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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 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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