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Make Them Sing

Yisroel Besser

He doesn’t hold a mike or play any instrument — but the young man with the baton in hand is leaving a powerful stamp on a new wave of Jewish music. How did this scion of the yeshivah world master the intricacies of musical arrangement, and how does he keep his sense of proportion when the world’s an ever-grander stage?

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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LEARNING BY EAR Yoeli Dickman was less than ten years old when he summoned the concentration to study the notes, painstakingly matching them up with the songs in his Bnei Brak cheder repertoire: London Boys Choir, Rebbi Alter, Miami Boys Choir (Photos: Shloimy Cohen)

It’s meant to be the backdrop, the audio equivalent of a ring setting that allows the diamond to shine. But sometimes you can’t help turning in your seat and saying, “Whoa, where’s that music coming from?” 

More often than not these days, it’s coming from a bright-eyed, slim young man who waves his baton with intense concentration. When the music is over and he gets to relax, his smile comes easily — a smile that bespeaks his happy astonishment at the fact that he gets to do this for a living. 

“Yoeli Dickman,” says producer Yossi Rubin, “is the most complete conductor I’ve ever seen. He literally influences every aspect of a song, from the rhythm, to the choice of instruments, to the vocal arrangements, all of it. And Jewish music is just learning to appreciate his sound.” 

Through a Window 

It started almost by accident. Yoeli Dickman was only nine years old, walking home from cheder one evening when he fell down the hole into Wonderland. The sounds from a nondescript Bnei Brak building wafted into the night and summoned him. Enchanted, he stopped, then skipped up the steps two at a time to the second floor. He came to the door, turned the handle, and found that it was locked. The music beckoned, and he couldn’t just walk away: he looked up and saw a dusty window off to one side. After carrying up a rickety chair from the street, he was able to stand on his tiptoes and peer through the grimy window. 

Inside, 50 musicians were arranged in a semicircle, creating the richest sound he’d ever heard, as conductor Dr. Mordechai Sobol led them with baton in hand. Yoeli didn’t know that he was seeing a rehearsal for an upcoming concert. But he knew that he’d discovered a piece of himself. 

He finally tore himself away and went home — a home not without its music. 

“My father serves as the baal tefillah in the shul of the Chevron yeshivah alumni in Bnei Brak,” he says, revisiting those early days. “As a child, I would spend the entire davening at my father’s side at the amud.” 

The nusach of Chevron was the first song that baked itself into Yoeli’s neshamah. “My paternal grandmother is a sister of Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi and Rav Yitzchak Ezrachi. They are both roshei yeshivah and major talmidei chachamim, but as a child, primary to me was that they exude such chiyus, such spirit.” 

Even today, he still associates that power with Chevron. “It becomes part of your neshamah and takes you somewhere. It still exists in my music.” 

A Language Mastered 

Yoeli’s parents recognized his gift. “They bought me a tiny Casio keyboard and if I was a good boy in cheder, I got to play for a few minutes at night. I figured out one song, and I played it again and again.” 

He sings that first niggun: “Ah, ah ah ah ah ah ah,” the refrain that ushers in the Yamim Noraim, sung before Barechu at Maariv. 

The next tune that little Yoeli picked out on his Casio was the niggun of Megillas Eichah. “There’s something very deep and moving about it. It spoke to me, even as a young child.” 

The child understood that he’d need to master this language, and he taught himself to read music. “My grandmother was a music teacher, and I got sheet music from her. I sat with cassette tapes, found the songs in the music books, and started to learn the language, step after step. It was clear to me that I wouldn’t have the chance to study professionally, and it was up to me to unlock the secrets of those black lines and dots.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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