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On Site: An Empty Vessel Makes the Best Sound

Margie Pensak

He started out as a hard rocker, but these days Z.Z. Ludwick is playing to the tune of Rebbe Nachman. Now his hands create song from wood and string, while his soul sings the music of ancient wisdom

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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ANCIENT MUSIC, NEW LIFE Zev Zalman (“Z.Z.”) Ludwick shares that one of the most meaningful facets of his job is bringing the voice of an old instrument back to life (Photos: Esky Cook)

L udwick’s House of Violin, as the name suggests, is just that — violins everywhere (and a cello here and there), overtaking many a room of Zev Zalman (“Z.Z.”) and Sherrie Ludwick’s cozy home on a tucked-away side street in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Z.Z., 53, the very unassuming, multitalented, heavy-metal rock star-turned-luthier/owner, graciously welcomes us at the front door wearing a black baseball cap that covers his closely shaven head. His long salt-and-pepper beard would suit a rebbe or an aging rocker — take your pick — but not his long, twirled Breslov peyos, which fall to the top of his black work apron.

Unfinished Andrei Dinu violins, made in Romania, line the wall of Z.Z.’s showroom — a converted bedroom sporting whimsical curtains with musical staves and notes. After varnishing, he will precisely plane the fingerboard to the appropriate arch, cut the bridge, and install the hardware and sound post. It takes between 250 to 300 hours to build a violin from scratch. Student instruments, the cheapest violins he sells, are priced at $1,300 to $2,000.

He’s been playing the violin since the age of eight, though the bullies at school taunted him for his choice. “I was a little guy and carrying a violin was not the coolest thing in the world,” recalls Z.Z.

At 16, Z.Z. started playing electric bass and joined a heavy-metal band when he was 19. After many years, he got into acoustic music and played the mandolin and banjo in his popular band, The Sinai Mountain Boys. They played Jewish Bluegrass concerts at the Kennedy Center and The Strathmore, among other venues.

But lately — a reflection of his life in general — he’s turned to more chassidic numbers.

“I’ve been getting into Breslov music in the last six or seven years, so I wanted to just immerse myself in violin,” he says.

And with that, Z.Z. picks up his own violin, puts bow to strings, and his story, like his music, begins to unfold.

Ice Water Challenge

Z.Z.’s baal teshuvah journey began in 1999, when he was 35 years old. Though he has a famous baal teshuvah brother — Rabbi Lazer Brody, translator of The Garden of Emuna and author of other books — it wasn’t until Z.Z. was invited to Rabbi Brody’s son’s wedding that he got his first real taste of chassidish Yiddishkeit. (Rabbi Brody took his mother’s last name to honor and remember a family that was decimated by the Holocaust.)

“At the time, I had long hair, earrings and was on drugs, but my nephew insisted that ‘Uncle Robbie’ come to the wedding,” he remembers. “So I promised I would be on my best behavior.”

The wedding took place on Lag B’omer, so the night before, Lazer, his son, and Z.Z. visited Meron and the Ari’s mikveh in Tzfas. “I didn’t even know what a mikveh was,” Z.Z. recalls. “When I went into the mikveh it was freezing cold. Someone said to me, ‘You’re in trouble now! Whoever goes to the Ari’s mikveh becomes a baal teshuvah.’”

He calls that dunk in the mikveh an “amazing experience” and later, during the sheva brachos, he noted something special about chassidim, a quality that he lacked at the time. “I noticed the joy they had,” he says.

He returned to the United States, and a couple of months later, his father died. That’s when he took stock and realized that if he didn’t change his ways and beat his drug and alcohol problems, he’d be joining his father in Shamayim.

“I’m very proud of the miracle that I’ve been drug-sober for 12 years and alcohol-sober for almost seven years,” he says. “I feel fantastic and my life has changed so much.”

Shortly after his father passed away, he married his first wife, the mother of his two daughters, but they were divorced after three years. Shortly thereafter, he married again, and committed to the Breslov path.

His new wife Sherrie had no qualms about Z.Z. growing his beard and peyos. He started immersing himself in Rebbe Nachman’s books and going to Uman every Rosh Hashanah. He practices hisbodedus — going into the woods or into a room by himself to mediate and reflect — a daily conversation with Hashem.

“I didn’t even know what a mikveh was,” Z.Z. recalls. “When I went into the mikveh it was freezing cold. Someone said to me, ‘You’re in trouble now! Whoever goes to the Ari’s mikveh becomes a baal teshuvah’”

"As Breslov husbands, we don’t come home and tell our wives our problems,” notes Z.Z. “We are supposed to come home like a light to illuminate, so why burden your spouse with your problems? I talk to Hashem and say, ‘Hashem, I can’t do these things by myself, without You!’ This is how I gave up drugs and alcohol — cold turkey — without AA, without NA.”

Z.Z. pauses to show a video of his latest annual trip to Rebbe Nachman’s kever in Uman, the central-Ukraine city located between Kiev and Odessa.

“This is Motzaei Shabbos,” Z.Z. says, narrating above the blaring Jewish music and 40,000 exuberant voices. “Look,” he points out, “we have guys with black kippahs, we have guys with no kippahs; we’ve got guys in dreadlocks… that’s Beri Weber singing... I’m showing you just some of the simchah… Here is my brother, Lazer; here’s Rav Arush, my brother’s rebbi, giving me a brachah.”

Playing for Messiah

His basement workshop, separated into two sections, is where all the magic happens. On one side is a pile of instruments in their hard and soft cases awaiting repair; on the other, his workbench and the tools he needs to build and restore violins and other stringed instruments.

“I really love working late at night, so a lot of times during the day, I find myself goofing off a little bit,” admits Z.Z., who pipes in classical music as he works. “Baruch Hashem, I have the luxury of going upstairs and learning a little Gemara in the middle of the day, or practicing my violin. So, I’ll work for an hour, then do my own thing for a half-hour, then come back downstairs to work some more — all through the day. Usually, between 8 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., when my creative juices flow much more, I come down to work. Some people call it Zen — I call it Zev!”

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