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December 20, 2014 / 28 Kislev, 5775
 
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The Man Whose Tunes Grace Shabbos Tables Worldwide: An Interview with Composer Ben Zion Shenker

Ben Zion Shenker (Photo courtesy of Milken Archive of Jewish Music)

Ben Zion Shenker (Photo courtesy of Milken Archive of Jewish Music)

You may not know his name, but if you sing “Eishes Chayil” on Friday night, you are familiar with his music.

Ben Zion Shenker, 88, has composed roughly 500 songs in his lifetime, including “Eishes Chayil” (completed in 1953), “Mizmor L’David, Hashem ro’i” (composed in 1946), and “Yasis Alayich” (composed in 1965). In addition, he has published several records of the music of Modzitz – a Polish Chassidus – including the very first chassidic record in the United States, “Modzitzer Melave Malke,” released in 1956.

Recently dubbed “the greatest living figure of chassidic music” by NPR, Shenker still composes several new pieces every year. He is currently recording an album of some of his Haggadah compositions, which he hopes will be out before Pesach.

The Jewish Press interviewed him at his home in Flatbush last week.

The Jewish Press: Where were you born?

Shenker: In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, 1925. My parents came to America in 1921. Both of them came from small towns not far from Lublin.

How did you first get involved in music?

Well, music is something you have to be born with. My early involvement didn’t come until I was about 12 years old when I joined a choir led by a fellow by the name of Joshua Weisser. He heard me singing one Shabbos…and he told my father he’d like me to join his choir. But my father said to him, “I don’t think the choir is for him. He’s a yeshiva boy.”

Choirs at that time weren’t known for their religiosity, and he thought I was too young to go away from home.

This was a choir that accompanied chazzanim in shul?

Yes, you don’t have too many of them now, but at one time all the big shuls had chazzanim and choirs. It was almost a given.

In any event, my father told him he didn’t think it was a good idea. But Weisser found out where I lived and went to speak to my mother. My mother told him the same thing. But [he was persistent] and promised that wherever we went he would put me up at the rabbi’s house or the finest ba’al habayis….

So I joined and became the alto soloist. He had special solos for me; he even wrote some new ones because I was able to do what they call a coloratura, which is like a shalsheles. Most kids couldn’t do it, but I had the aptitude because I used to listen to a lot of chazzanushe records when I was a kid.

In fact, when I was three or four years old, maybe even younger, we had a Victrola player in the house, and my mother would sit me down in front of it for hours with a pack of chazzanushe records. So I was pretty well advanced as far as my knowledge of chazzanus, and Weisser appreciated that.

Is it true you also had your own radio program at age 13?

I had a 15-minute feature on one of the Jewish radio station in downtown Brooklyn. When I started off, it was on a Sunday afternoon, around 12:00. So I had to get permission from the yeshiva to leave. My teacher was Rav Pam – it was his first year teaching in Mesivta Torah Vodaas – so I went over to him and told him I have a radio program and have to leave at 11. He said, “A radio program?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

He said, “I can’t give you permission. You have to go to the principal, Rabbi [Shraga Feivel] Mendlowitz. So I went to Rabbi Mendlowitz, and he also looked at me…and had a little hard time giving me permission. But he [eventually agreed]. He said, “Number one, you have to come back to the second seder. Secondly, I don’t want you to hang around there. Go there, do your job, and leave. Don’t make any friends with anybody.” Those were the terms.

How did your musical association with Modzitz start?

That happened when I was 15. The Modzitzer Rebbe came here in 1941 as a refugee from Poland. He was invited for a Shabbos in Bed-Stuy, and at the Shabbos meal – to which my father and I had been invited – there was a book on the sofa behind the Rebbe called LaChassidim Mizmor, with little biographies of all the rebbeim who were known as composers and singers. The book also had a biography of the Modzitzer Rebbe, and in it were some musical notations. I was studying music at the time and knew how to read, so I started singing to myself. The Rebbe overheard and said, “You can read notes?” So I said, “A little bit, yeah.” He said, “Let me hear, let me hear.”

So I started reading his own niggunim and he became very excited. Later, he asked me to sing Shir Hama’alos before bentching, so I sang one of his own niggunim that I had learned from a Lubavitcher friend who had studied in yeshiva in Otwok. The Modzitzer Rebbe was [based in Otwok after WWI] and my friend heard the Rebbe singing his niggunim at Shalosh Seudos. The Rebbe was so surprised, though, because the niggun was made in 1938, I think, and this was 1941. How did it ever get to America so quickly?….

[Anyways, to make a long story short, I soon] became his musical secretary. Any time he made a new niggun I was the one who notated it.

