For decades, children all over the world have welcomed Moishe Tanenbaum as an honorary member of their families, enjoying the music, the smiles and the positive messages about the beauty of yiddishkeit that the Toronto native has brought to every note of every song he sings as the irreplaceable Uncle Moishy.
The legacy that is Uncle Moishy not only predates the iconic performer’s young listeners, but even many of their parents as well, stretching back to 1967 when Milton Tanenbaum, as he was known then, was a grade schooler in Toronto’s Eitz Chaim School. The young Tanenbaum was near bar mitzvah age and his pervasive sense of humor had his rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Gluckowsky, dubbing him “Uncle Milty,” a reference to the very popular Milton Berle.
The name stuck throughout the years.
“Even now when I go back to Toronto, my old classmates still say ‘Uncle Milty is here,’” Tanenbaum told Olam Yehudi.
Music has always been in Tanenbaum’s blood. As a child, he sang in the Eitz Chaim choir and he taught himself guitar, later combining his singing and playing skills by doing kumzitzes with his friends. The leap to singing for pint-sized audiences came when Rabbi Gluckowsky’s wife, Francis, the school’s preschool teacher, asked the then 14-year-old Tanenbaum to play for her students during their lunch period.
“I was hesitant but she was insistent, and thankfully so,” said Tanenbaum. “I had my guitar with me and I sang songs like ‘Torah Tziva’ and ‘Hashem is Here’ and seeing the preschoolers lifting up their hands to sky and pointing to all the places where Hashem is was a wonderful experience that really broke me in. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Uncle Milty evolved into Uncle Moishy in 1975. At the time, Tanenbaum was volunteering with Chabad Lubavitch in Toronto and was doing Sunday school programs together with the local shaliach, Rabbi Yehoshua Laufer.
“We had gone to a very important farbrengen by the Rebbe and he mentioned that it would be good to start using our Jewish names,” recalled Tanenbaum. “Rabbi Laufer sat me down after the farbrengen and together we decided that I should be an example for the kids by using my Jewish name and, henceforth, I became Uncle Moishy.”
Over time, Tanenbaum found himself in charge of programming at the Toronto JCC which served almost 500 children in addition to performing in camps and in other communities. By 1979, the first Uncle Moishy album was produced, giving Tanenbaum the ability to bring Jewish themes to children all across the religious spectrum through fun songs that had a universal appeal to kids worldwide. While he dubbed his musicians “The Mitzvah Men,” Uncle Moishy actually viewed his audience of children as his true “Mitzvah Men,” young emissaries who would be inspired by music to carry the light of Torah throughout the world.
As virtually no commercially-available Jewish albums that catered to kids at that time, the response to Uncle Moishy’s debut recording was enormous.
“There were story tapes out at the time, but there was really no music aimed at kids,” recalled Tanenbaum. “Who knew that putting ten well-known and popular songs on an album was going to be such a big hit?”
Many more Uncle Moishy albums followed after that as well as countless concerts, DVDs and other productions that continue to delight listeners, their children and, in some cases, even their grandchildren. Over the years, Tanenbaum has sold out concert venues worldwide, taking his show across the Atlantic to Manchester, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and Panama.
“Now that [Panama] was an interesting one,” said Tanenbaum. “I had an interpreter there who was also a preschool teacher and while the songs stayed the same, she translated everything I said into Spanish. The kids loved it.”
Fast-forward to 2017 and the one and only Uncle Moishy is back with an all new sound, one that has a Broadway vibe reminiscent of classic Disney kids’ songs, catering to the more sophisticated taste of today’s children. Continuing his dream of reaching out to Jewish children of all backgrounds, Tanenbaum has raised the bar with his new album, titled Welcome. Basic arrangements have given way to a 47-piece orchestra comprised of a 15-piece string section, a 21-piece brass/woodwinds section and an eight-piece keyboard/percussion/rhythm section.
“The opening song starts out with a harp and those violins that you hear are real,” noted Tanenbaum. “Kids today have different expectations for their music and I want to reach those children, so we went all out making sure that the quality of our songs and our music was on a totally new level.”
Tanenbaum credits his producers Mendy Hershkowitz and Chesky Breuer of Sonic Duo for bringing his vision to life on the new album, capturing the large-scale sound that he wanted to create in Welcome. Also joining Tanenbaum in his latest album are composers Yossi Green, Malky Giniger and Dina Storch, all well-known names in the Jewish music business.
“I want to be able to appeal to kids across the board,” explained Tanenbaum. “They are there and we cannot forget them. I want to speak to them through songs and live concerts.”
As he has played to audiences of 40,000 to 50,000 on Lag B’Omer, there seems to be nothing that Tanenbaum can’t handle, but some of his most memorable performances were actually rather small.
“When I go to hospitals, to me that is an amazing experience,” said Tanenbaum. “It’s one thing when you are playing to a massive audience on Lag B’Omer and you see those heads bobbing up and down, but to play to one child in a hospital, that is very, very different, trying to get that one kid to smile. When I walk out of there, it is really an incredible feeling.”
Uncle Moishy’s all new website, www.unclemoishyworld.com, is a treasure trove of activity for children who are instantly welcomed by an all-new graphic image that captures Tanenbaum’s smiling face and cheerful energy which have been his trademarks for decades. In addition to being able to view upcoming concerts as part of Uncle Moishy’s year-long Welcome concert tour, visitors can take part in an ongoing chesed contest, play an assortment of games, do puzzles and can purchase both the Welcome CD and a plush Uncle Moishy doll, complete with tzitzis and a microphone.
While Welcome may feature a big band sound, Tanenbaum is able to reproduce that more sophisticated level of music even at small venues, where he is accompanied by a keyboard player, a drummer and an orchestral sound track. He noted that while others have tried to copy his style, imitations are exactly that – imitations.
“When someone speaks from the heart, his words go straight to the listener’s heart,” explained Tanenbaum. “Whether I am on stage or off stage, it is always my soul that is out there, reaching out to the children. The most important thing is for each of us to be ourselves and that is an important message for both adults and children. Be the real you.”