is just the mashal. We’re all different, different views and interests, and my rebbe was all about ‘that’s okay,’ that’s why his beis medrash was filled with all sorts. They got along.”

So this, too, is the song of the Rebbe.

P

roducer and composer Yitzy Waldner remembers the day — Chol Hamoed Pesach of 2016 — when he got a phone call from a friend. “There’s a guy named Mordechai Shapiro, and he’s just getting started. Come listen to him, you should work together.”

Shapiro — who had yet to release a single album — was performing at Six Flags Amusement Park, just 15 minutes from Waldner’s hometown of Lakewood, so he headed over. It wasn’t the most conducive setting for a concert. Outdoors, noisy, second-rate equipment — and the young singer was under the weather.

Shapiro started singing, and Waldner turned to his wife. “Oh wow. This guy is a star.”

“What I was hearing that day,” he recalls, “wasn’t just the great voice, it wasn’t just the energy. It was rhythm! I’ve been in this industry for a while, baruch Hashem, and I never heard a singer who feels the music that way, like it’s inside him, not outside. The drums are playing in his heart. He’s singing around the music, not along with it.”

Yitzy Waldner would go on to compose a few songs for the young singer. Today, he is Mordechai Shapiro’s producer — although Mordy sees him as far more than that limited role. “I’m lucky to be working with Yitzy,” he says, “because, as a friend and a role model, he also gets me. He produces so much more than my music!”

“Mordy continues to amaze me,” Waldner says. “The studio mic picks up everything, every deep breath or shuffle, and most young singers need a few rounds to get it right. Not him. The first time he walked in, he already felt it. He’s a great piano player, and maybe that’s what gives him this vocal clarity, but likely, he’s just a natural. It’s part of Hashem’s gift. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Shapiro also composes some of his own songs. Two hits, “Machar” and “B’Yachad,” are original compositions, the tunes coming from deep within him.

While Yitzy Waldner hears instinct, Eli Gerstner hears the sound of hard work.

“There is something in Mordechai Shapiro that tells you he worked very hard to get to where he is,” Gerstner says. “It’s a certain street appeal that shows you that he comes by this instant connection with the fans honestly. He’s a guy who spent years doing smaller events. You can tell he spent time playing upsherens, vorts, you know, small events. He actually played one-man band and sang along — something not every singer can do. If you want to understand the current between the audience and him, it’s that: His experience comes from the ground up, and you hear that authenticity in his music.”

It was Gerstner who created a unique challenge for Mordechai Shapiro just a few months ago.

“Of course, we invited him to the HASC concert, but I felt like we could stretch him in a different direction. We know he has the youth, he’s one of the younger voices, but our job is to push him into the other dimension as well, to show what he can do.”

At the recent concert — the largest and most celebrated such event in the United States — Gerstner asked the singer to perform one medley of “oldies,” a series of Yishai Lapidot compositions.

“We wanted to showcase Mordechai Shapiro, to show he can go there as well, into the past, he can reach the other generation. That was the message in choosing those songs — and guess what? He nailed them.”

And what about today, now that Mordechai Shapiro has arrived?

“He still works harder than almost anyone I know,” says Gerstner. “He sings at weddings night after night, and somehow, he never sounds burnt out. He doesn’t just love singing, he’s a fan of Jewish music. If he’s asked to perform other singer’s hits, he has no problem. Not everyone would be so easygoing about that.”

I think about something the singer has said as we walked down a quiet Monsey street, just a few blocks away from where he grew up. “My father is my hero because day after day, he gets onto the bus and does the same route he’s been doing for the last twenty-five years, and it’s always fresh. He chats with the regulars and greets newcomers. He tries to make it pleasant for them.”

His father behind an oversized steering wheel, the son behind the mic: each one doing it his own way.

W

hat Eli Gerstner calls the sound of hard work, when broken down to its core, is really a single word: normal.

When Mordy Shapiro first moved back to America, he took a job teaching music at HANC. Even after his career exploded, he held onto the job, unwilling to forfeit this connection with the world of school auditoriums and kids who dance to music just because.

“It was great,” he says. “I remember doing this huge concert in Los Angeles and flying back overnight to text messages from the morahs making sure I’d be on time for the siddur party practice. I loved it.”

He reluctantly gave up the job last year, when the amount of wedding bookings grew so that it became practically impossible to work so many late nights and early mornings.

Back when he was the one trying to break into the industry, he made a promise. It was after one big-name musician took his call, heard his request, offered perfunctory good wishes, and apologized about there not being very much he could do. “Raquel,” Mordy told his wife, “if I ever make it, I will listen to every demo, meet every aspiring singer, and never forget what I’m feeling right now.”

Today, he confesses, “She holds me to that promise.”

He leans forward, nearly bursting with enthusiasm. “I know, it’s clichéd to tell an interviewer, ‘My wife is so special, she makes it all possible, blah blah blah,’ but let me tell you something. She is everything. She dreamed of living in Eretz Yisrael, we sent a lift with beds and furniture, we were all in! And when she perceived that it wasn’t the right time for us, she was the one who gently said, ‘Let’s go.’ And when we moved here and struggled, she never said, ‘Just give up music and go sell mortgages or something,’ but encouraged me again. The normal you’re hearing — that comes from her.”

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T

he HASC concert has ended and within minutes, the large hall is empty. The crowd files out into the Manhattan night as technicians and stagehands in black turtlenecks move quickly through the back hallways. The performers have gone through the private elevator directly to their cars.

It’s nearly eleven o’clock. A janitor blocks off both escalators, leaving just a single staircase open, and tells me that the building needs to be vacant by eleven, mumbling about union rules.

Mordechai Shapiro stands in the lobby, back in the gray sweater in which he arrived. Concert-goers stare, then come over to say hello or grab a selfie. The star of the show stands next to his parents, chatting graciously with his fans.

When he was a child and people bugged him about his father being a bus driver, he was quiet, wishing he could tell them how proud he was.

It looks like he’s found a way.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 752)

 

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