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The Music We Listen To: It’s Music to Their Ears

Avi Friedman

During Rabbi SukiBerry’s hours in the recording studio back in the “old days,” he presided over a full orchestra of musicians playing in sync, without any techie click track keeping them on tempo. Twenty-first century technology has made room for people like Shua Fried, one of the leading arrangers in the chassidic music world, whose musical tools and lexicon sing of an entirely different approach.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The innocence of youth led Rabbi Yisochor “Suki” Berry to write some of the most meaningful music of his career – music that plays in the background of many of our memories. Long before he made a name for himself as a leading mashpia and role model for youth at risk, he was an accomplished musician and arranger.

“I was 17 years old and I was learning in Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, on Coney Island Avenuein Brooklyn,” Rabbi Berryrecalls. “Living in BrightonBeach, I had a short walk to ocean, where I could sit quietly on a bench with a pencil and paper and just write. The peace and quiet allowed me to clear my head and concentrate undisturbed on the vastness of this world — then the music just came to me. Some of my best music came out of those sessions. That’s where I wrote the arrangements for Just One Shabbos and V’Chol Ma’aminim.”

To Shua Fried, the scene sounds idyllic, almost impossible. Fried, one of the leading arrangers for a new generation of chassidic singers, says of RabbiBerry’s description that it’s like a nice anecdote from a time gone by, but totally divorced from today’s reality.

“What a phenomenal story,” he says with a wistful smile. “Today, when you sit down with a singer, the first thing you do is start to think about the staging. What sort of album is it going to be? What sort of lighting will we need in the concerts? Is this a slow, neshamahdige song, or a fast rhythmic number to get people dancing at a wedding? There’s almost no concept of music for music’s sake.”

In 2012, he admits, the melodies are almost secondary, like an afterthought.

Despite the gap in approach and working style, Fried stresses the debt of gratitude today’s music industry owes to pioneers like Suki Berry, Dovid Golding, Yisrael Lamm, and other modern Jewish music pioneers. “These guys paved the road for us by experimenting and creating, without worrying about commercial concerns,” Fried says. “Today, we worry about playing to the crowd, but their innovations and passion are what set the stage for the industry we have today.”


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1) My Grand Plan

By S. Levi

INTRO: “Kinderlach,” our father said to us, “it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, when Chazal tell us that even the fish in the lakes tremble for fear of Hashem’s judgment.”

He looked around the table at each of us, 15-year-old Shmuel, 13-year-old Yekusiel, and me, 10-year-old Shprintzy.

“I want you each to choose a special mitzvah or middah that you’re going to be extra careful about,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me what you’ve picked — it can be your own private secret.”

EXCERPT: That night, I lay in bed, thinking. I wanted to do something on a grand scale, something that would make a big difference. I thought and thought, until the perfect idea hit me. I figured out the finer details and feeling very pleased with myself, I finally fell asleep.

The next day I wasted no time in putting my thoughts into actions. My father was a shochet in our shtetl, and we had chickens in the backyard.

I approached my father. “Tatty, do you mind if I have one little chick for keeps?”

“Why?” My father was puzzled. “They’re right outside and you could have one any time.”

“I know,” I hedged, “but um … you know, I’d love to have one I could really call my own.”

“Fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, and going back to the logs he was chopping for firewood.

Good, I congratulated myself. Phase 1 of my plan had been completed. Now for Phase 2. That would be a little trickier. But first, my little chick had to grow.


2) Characters in the Shtetl

Sanz, called Nowy Sacz in Polish, was a shtetl in Galicia, whose main claim to fame was its most distinguished resident, the renowned Divrei Chaim, Rav Chaim Halberstam ztz”l, the founder of the Sanzer dynasty.

Like every self-respecting shtetl, Sanz had an eclectic collection of colorful characters. Here are some:

EXCERPT: Chaim Levi Stern (Kiegel)

Although Chaim Levi Kiegel was an impoverished fellow, he used to collect money from others for the sole purpose of doing mitzvos. He had a mobile gemach on him, stored — where else? — in his massive boots. Anything he thought could ever be of use to anybody was stored there; tabak to sniff, cigarettes to smoke, petrol and stones with which to light those cigarettes, aspirins, and paper (a precious commodity in those days). Chaim Levi Kiegel had it all — free of charge. He was overjoyed when somebody found what he had been looking for in those great big boots.

Chaim Levi could usually be found the Chevra Shomrim shul, where boys on their way to cheder knew to pop in and say “A gut morgen [Good morning], Reb Chaim Levi,” and be rewarded with a lump of sugar or a bagel.

It was a pleasure to daven in Chevra Shomrim, for there was total silence during davening. Woe to the person who spoke in the middle of davening or during leining. Reb Chaim Levi would throw the offender a sharp look. If that didn’t help, he would step on his toes with his huge, heavy boots — hard. The soles were made from the thick rubber of a discarded tire so that the person who carried the weight of those boots well remembered not to speak during davening for a good many weeks after that.

After the Shabbos midday meal, Chaim Levi went around collecting leftover food such as cholent and kigel and distributed it to the poor wanderers who came to Sanz to spend Shabbos, exhausted and starving from their week’s arduous journeys, earning himself his name — Chaim Levi Kiegel.


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