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Almost Anonymous

Almost Anonymous

Meet the man behind the some of the most well-known Jewish songs.

by

The story is famous.

During World War Two, in Poland, a group of Jews were herded into a cattle car. They were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. They were sent to die. They knew why they were going to Treblinka, too. It wasn’t a secret.

Treblinka wasn’t far from Warsaw, but the Nazis weren’t in a rush. The trip took two days. The people in the cattle car weren’t fed. They weren’t given anything to drink. They didn’t have a place or a way to relieve themselves. Not with dignity.

It was a horrible ride.

One of the men in that cattle car was a hasid. He was a pious and religious man. He had deep faith and he believed in God. He believed – in spite of his terrible predicament – that God was good. He believed that God was leading them – and the rest of the world – to redemption.

He wrote the haunting Ani Ma’amin in the cattle car on the way to Treblinka.

And because he was a hasid – and in particular, because he was a hasid from Modzitz (a hasidic community known for music) – he wrote a song about it. He wrote the song in the cattle car. It was a somber song. The melody was slow. It was haunting. It was called “Ani Ma’amin” (“I believe,” from Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith and a traditional declaration of belief in the Messianic Era). (Click below to listen to an instrumental version of this song.)

He sang the song in the cattle car. He taught it to the other people traveling with him. It was a sad song, but it was a powerful song, too. And, in a way, the song was inspiring.

The man – his name was Azriel David Fastag – told the others in the cattle car, "If you survive, bring this song to my rebbe in America. I want him to hear it." His rebbe (his spiritual leader and the leader of his hasidic community) escaped from Europe at the start of the War. He was living in Brooklyn, New York.

Two men jumped from the train. One of the men disappeared – he was probably shot –but the other man got away. He ran until he got to Switzerland. Switzerland was safe.

He remembered the melody.

He found someone to transcribe the melody, to notate it the way music is written, and he found a family related to the composer. Their last name was also Fastag. The Fastags sent the transcription, along with a letter, to the Modzitzer Rebbe in Brooklyn.

The letter arrived in 1945, just after the War. The Rebbe read it, gathered a few important community leaders together -- yeshiva heads and other hasidic rabbis -- and told them the story. One of those people knew how to read music. He was a singer. The rebbe asked him to read it – to sing it really – and he did.

It was a powerful moment. It was a snapshot from hell. But it was inspiring, too. It was a testament to the faith of the Jewish people. The people in that room listened and cried. They were overwhelmed.

The song became famous, too. Many people know the song. Many people know the story.

It is a famous story.

And the singer is famous, too.

Sort of.

His name is Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker. He is a singer. But he is really a composer. Many people know his music. Most people don’t know his name.

And that’s just fine with him.

The Rebbe’s Musical Secretary

Ben Zion grew up in Brooklyn. He sang in choirs, studied music, and was the Modzitzer Rebbe’s musical secretary when the Fastag letter arrived from Switzerland.

And knowing music got him that job, too.

The Rebbe moved to Brooklyn in 1940. Ben Zion met him soon after. They met on a Shabbos afternoon. The Rebbe heard Ben Zion sing from a written collection of Modzitzer compositions (Ben Zion was 15 at the time; today he is 88). The Rebbe was impressed. He was surprised that a teenager read music that well. He asked him to sing more songs. And more.

At the end of the meal, the Rebbe, now a fan, asked Ben Zion to sing Psalm 126, the traditional Psalm sung before the blessing after the meal. Ben Zion sang a version the Rebbe himself had composed before leaving Europe. No one in America knew that song.

At least, no one in America was supposed to know that song. It was composed in Europe. It wasn’t written down. It wasn’t recorded.

“I knew a few boys,” Ben Zion explained in an Aish.com interview. “They were Lubavitch hasidim. They were studying in Poland -- in Otvosk -- before the War. The Americans knew the Germans were going to invade Poland. The American Consulate advised American citizens to leave. These boys were Americans. When they got back to Brooklyn, they taught me this niggun (tune). They learned it from the Modzitzer Rebbe.”

That was the song Ben Zion sang for the Rebbe.

“I was nervous. I was only 15. I was singing a song – a new song – for the person who wrote it. I did it quickly. I rushed the tempo. I wanted it to be over. But the Rebbe told me, ‘A song isn’t like a train. It doesn’t get faster. It's like the tick-tock of a watch. Stay in time!’”

That was the beginning. Ben Zion became the Rebbe’s musical secretary. He transcribed the Rebbe’s compositions. He became an important figure in the musical legacy of Modzitz. But there was more to come. A lot more.

And as big as things got, Ben Zion didn’t lose his head. He kept his life in perspective.

Ben Zion knew music. He was talented. But that wasn’t important. Not really. Learning Torah was important. Serving God was important. Music was a tool – an important tool – but a tool nonetheless that made it easier to serve God.

