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Keeper of the Songs

David Damen

Reb Ben Zion Shenker, who passed away last week at 91, bequeathed an enduring legacy of how profound, exacting neginah can make the soul soar

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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MUSICAL MESORAH Reb Ben Zion’s music belongs to everyone, yet he was the guardian of the musical mesorah of his rebbes: Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu (the Imrei Aish), Rebbe Shaul Elazar Yedidya (the Imrei Shaul), Rebbe Yisrael Dan (the Nachalas Dan), and Rebbe Chaim Shaul (the current Rebbe) (Photos: Mishpacha Archives)

W hen I heard the news of Reb Ben Zion Shenker’s passing, it became clear to me why the interview from a most inspiring day I spent with the legendary composer and singer back in 2006 was still sitting in my personal archives. Reb Ben Zion was a young 82 then, his fingers dexterously flitting over the piano keys in his cozy Flatbush living room. A harmony of enchanted notes filled the house, accompanied by that distinctive name-brand voice, expressive, stirring, and pleading.

That’s how on an ordinary Tuesday morning, we found ourselves taking part in a kumzitz. Reb Ben Zion, noted mechanech and confidant Rav Aharon Moshe Orlander, and I all closed our eyes and sang song after song — the original Modzhitzer “Hayom Haras Olam” flowing into “V’ye’esayu” and the Imrei Shaul’s famous Rosh Hashanah niggun. These are among the hundreds of niggunim Modzhitz is famous for, classics of chassidic music in particular and Jewish music in general, and inseparable from Ben Zion Shenker himself, the voice that made these niggunim loved for decades by Jews all over the world. 

Each time he mentioned a song, Reb Ben Zion would knock once or twice on the table and begin to sing. We spoke and we sang, we sang and we spoke. “It all started one Shabbos morning,” said slipper-clad Reb Ben Zion as he recalled the day he went from being a typical Brooklyn teenager to a true chassid, a Modzhitzer to his core and more than anyone else, a symbol of the beautiful music of the chassidus. “We davened in a Polish shteibel in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Reb Ben Zion recounted, going back in time to Shabbos Parshas Noach of 1940. “The news spread quickly — the Modzhitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Shaul [Rav Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub], had just come to Williamsburg, having arrived through Japan via San Francisco. My father wasn’t a Modzhitzer — he was a Trisker chassid — but we walked to the Rebbe’s tish after the seudah on Shabbos night.

A few months later, the Rebbe was invited to our neighborhood. The tish at night was open to the public but the next morning’s was by invitation only, and the Rebbe pointed to my father who, eager to reattach himself to a rebbe from his native Poland, had become very close to him and tried never to miss a tish even though it meant a long walk.

“I remember it like yesterday. I was together with my father and brother, crowded with dozens of others into the Rebbe’s room, and there was a couch behind the Rebbe’s seat where I spotted a book of sheet music for the Modzhitzer niggunim by chassidic music expert Moshe Shimon Geshuri. I was pretty good at reading music, and without thinking I picked up the book and began humming the tunes. Suddenly, the Rebbe turned and asked, ‘Who’s that singing?’ “Me,” I answered meekly.

‘You know how to read notes?’ he asked. “A little,” I replied.

‘Keep singing!’ he instructed me, and so there I was, a teenager singing in front of the oilem.”

Unexpected Team

From that Shabbos on, Reb Ben Zion knew he’d found his place in the shadow of the Rebbe’s magnetic personality and stirring compositions.

And the Rebbe found Ben Zion. “Whenever the Rebbe composed a new song, he would call me and say, ‘Ben Zion — write it down!’ The Rebbe sang, and I wrote.

“As much as he was an icon, he knew his talent was a gift. He was a musical genius and a real anav,” says Reb Abish Brodt

“One Erev Rosh Hashanah after Shacharis, I passed the Rebbe’s house together with my good friend Rav Moshe Wolfson [today Rosh Yeshivas Emunas Yisrael and considered among the gedolei Torah and mussar of our generation]. The Rebbe called us up to his room and he taught us his famous composition, ‘Mechalkel Chaim.’ We both listened, and then I wrote down the notes.”

Few people know about this special friendship. Reb Ben Zion z”l and ybl”c Rav Moshe Wolfson were extremely close; both were students in Torah Vodaath, and both spent a lot of time around the Modzitzer Rebbe, learning his Torah, studying his avodas Hashem, and imbibing his music.

“Once when we were learning together in the Rebbe’s beis medrash,” Reb Ben Zion recalled, “Rav Yitzchak Hutner was visiting the Rebbe, and on his way out he noticed us through an open window. The Rebbe pointed to us and told Rav Hutner with obvious pride, ‘Ihr zet? Dos zehnen meiner bochurim (You see? These are my bochurim)!’ ”

“Rav Hutner admired the Rebbe very much and visited him regularly. They knew each other from Warsaw. In fact, Rav Hutner was very curious about how the Rebbe composed and would often ask me about this avodah — when he worked on composing and how he went about it.”

For a while there was a third partner to this friendship — Reb Shlomo Carlebach. He had arrived in New York from Europe in 1939 and was a star talmid in both Torah Vodaath and Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, where Rav Hutner gave him semichah. The threesome broke up when Reb Shlomo chose to go off on his own unconventional path, but Rav Wolfson and Reb Ben Zion continued to stay close and even maintained an exceptional musical partnership. Rav Moshe Wolfson has a vibrant musical soul, as anyone who’s ever been to an Emunas Yisrael tisch can attest to. The two often collaborated on compositions.

In fact, Reb Ben Zion’s classic “Hamavdil” was their joint effort. “It was in 1953, and Rav Shraga Feivel [Mendlowitz] has just established the Aish Das institute for training bochurim to be teachers — a precursor to Torah Umesorah. Rav Simcha Wasserman was in charge, Rav Shimon Schwab taught public speaking, and Rav Mendel Zaks gave mussar shiurim. It was run in the style of a camp, but it had a distinctly yeshivish atmosphere. What did I have to do with it? I guess Reb Shraga Feivel was looking for someone to sing… So I walked there with Rav Moshe. On the way, I composed the melody and Rav Moshe said, ‘S’iz ah gevaldiger shtikel’ (it’s an incredible piece). I think it will work if you put it to the words of Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol.’ ”

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