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Sound of Life

Yisroel Besser

Yosef Moshe Kahana showed the production world that even modern listeners connect to “tish” music — that unmistakable sound that fills the soul and replenishes the body like a good cup of warm tea.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“What about Reb Yosef Moshe Kahana?” My friend, manager of a Jewish music superstore in the heart of Jerusalem, is suggesting different potential interviewees and he sandwiches this name between two industry icons. I look at him blankly. “Who?” With the rhythm of a poker player, my friend slaps down a series of albums on his counter. “This is it, L’chaim Tish. Everyone buys it.” He presses play on the surround-sound system and the store is filled with music. It’s not the type of music that requires you to identify genre or style; it’s just music, filling your insides like the first sip of tea, giving you a vague sense of nostalgia for something you might never have known. “Okay,” I turn back to my friend, “please connect me.”   Backdrop Shabbos has already been out for several hours, but you would never know it in this neighborhood. The serenity of Shabbos in Kiryat Belz hasn’t yet given way to the bustle of the new week, and the leisurely pace of shtreimel-and-beketshe-clad pedestrians tells me that no one is any hurry to let go. Reb Yosef Moshe Kahana lives in the shadow of the great Belzer shul, and the building —and its message — is a steady backdrop to his work. The music he shares with the world has been called pure and uplifting, and while Belz, its rebbe, and its rhythm influence his work, the gift of song was ensconced inside him since way back, before the building even stood, when the chassidus itself was just relearning how to sing. When he was a child in the late 1960s, there wasn’t much music coming from the row houses of Jeanne Mance Street, where Montreal’s chassidic community is headquartered. Everyone was too busy trying to live again. “My parents were survivors, and so were most of their friends,” he recalls. “Everyone was so overwhelmed. It wasn’t like today, when music is such a part of the culture. Getting through the day took lots of energy.” But there were simchahs: When there was a chasunah, everyone came. Families were small. Each simchah was an occasion. And little Yosef Moshe Kahana was that child, standing next to the musician, eyes opened wide. “And my parents understood. They bought me a record player, and filled my world with Reb Ben Tzion Shenker and Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich, Reb Duvid Werdyger, and Chabad.” Yosef Moshe loved the music, but he discovered his real passion when he first heard grammen, rhyming songs. It was the era of the great badchan, Reb Chaim Mendel Mermelstein. “If you worked hard, you could get one of the coveted recordings of Reb Chaim Mendel, tapes passed around from hand to hand.” But there was little time for the pursuit of badchanus tapes. “I was a yeshivah bochur. Who had time for music?”

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