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First Things First

Sara Miriam Gross and Leah Reisman

Our lives today are full of so many kosher amenities — delicious foods, books and toys, and music and entertainment. How did all of this come to be?

Monday, April 09, 2018

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D id your grandparents ever tell you about their childhoods? I bet they never curled up on the couch with a bunch of kosher kids’ magazines. They probably never played with Jewish-themed toys like Mitzvah Kinder. And they surely never listened to dozens of Jewish songs on an iPod or went to sleepaway camp.

Our lives today are full of so many kosher amenities — delicious foods, books and toys, and music and entertainment. How did all of this come to be, and who made it happen? Let’s talk to some pioneers who forged the way for the colorful and exciting world of Yiddishkeit that we enjoy so much today. 

Yisroel Lamm: The Perfect Note

By Leah Reisman

Way before there were CDs, there were records. There may still be some in your parents’ basement. If you’re really lucky, there might also be a working record player, so you can listen to the sound of music from the 1960s. There wasn’t much of a selection of Jewish music to choose from in those days, but today we’re bombarded with new performers every season, and new songs every week. How did the Jewish music scene transform from a few old records into a massive industry? One man helped make it all happen.

The name Yisroel Lamm is synonymous with the best of Jewish music. As one of the first frum arrangers and conductors, he helped Jewish music grow from a small group of musicians into a burgeoning industry that keeps us all singing and dancing without pause.

“I didn’t start playing music until I was a teenager,” Yisroel relates. “One summer, when I was in Camp Agudah, I shared a room with Sruly Teitelbaum, the brother of the famous Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum. Sruly played the trumpet, and so over the summer I would pick it up here and there. By then end of the summer I was playing a few songs. Shortly afterward, I found an old trumpet in my grandfather’s closet. He told me that he played it many years before, when he was a soldier in US Army.

“Eventually, I bought my own instrument and started playing at weddings. I also arranged the first live band at the Camp Munk circus one year. The arrangements were crude, but Isaac Gross, the head of Negina Orchestra, heard about it, and asked me to arrange an album for him. I told him I didn’t know anything about arranging, but I decided to give it a try. So I started reading books and listening to melodies, to learn how to arrange music properly.”


That led him to consider music as a career.

“But everyone was very discouraging,” Yisroel remembers.

His rebbeim didn’t like the idea of a yeshivah bochur performing in a band. His parents told him he needed to have a backup career, so he would have a stable source of income. In the end, Yisroel went to school to study engineering, but he also spent a lot of time making recordings and playing at weddings.

Yisroel was torn. His classmates could see that his heart was obviously not in engineering, but then he would show up at the studio with his textbooks in hand, and his fellow musicians would say that his heart wasn’t in the music.

Lucky for us, the music won.

Ultimately, Yisroel Lamm became the first frum music conductor. In the 1980s he became involved in the first HASC concert at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where famous and talented musicians all over the world dream of performing. Yisroel arranged the music, but he thought they would hire a professional conductor.

The producer, Sheya Mendlowitz, had other ideas. “You’re going to do it,” he told Yisroel. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 704)

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