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The Boys in the Band

Barbara Bensoussan

How did a group of ragtag amateurs from the 1960s launch today’s Jewish music scene? We tracked down the young men who, more than half a century ago, brought a new sound to an old refrain

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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MUSIC MEN “It took a certain audacity to get up there with no training and play, but people had no expectations, so we could get away with it. What did the oilem know? They were happy to see someone with a yarmulke playing with a band.” Top row left to right: Motty Parnes a”h, Yisroel Lamm, Manny Greebel, David Nulman. Middle row: Michoel Lamm, Chaim Fessel. Front row: Elliot Frankel, Motel Landesman, Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum a”h, Josh Goldberg, Feivie Mendlowitz, Shmuel Boruch Bagry

T he grainy black-and-white photo of a motley group of musicians, taken in 1963, provokes a multitude of questions. Who are these callow young men, with their sheepish grins, skinny ties, and suits of different colors? Why are there two accordions for one band? Why are there no drums? What sort of venue has two menorahs and an aron kodesh behind a curtain?

Fifty-four years later, it’s still up for debate. Shmuel Boruch Bagry remembers that “it was a rehearsal, in a shul in Brooklyn.” Yisroel Lamm says, “It was a Melaveh Malkah in Queens, Kew Gardens.” But both of them are there in the picture, and even if they can’t remember the place, they know exactly what group it was: It was the Pirchei band.

Pirchei Agudas Yisroel was formed back in the 1930s by the legendary Mike Tress z”l as a sort of boys’ club for frum kids, with learning, trips, concerts, and plays. In the 1960s, Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum z”l, a Pirchei leader who would become a master mechanech, camp director, producer of the early Pirchei records, and who would later found Torah Communications Network, decided to form an amateur Pirchei band.

“Eli kept tabs on who was musically talented,” says Yisroel Lamm, who went on to create Neginah Orchestra and is today one of the Jewish music scene’s most popular conductors and arrangers. Rabbi Teitelbaum summoned the more musically talented of his Pirchei boys to see if they could play together.

“I got a call from Eli,” remembers fellow musician Motel (Mark) Landesman. “He said, ‘We’re having a rehearsal, so come over!’ That was at the very beginning of the band.”

The idea was for them to play at Pirchei events, Melaveh Malkahs, and camps. But the initiative turned into much more than simply good clean fun. In 1963, creating a frum Jewish band was a novel project but an idea whose time had come, and those rank amateurs would ultimately transform into the pioneers of today’s Jewish music scene.

*

To understand why the Pirchei band became so important is to time travel back to New York in the early 1960s. There was no Neginah, no Neshama, no singing stars — basically no frum professional Jewish music scene at all. People who wanted a band for a simchah had very limited options. Rabbi Moshe (Manny) Greebel, a member of the original Pirchei band, remembers that the options included bandleader Rudy Teppel, already an older man, and Dave Wakeley.

“There was Paul Pincus and Dave Taras,” says David Nulman, another player originally from Scranton who’s been teaching music in schools for over four decades, is a music therapist, and has produced many recordings for children. “You had Yom Tov Ehrlich and his accordion, and the Stoliner Band. The Epstein brothers had a band — they were four Litvaks from the Lower East Side.” Their repertoire might have been limited, but then again, so was the breadth of Jewish music the Orthodox world enjoyed.

Yisroel Lamm started on an old trumpet that belonged to his grandfather in World War I. Today he’s a household name in Jewish music

Back then everyone had a radio and some had televisions, but media saturation was far more restricted. Hence, music was as much a DIY hobby as a spectator sport. There were fewer professionals, but lots more amateurs. “When I was growing up, it was a normal thing for kids in a frum family to take music lessons,” says Mr. Landesman. “Some guys even worked their way through college playing in bands.”

Yeshiva Torah Vodaath had a student orchestra to play at graduations, directed by a public school teacher. “We loved doing that,” Landesman chuckles. “We were allowed to skip class to go to rehearsals. And some of the guys in that orchestra went on to become major talmidei chachamim.”

Nevertheless, playing music professionally was not seen by most parents as an appropriate career for a nice Jewish boy. “The European parents in particular thought it was a shanda to be a professional musician,” says Michoel Lamm, a player whose brother Yisroel would become a household name in Jewish music. “In Europe, the musicians were the klezmorim, the guys playing in the street with a cap on the ground for coins.” Playing with a band was even more anathema in the chassidic world, although Lamm notes how radically things have changed. “Today,” he says, “the chassidim have taken over the Jewish music industry.”

At the time, secular music was turning from the ballads of the 1940s toward the rock and roll of the ’50s and ’60s. The agitated rhythms and inappropriate lyrics were offensive to Orthodox sensibilities; Beatlemania, with its long-haired men and screaming groupies, loomed on the horizon. Guitar was considered verboten, David Nulman recalls, because those entertainers who introduced it played it in vulgar ways. “I knew one guy who used to put his guitar in a paper bag to hide it,” he says.

Whistling in the Dark

The young men in the above picture had never given any thought to playing music professionally. They were first and foremost Pirchei boys, and music was simply a part of the Pirchei experience.

Shmuel Boruch Bagry, a nephew of Mike Tress, first met Eli Teitelbaum when Bagry was a nine- year-old camper and Teitelbaum a 15-year-old counselor at Camp Agudah. “He was playing the harmonica over the loudspeaker, and it sounded like an accordion,” Bagry recalls.

Teitelbaum wasn’t a top-tier musical talent, but he was a genius when it came to launching revolutionary initiatives in the Jewish community, be it Jewish music, Dial-a-Daf and other dial-up shiurim, or Camp Sdei Chemed. In addition, he was a natural leader with a charisma and maturity that ensured the boys followed him devotedly.

“He was a big brother to all of us,” Bagry says. “We adored him. He never lost his cool, he helped us grow up. But he was also ahead of his time, a miracle maker, like a Steve Jobs of Jewish music.”

It was Eli Teitelbaum who had the idea to bring Pirchei boys together to play instruments. The goal was simply to have fun, not to get to Carnegie Hall; what they lacked in skill, they made up for in enthusiasm. “Eli would put together these ridiculous groups,” David Nulman remembers. “He’d have two accordions, or two drummers. What band needs that? But we didn’t care — nobody had any illusions of being Jascha Heifetz.”

In fact, when Nulman and his friends did hear a Heifetz recording and realized just how far they were from that level of virtuosity, they’d console themselves by joking, “Fine, he does nice Mozart, but can he play ‘Od Yishama’?”

“But the truth is that Mozart doesn’t play on your heartstrings the way Jewish music does,” Nulman feels compelled to point out. “It doesn’t express the Jewish past and future.”

The composition of the Pirchei band shifted depending on who was around, and the boys would take turns leading it. With no pretensions to virtuosity, no one could be a diva; with no profit motive, there were no politics.

“It was simply a communal effort to produce simchas hachayim,” Nulman says.

Bagry adds, “We just loved the music and the camaraderie. We were a chevreh of friends who really loved being together.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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