Singing for a people in pain, Yaakov Shwekey got more than he gave
Photos: Aryeh Leib Abrams
I’m no soldier, but maybe there was something I could contribute to my brothers and sisters, those on the battlefront fending off the enemy, and those on the homefront mourning unfathomable loss?
I’m no writer either, but this story isn’t about me — it’s about the power of our people to find faith and hope even in the darkest times. And maybe these lines can help others appreciate what it feels like in
Eretz Yisrael now, as all of us pray a little harder and stretch a little more, until the day of our greatest song
I’ve been singing for about 25 years, and, sadly, I’m no stranger to hospital wards or even shivah homes. It is, as they say, part of the territory.
That’s because music is about connecting to people, and if there is a connection, then there is also an obligation to be there to encourage, cheer, or comfort.
But nothing — nothing! — prepared me for what I saw, and what I felt, last week.
Last week, I didn’t see wounded soldiers, I didn’t see displaced soldiers, and I didn’t see bereaved parents.
Last week, I saw neshamot. I saw what it means to be a Jew.
You Don’t Run Away
On Simchat Torah, my family and I were in Yerushalayim. We experienced the joy, the horror, and then the fear. My children found the air raid sirens terrifying.
During those tense first days, my wife and I tried explaining to them that the dread they felt is reality for children in Eretz Yisrael. We saw it as an opportunity to teach them the value of being nosei be’ol, to understand how children in places like Sderot have been living for years.
They tried to be brave. Yom Tov ended, and the kids had to get back to school. After a journey of several days, through airports I never expected to see, we finally made it back.
But then, the next day and the day after that as well, I found myself uncomfortable, a growing feeling of unease inside me.
You don’t “run away” from Eretz Yisrael. You don’t “manage to get out” of the land of our fathers.
In the weeks that followed, we saw the remarkable pull that this land has on its people, wherever they live. Until now, we turned to Yerushalayim three times a day, remembering it when we davened — but now, we were turned to it all day, people eager to be connected.
I wanted to go back, to be there, to touch the spirit of a people. I’m not a soldier or a paramedic, and I wasn’t sure what I could add, but I knew where I wanted to be.
Hearts Wide Open
My friend Mark Massry and a group of men from the community were heading to Eretz Yisrael, and he felt that I should join. While I’m not an avreich, I have chavrusos in the Deal kollel morning and afternoon and I wasn’t sure it was proper for me to leave. I told Mark that only Rabbi Shlomo Diamond could decide a question like this, and Mark called the rabbi right then and there.
“Yaakov, if you can give chizuk to people, then this is the reason Hashem gave you the ability to sing,” Rabbi Diamond said.
My wife Jenine responded with her characteristic encouragement and optimism, telling me that she was not just giving me her blessings, she was coming too!
Our children were nervous. Again, we had the opportunity to speak with them about the reality of Klal Yisrael, about the special protection afforded to Eretz Yisrael, and they were reassured. And so, Motzaei Shabbos Vayeira, we boarded a flight and set off: Jenine and I, my friend David Hillel, and Mrs. Chaya Bender, Jenine’s partner at the Special Children’s Center, plus a group from Deal.
It was a route I’ve traveled dozens of times, but it was like no trip I have ever taken.
The first indication that this trip was different came moments after we landed at Ben Gurion Airport. The halls were silent, the stores empty, and the road in front quiet of its usual bustle.
But the Spirit!
Just outside the terminal, a small group came over. They didn’t introduce themselves, but they didn’t have to — it made no difference. We were Jews, having just arrived in Eretz Yisrael, so we got it. We made a little circle — Hatzolah guys having arrived from Florida, some passing soldiers, a few chassidim — and started dancing. Someone pulled out a guitar. A taxi driver hit his brakes and jumped out of the car, running over to join us.
The people wanted to sing.
I climbed into a car, and for the next four days, the song would not cease: It would alternate between happy and sad, desperate and hopeful, pleading and accepting, but it would not stop.
It’s hard to explain what the magic was. When a singer performs at a concert, he’s working to remove barriers, to connect with the audience and open hearts. It takes work — the singer has to be ready to share a bit of himself and the audience has to be ready to have their heart opened.
Last week, in Eretz Yisrael, no preparation was needed. It was raw, and real, all hearts wide open at the outset.
In “normal” times, I appreciate privacy. If I see that a restaurant is full, I’ll go somewhere quieter. But last week, I did the opposite: Wherever I saw people, I marched over.
