R ebbe Alter is well known for his children’s tapes and CDs, full of catchy tunes for every time of year. His songs play in just about every frum gan classroom in Israel — and many in America, too. How did he get started, and how did his songs become so popular?

“I never planned to perform or record,” Rebbe Alter explains. “I just wanted to prepare songs for the kids in my class. In the beginning of my teaching career, it struck me that song was a wonderful method of teaching. Songs made learning fun, and they helped the kids retain the knowledge. I would ask my students about something I’d taught in a song half a year later, and most of them still remembered it! It’s the power of a song; it really touches the neshamah.”

Rebbe Alter was a first-grade rebbi back in the days when tapes were still in use, before people had ever dreamed of MP3s. Soon his students’ parents began asking him to record his songs. “The boys would come home singing half a song here, another half a song there, and the parents wanted to hear the whole thing!” he says. “So, they’d send me blank tapes so I could record the songs. I would sit down with eight tape recorders, say, ‘one-two-three-go,’ press all the buttons at once, and start.”

Here comes a tricky question. Rebbe Alter is a native New Yorker, yet many Israeli children know his songs in Hebrew. So which language did he originally write them in, Hebrew or English?

“Well, I started recording in Hebrew,” he says. “I was teaching in Hebrew, and my songs were geared to my students. Then one fine day it struck me; why not do this in English too?”

After his first tape on Purim came out, he translated it into English, getting Suki Berry to help him with the recording and distribution. Today, most of his CDs come out in both languages at the same time.

“Usually I try to write something in one language, then I translate it, and it comes out a little differently in each language,” Rebbe Alter explains. “I figure out which way works better, and then I might revise the original, too.”

Because he still speaks English better than Hebrew, Rebbe Alter goes over every song with a native Hebrew speaker. “I get suggestions to fix this and fix that. Then I go ask another person, and they have their own opinion. I spend a long time developing each CD because of this,” he admits.

For the most part, the feedback he gets is very positive. “Sometimes people offer suggestions of what to do, what not to do,” Rebbe Alter says. “Once someone told me, ‘You should know your recordings cause people to cry.’ I was a little taken aback. ‘Why?’ I asked, wondering which song he meant.

“ ‘I have a relative who’s a baalas teshuvah, and every time she hears the Elul song from Ring around the Year, she starts to cry,’ the man explained.” The words, ‘Hashem, please forgive me if I did not act properly,’ move this woman to tears.”

“Kinderlach,” says Rebbe Alter when he shares the story with his class, “look at the madreigah this baalas teshuvah is on. We sing the words without even thinking about them, but she hears them and starts crying!”

(Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 701)