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July 31, 2015 / 15 Av, 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)

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.

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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