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Music Lessons

Yisroel Besser

To you and me, Baruch Levine is the talented composer of hit songs like “Vezakeini” and “Halo Yadahta.” But to the boys at yeshivah ketanah in Waterbury, Connecticut, he’s Rabbi Baruch, their fifth-grade rebbi. How does he juggle both roles, and which one comes first? A surprising look at a musician who’s truly a class act.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

baruch levineIt was on a wet porch somewhere on one of those windy streets of Geula. Rain had made theJerusalemstones slippery, and the stairs were narrow, but the sound pulled us up — strains of a guitar and a loud, full-voiced singing.

On the porch were a few long tables covered with bowls of cholent and plates of kugel, some empty Super Drink containers, and even a few bottles of beer. The boys sitting around one of the tables were in their late teens. Most were sporting long hair, stubble, jeans, and tight tee-shirts; all were singing, — eyes shut tight, their bravado gone, and their Yiddishe chein unmistakable.

Near the head of that table sat a Yerushalmi with wise eyes, curly peyos and an immense pair of tallis kattan over his white shirt, leading the singing. This was Rav Gamliel Rabinovitch, one of the tzaddikim of Jerusalem. Near him sat a yungerman — from my neighborhood, Maalot Dafna, who was playing the guitar. His natural buoyancy was mirrored by the music coming out of the instrument; he and this vessel of polished wood were one.

Years later, when Baruch Levine released his first album, that image of him, Rav Gamliel, and the teens at that Thursday night gathering arose in my mind. In that album, and in each succeeding one, he captured the magic, the charisma and warmth of the music we heard on that porch.

GIVE ME HARMONY

The first glimpse a visitor gets when entering Waterbury, Connecticut, a city located 77 miles northeast of New York City, is one of urban blight: boarded up buildings and poorly-kept homes. But once you get near the area where the frum community lives, there is a marked shift. Attractive Victorian homes line the leafy, well-kept streets. The yeshivah is an impressive former shul that is topped by a distinctive dome.

Baruch Levine comes bounding out of the shul to meet us.  And as he approaches, I remember this about him: he was the one with the irritatingly cheerful “good mornings” before Shacharis, chirpy and exuberant when others could barely manage a grunt.

Today, he teachers fifth grade and serves as sgan menahel at the community’s elementary school, but he hasn’t lost his youthful exuberance. He’s also become a leading composer and singer, transplanting the Torah and song of Yerushalayim to distantConnecticut.

Baruch always had rhythm, even as a child inToronto. His nursery school class once had a famous visitor, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the story goes that the teachers made sure that little Baruch was seated right next to the singer, since he was the only one capable of  “giving” harmony. Baruch says he doesn’t remember the seating arrangements, but he does remember how the singer treated the little kids to a “real concert,” singing as if he was facing a crowd of hundreds.

But the real start of his musical journey was at summer camp. As a ten-year-old boy who was new to the camp, he wasn’t an automatic participant in the cheering and fun at Agudah Toronto. “But, someone suggested that I join the choir, and there I found a place to express myself.”

He became that summer’s star, and got his first piece of good advice regarding his talent. “I got a letter from my parents, and they wrote how happy they were to hear that I was singing in public. But they cautioned me, ‘Remember that it’s just a gift from Hashem, nothing more, and it doesn’t change who you are.’ That sure kept me in line.”

As an educator himself, today he is able to reflect on the evolution of a singer, and how to do it right. “My father, Rabbi Michoel Levine, is a master rebbi. I was always being asked to sing at weddings or bar mitzvahs, but my parents didn’t allow me to accept. If it was a family simchah, however, they encouraged me to sing. They showed me the balance, that everything has a time and a place.”

The Marvelous Midos Machine was then being produced in Toronto, and Baruch tried out — and didn’t get in. He grins. “Last year, they produced a fourth volume, after a break of 20 years, and I’m on that one. I got it out of my system. For my children, it’s thehigh point of my career.”

  

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