How many pieces did you notate?

About 100 probably, but he had many more. In fact, to the present day, they keep discovering compositions by him and his father which were never notated. In Israel they have a machon that devotes itself to collecting all of Modzitzer niggunim, starting from the first Rebbe.

How many Modzitzer niggunim do you know?

About 1,000 at least, including from the Rebbe’s father and son. The son was a very prolific composer also…. Some of his niggunim became very popular, like the one for “Lechah Dodi”: Dum di di dum dum, dum di di dum dum, lo seivoshi

Who wrote the Modzitzer “Ezkara” which famously takes almost a half hour to sing?

That was the Rebbe’s father, Reb Yisrael. He had a very bad case of diabetes, and he developed sores on his leg until it became gangrenous. So he went to the doctors in Warsaw, and they said, “Something has to be done because you might chalilah die.” So they advised him to go to Berlin where there was a surgeon who was very well known at that time.

When he was in Berlin, he looked at how beautiful the city was, and the words “Ezkara Elokim v’ehemaya bir’osi kol ir al tila benuyah… – I remember you, God, and I tremble when I see every city on its pedestal, but the city of God, Yerushalayim, is down in the depth” came to him. It’s a tefillah we say in Ne’ilah.

The story is told that he asked the doctor not to have anesthesia because at that time anesthesia was still in the early stages, and there was a rumor that it could have an effect on your mind. So he had the surgery without anesthesia, and [he is said to have composed this piece during the surgery].

Did you feel out of place at that first Shabbos meal with the Modzitzer Rebbe? After all, you weren’t a Modzitzer chassid.

My father was not a Modzitzer chassid, but we were all chassidim. My father was a Trisker chassid, which comes from Chernobyl Chassidus. Trisk and about seven other Chassidusin – Skver, Tolna, Rachmistrivka… – are all einiklach of Chernobyl.

You have to remember that Torah Vodaas was also considered more or less a very chassidic yeshiva because Rav Shraga Feivel was a chassidishe guy.

Your two most famous compositions are probably “Eishes Chayil” and “Mizmor L’David.” How did you come up with these two pieces?

You never know how these things come to your head. The “Mizmor L’David” I composed in Palestine in 1946. It came to me while sitting in my uncle’s house for Shalosh Seudos….

Eishes Chayil” I composed later on when I was married already. I can’t say it came to me in one sitting. It was something I worked on. Every Friday night I had thoughts about it until finally I finalized it in 1953.

Your “Eishes Chayil” is sung almost everywhere. What tune did people sing before yours?

In my parents’ house, we never even sang “Eishes Chayil.”

There are [tunes for] “Eishes Chayil” from the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov, but I don’t even know them. There is one from Rav Nachman Breslover, which I once saw notated in some place.

What other songs of yours are famous?

Well, there’s one that’s becoming very popular in Israel now at all the chassidishe weddings. It’s called “Hatov, hatov.” In fact, about four weeks ago, I got a call from Avraham Fried. He was searching the Internet and heard me singing “Hatov, hatov” at a gathering with the present Modzitzer Rebbe this past Chanukah.

“I got to have that song,” he told me, “I love it.” So I invited him over to the house, he recorded it for himself, and he’ll get back to me probably.

You’ve composed something like 500 pieces of music. Do you remember them all?

Well, if you don’t sing them, you forget them. In fact, we have a kumzits every Chol HaMoed, and, beside myself, I usually ask two of my friends to sing something because I want to take a little bit of rest. So one of them started singing a song [this year] that was familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. He went through the whole thing, and I said, “What is that song?” It turns out it was one of my own.

If someone wanted to listen to your music, where could he hear it?

Twice a year we have a kumzits, and we also have gatherings in the Modzitz shtiebel on Coney Island Ave. on the yahrzeit of each of [the Modzitz Rebbes]. And then there are 12 CDs that are being sold now in Judaica stores. Out of the 12, I would say that about seven are Modzitz and five are mine.

What’s your opinion of the current state of Jewish music?

I’m not a big chassid of contemporary Jewish music because what they’re trying to do is imitate goyishe music. Sometimes they latch onto a song to holy words that have no shaichus whatsoever with the niggun, and that bothers me a little bit.

Wasn’t Eastern European Jewish music also influenced by its environs?

That’s true, there were influences, but the songs sounded Jewish – put it that way – whereas some of the songs you hear coming out now don’t. There’s all these different kinds of styles that they use now – even rap. It’s hard to go along with that kind of situation.

You’re 88 years old and still composing. Some people your age would retire and take it easy.

Believe me, sometimes I wonder why I’m not doing that. But in a way, it keeps me alive; it keeps me a little young also.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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