There was no emcee and no program. I would just start singing and they would join. There was no sound system and no engineer, just Jews, their voices and their deepest hopes.
I always knew that we were a family, but last week, I felt it acutely. With every group of people — on a street-corner, in an army base, in towns that do not have kollelim or mikvaos — there flowed the easy comfort and familiarity one has with family.
Jews. More alone than we’ve ever been, but also more one than we’ve ever been.
There was no playlist. Someone would see me, start a song, and we rolled with it. There were no wrong answers, every niggun the perfect one for the moment.
V’Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzilenu m’yadam….Yizkerem Elokeinu letovah…Im lo aaleh es Yerushalayim… Racheim nah Hashem Elokeinu… Am Yisrael lo mefached… Ani Maamin b’nissim… Mosai timloch b’Tzion…
Every song was right.
We went to army bases, and it was humbling. Soldiers who have faced and still face real danger were so grateful. “You came specially from America to be mechazek us?” they kept asking, as if they could not believe it.
One night, there was a wedding on base. The wedding had been pushed off twice. The mother of the chatan had lost a sibling in the massacre, so they waited for shivah to end. Then, it was pushed off again, because he was needed in the military. Now, they were preparing to go into Gaza the next morning and his friends, seeing a chance, coordinated with the kallah’s family and they surprised the chatan. It was a wedding of people who knew little about their heritage, but there was such joy, such faith, such yearning for the day when, in the streets of Yerushalayim, we will hear the sounds of rejoicing.
We joined Rav Yitzchak David Grossman on a journey through the long hospital corridors, coordinated by Rabbi Shai Graucher’s B’Yachad Nenatzeiach movement. We were sitting with soldiers who had risked — and lost — while trying to save another. They had no regrets, each of them telling us that they would do it again if they saw the chance to save a life.
Some had endured horrific losses, adapting to a new life without limbs or other abilities. With them too, the song wasn’t sorrowful or bitter. “Ani yodeia sheyesh Elokim,” we sang again and again, and in those hospital rooms, the words were tangible.
To see tough, strong, courageous men soften with emotion in the face of a niggun is to understand the strength of a niggun. To see how those who have been shattered by loss find solace in the knowledge that “Gam me’achorei hadvarim hakashim ha’ovrim alecha Ani omed,” is to understand the strength of a Jew.
Nothing in my 46 years prepared me to sit with parents experiencing the worst sort of agony of all: not knowing where their children are or how they are faring, imagination running in the most horrifying directions. These people cannot sleep or eat and are barely able to function, their beloved children taken hostage by animals.
And yet, there too, we were carried by a niggun.
Over the years, I have often thought to myself that frum singers are not really entertainers and our industry is not real entertainment.
(Recently, I was in the studio and one of the engineers heard the arrangements to a song. He looked up in surprise and said, “Wow, that’s amazing. It sounds like Hollywood!” I looked at him and said, “Thanks, but I don’t want to sound like Hollywood — I want to sound like Lakewood!”)
Yet standing with those families, each of my arms holding tight to a father burning with desperation and hope, it was obvious that what was happening in the room had nothing to do with entertainment or performance.
Just broken Jews connecting with one another as we sang.
Mamme Rachel cry for us again… Mamme Rachel, a mother who hasn’t given up and will not give up until her sons return to their borders, until the children are home.
In Every Generation
Jenine and her associate, Mrs. Bender, started the Special Children’s Center when they were both just 16, and they have spent decades working with the special-needs population. They know about comfort and reassurance, how to lift spirits and soothe feelings, but last week, they had to find new levels of strength.
I sang to fathers. They embraced mothers. Neither of us needed words, because there were no words. Just song, hugs, and such tefillah.
About 20 years ago, I released the album Hisorerus, which featured songs that meant a lot to me. I recorded one of my favorite chassidishe niggunim, “Yivoda Bagoyim” written by the Skulener Rebbe.
The words “let the cry of the prisoner come before You,” and “repay our neighbors, sevenfold,” keep playing in my ears, as if David Hamelech wrote them for us, at this moment.
The father of a hostage told me he knows my songs, but there is one particular song that he sings all day now. I asked him which. His answer broke my heart.
He started to sing, “Ki archa lanu hayeshuah, v’ein ketz limei hara’ah — For the salvation is too long delayed for us, and there is no end to days of evil…”
We went to be menachem avel families mourning beloved children, spouses, siblings, and again we felt there was this overwhelming sense that everyone in the room connected by something much bigger than accent, dress, or background.
