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All Part of the Song

Yisroel Besser

With the release of his new album, Shmueli Ungar gives his listeners the most important lesson of all — to “mach a brachah” of thanks

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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“There’s something about Shmueli singing that makes you feel like he’s performing just for you, like he’s letting you in a secret. His voice, like him, is refreshingly straightforward” (Photos: Amir Levy)

T here are two kinds of smilers: the ones who wake up expecting a sunny day, beaming in anticipation of all the good things coming their way, and those whose smile is borne of the toil in finding that lone ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

One smile comes naturally, while the other is a choice.

And Shmueli Ungar’s smile is both.

Shmueli (pronounced Shmili) is a smiler and a laugher and an embracer. He has also, in his relatively young life, endured the loss of his beloved father, the death of the grandfather who stepped in to raise him, and a divorce.

The two tracks — blessed optimist and determined warrior — meet in his music. He can cry out to the Rachamana d’ani lisvirei liba, the Merciful One who answers the pleas of the brokenhearted, but also exult and urge listeners to “mach a brachah.” Life is good. Even for those with broken hearts.

Shmueli’s story starts with his mother — and her music.

“I grew up in Monroe, in Kiryat Joel, but the music we played was different than most of the neighbors. My mother was raised in Melbourne, Australia, in a very musical environment, and to her, music wasn’t just noise to fill the house, it was art. She was very specific about what we could listen to.”

Little Shmueli came home from cheder one day eager for her to purchase a popular new album. “All the boys were talking about the songs, so I wanted it too. I asked her to buy it and she said ‘no.’ I was surprised. ‘Why not?’ I asked her. She looked at me. ‘Because it’s not good music, that’s why.’”

Mrs. Ungar would play Miami Boys Choir for her children — and point out the complexity of the harmonies. “I’m not sure how many homes in Monroe played JM in the AM every morning, but we did and she made sure we appreciated good music.

“There are a million reasons to thank the Ribbono shel Olam, always. I saw grief in my life, but I never felt differently”

“I was a heavy kid,” Shmueli stops suddenly and shrugs. “Fat — why use other words? I know, looking at me now you can’t imagine it, right?” He winks. “But my mother always told me I was a star. When I sang, I believed it.”

Weight issues notwithstanding, it was a relatively happy childhood — until a few months before Shmueli’s bar mitzvah, when his father got sick.

It was a painful time. After being diagnosed with a serious illness, Reb Yaakov Aryeh Ungar was moved to the hospital and was often there for long periods of time.

“After a few months in the hospital, they let him come home for a few weeks,” Shmueli remembers. “Then he had to go back. I remember one of those nights when he was home; I was supposed to be sleeping but he came into my room and kissed me on the forehead — it was very unlike him, he didn’t generally kiss us. I felt that kiss. I still feel it.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 699)

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