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We’re One Big Orchestra

Yisroel Besser

Rivie Schwebel is an acclaimed singer, but he’s also a businessman and an askan who cares deeply for the Jewish people

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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HIGH NOTES Abie Rotenberg: “I consider Rivie to be much more than a singer. Music oozes out of him. It’s a legacy he inherited from his father, who combined tefillah and melody to bring himself and his mispallelim closer to Hashem. Rivie is also an amazing baal tefillah, but he’s extended that passion to popular Jewish music. His deep, rich voice is recognized the world over — not only for its unique timbre, but for the sincerity and depth of feeling he puts into each phrase” (Photos Shulim Goldring, Meir Haltovsky, Family archives)

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ou know that thing that music is meant to do? How it kind of makes us happy, but also wistful? How we feel nostalgic for times gone by, but also inspired about the day ahead?

Rivie Schwebel’s living room has a pretty similar effect, it turns out.

About half an hour into our interview, I excuse myself to cancel the next meeting. This feels like a place I don’t want to leave.

When chatting with the man with one of the most distinctive voices in Jewish music, the music and the setting becomes the metaphor: everything else falls into place. Rivie and his wife talk real-life responsibility to family, to the community, to the older generation, and the next generation.

Rivie’s in the middle of reminiscing about the old days in Queens, Friday afternoons sitting and singing with his friends Baruch Chait and Abie Rotenberg, when he exclaims, “Those were the best times, mamesh the best days ever. We need to recreate that, give our kids that kind of comfort and security in Yiddishkeit, in the future.”

He leans back in the armchair in the corner of a comfortable living room filled with seforim and family photos, graced with a large piano and picture of the Skverer Rebbe. “I don’t mean because we were just carefree kids, I’m talking about the whole era and culture. We knew our role, every Yid understood what was expected of him.”

And I feel like Rivie Schwebel is unwittingly — or perhaps consciously — sharing the secret of his famous voice, his style. If it’s not yet a genre, it should be. He’s looking back and looking forward all at once.

Ohr Yisroel in Queens was, its menahel Rabbi Nisson Wolpin z”l used to say, “perhaps the finest cheder America has ever seen.”

Reb Shea Geldzahler created a unique institution through hiring accomplished talmidei chachamim as rebbeim and setting no limits on how much a child could learn. The rebbeim taught Queens children of the ‘60s in Yiddish, an idea well ahead of its time.

“But it worked,” Rivie remembers, “the cheder invested us with a certain heimishkeit.”

 

But the exposure to Klal Yisrael, and Agudath Israel, came on long Shabbos afternoon treks from Forest Hills to Kew Gardens.

Reb Aron Schwebel was a product of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s Torah Vodaath, but he was rooted in Galicia, in prewar Reisha (Rzseszow). Nowhere was this influence more evident than in his tefillah, the nusach and nuance and spirit of that world. Shuls were jammed when word spread that Chazzan Schwebel would be davening.

A small shul in Forest Hills heard about the chazzan, and offered him the vacant cantorial position. Deeply impressed with his personal conduct and knowledge, they asked the new chazzan to serve as rav as well.

“Forest Hills was sort of lonely,” Rivie remembers. “Most of the kids in school lived in Kew Gardens. On Shabbos afternoons, my father would walk us, me and my brothers Heshy and Shea, to Pirchei and wait there, and then walk us back. I think about it now, how tired he must have been — he was rav and chazzan, he worked hard on Shabbos — but he wanted us to have a taam, a taste in Yiddishkeit, and he knew we would find it there.

“That’s where I first encountered Agudah: the stories, the heroes, the values. You felt part of Klal Yisrael, part of its history, in those groups.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 686)

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