The Mark family was mourning their brother Pedaya, who fell in Gaza. Seven years ago, his father, Rabbi Michoel Mark, was murdered by terrorists as well. Hashem yinkom damam.
Pedaya’s sister shared with me her memories of their father. He was very musical, and his favorite song was “V’hi Sheamdah.” He would turn on the Live in Caesarea album and, with the children seated around him on the couch, he would move his hands, conducting an imaginary symphony as it played.
“We didn’t just sing ‘V’hi Shemdah’ on Leil Haseder,” she told me. “We sang it every single week at Seudah Shlishit.”
That song, his song, carries them now. Shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu, but there is also the end, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu matzilenu miyadam.
They asked about my professional schedule while I was there, and I told them that there was nothing planned – I wasn’t there to work, but to give chizuk.
They insisted that the music is part of the response, part of the chizuk, and made me promise that I would record something in memory of their brother.
They had told me something remarkable. Their cousin, Elchanan Kalmanson, had been running through Be’eri on Simchas Torah, trying to save as many people as possible. As soon as he heard about the massacre, Elchanan, a captain in the IDF, gathered his brother and nephew, and drove to the south to rescue residents. They braved the bullets, rescuing dozens of men, women, and children under enemy fire, returning to the kibbutz multiple times to save more lives. Kalmanson went around banging on doors of survivors and begging people to come out, but they were afraid to leave their homes, not trusting that he was a Jew, since the kibbutz was filled with terrorists.
He shouted different words and terms, proving that he was one of theirs, but they were wary.
Finally, he called out, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad,” and the doors opened as he filled his car with people, driving them to safety, then coming back to save more. For 14 hours, he went in and out, saving so many lives, but ultimately losing his own to the bullet of a terrorist hiding inside a house.
When the family shared the story, I was deeply moved, because the words Shema Yisrael are actually the impetus for a song I hope to release shortly. I was first inspired to write it when I heard Rav Ovadia Yosef cry about the fact that thousands of Jewish children do not know the words of Shema Yisrael, and with that inspiration that I’ve been carrying through the last decade, I decided a while back to do an Israeli album aimed at reaching the hearts of a younger generation, allowing them to access their birthright this way.
I wasn’t planning to record at all during this trip, but once I heard the story at the Mark home and saw this incredible strength close up, I wanted to channel the inspiration — and I knew which song I wanted to sing. Jenine somehow made arrangements and that night, we worked on a project that will not just be in his memory, but, with Hashem’s help, capture the feeling of tangible faith I took with me, a gift from this family. From about 2 a.m. until sunrise, I recorded a song called “Guf Uneshamah,” which was written by Avi Ohayon, with the vision that beyond the world a Jew can see and touch, there is a rich, vibrant realm of neshamah. The song, which is based on the words of Shema Yisrael, has so much more meaning for me now — a celebration of the reason for our existence, and the reason we fight on.
There was no time for touring on this trip. Kever Rochel isn’t a “visit,” and there, the tears fell. Tears for parents and their children, for siblings and spouses, for neighbors and friends.
At the Kosel, an unfamiliar man grabbed hold of my arm. He told me that he had lost a son in combat this month, and the mourning is fresh and searing. I was silent, but then he burst out, “But you have to keep doing what you’re doing, to be mesameiach people! It is how we go on, it’s what gives us the strength. Music is the essence of who we are.”
On the flight back, we finally had a moment to sit in one place for the first time in several days. I could not sleep. I didn’t even want to sleep, I just wanted to hold on to the precious emotions. I had seen the depths of pain, the depths of mourning, and the depths of hope.
I thought of a story I heard from Rabbi YY Jacobson, who told me that Eli Wiesel once had an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was an auspicious moment, and the Rebbe asked Wiesel what he could do for him.
The writer and Holocaust survivor thought for a moment, and then said, “Yes, Rebbe. I want to be able to cry again.”
The Rebbe looked at him, this Yid who felt that his tears had dried up, and said, “Before I teach you how to cry, I first have to teach you how to sing.”
Those who feel joy, can also feel pain.
A song has a low part and a high part, changes in tempo and rhythm giving it its appeal. Every nation has a song and this is ours. It’s sometimes sad and sometimes happy, sometimes mournful and sometimes triumphant, but at the end, it’s always happy.
And in the end, it will be happy.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 986)
Oops! We could not locate your form.