Ben Zion understood that. He knew what life was really about.

And it wasn’t about him.

Composer of Traditional Melodies

Ben Zion wasn’t just a singer; he composed music too. And his compositions are famous. If you grew up in a traditional Jewish family, or if you visit a traditional Jewish family, you know Ben Zion’s music. You may even sing his compositions every week.

Just about every traditional Jew sings Ben Zion’s songs, even though they’ve never heard of him.

And you probably assume his compositions are traditional; as in older-than-Moses, pre-date-chicken-soup, outlast-leftover-chulent traditional. You probably assume that the composer – whoever he was and if he ever existed – is gone and forgotten.

Except that he isn’t.

Ben Zion’s most famous song is “Aishes Chayil” (“A Woman of Valor,” from the Book of Proverbs 31:10-31). Most traditional families sing it every Friday night. Most people sing the same melody. Most people only know one melody. (Click below to hear Aishes Chayil)

“Growing up, we didn’t sing Aishes Chayil,” Ben Zion told me. “My father didn’t have a melody. We read it. The Modzitzer Rebbe read it, too. But he read it out loud and he did it in a singsong kind of way. His melody was my starting point. I took that and turned it into Aishes Chayil.”

“In the summer, before people had air conditioning, they used to leave their windows open. When I walked home from shul – in house after house – I heard people singing my ‘Aishes Chayil’ which to me was a source of pride."

Aishes Chayil” wasn’t his only famous composition. The famous version of Mizmor L’Dovid, Psalm 23 – most people sing it at the third meal of Shabbos – he wrote that, too. (Click below to hear Mizmor L’Dovid)

Yasis Alaich,” the song sung at every traditional Jewish wedding, yup, that’s his. Plus hundreds of others. (Click below to hear Yasis Alayich)

“Every year, before the High Holidays, I compose seven or eight new compositions. I teach them to the choir -- not a professional chior, community volunteers -- and we rehearse them. I used to lead the services, too. Until I had my heart attack and I couldn’t do that anymore. But I still write new music every year.”

Ben Zion worked in the garment industry. He did that for years. He had a jewelry business after that. He didn’t earn money as a musician. He didn’t earn royalties for his compositions, even though his compositions were famous.

And that didn’t seem to matter. He wrote music to serve God. He didn’t write music to become a celebrity.

Almost Famous

He recorded music, too. His first record was recorded in 1956 (Melava Malka Melodies, a vinyl 10-inch). Today it is a classic. It sells for a fortune on eBay. But it was recorded to raise money for a yeshiva. It was not-for-profit.

And that is typical of how Ben Zion operates. He is almost anonymous.

But don’t misunderstand. Ben Zion isn’t a recluse. People know him. People know his music. He has a cult following; the special events he does for Modzitz are usually packed. Standing room only.

But it isn’t about that.

I asked Ben Zion about his music. What makes it “Jewish?” His music is western. But it isn’t, it is Jewish. It uses the same melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices used in western music, but it isn’t the same. Something is different.

Music is bigger than the person who wrote it.

“The feeling is different,” he said. “It might be a waltz or a march, which are western constructs. But it isn’t the same. It’s the regesh. The feeling makes it different.”

Regesh. It is what makes him different, too.

He spent his life writing music. His music is popular. But except for his small following – a handful of devotees and a few Modzitzer hasidim – no one knows who he is.

And that is the way it is supposed to be.

Music is feelings. It bypasses your brain. It is from the heart. It allows your soul to talk.

And when your soul has something to say, you – the ego – need to step out of the way. Its message is bigger than you. It is bigger than the composer in the cattle car on his way to the gas chambers. It is bigger than the nice man from Brooklyn, the Modzitzer Rebbe’s musical secretary. Music is bigger than the person who wrote it.

It takes on a life of its own.

And that is the story of Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker. You might not know his name – or you might not remember it – but your life is richer because of him. He spoke to you. His soul did.

And his soul is famous. Even if he isn’t.

Rabbi Shenker recently recorded an album with Andy Statman. You can get it here: http://www.benzionshenker.com/

 

 

Published: June 14, 2014


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Visitor Comments: 18

(15) Anonymous, June 30, 2014 2:52 AM

I heard that the revious Modzitzer rebbe was born on hoshana rabba in the year 5647 "tov" "reish" "mem" "zayin" - which spells out the word "zemiros" (songs).

(14) Anonymous, June 28, 2014 8:24 PM

Fastag's Ani Ma'amin - the Hymn of the Jews during the Holocaust

My father in law, a"h survived 7 different concentration and work camps during the War. He was part of the infamous death march on Tisha B'Av, in which the Tzanzer Rebbe zt"l was also present and made famous. As the Jews were herded by the Nazis, yemach shemam, along the way without any food or water, they passed a stream of water. There was a pause, and some of the emaciated thirsting Jews broke ranks, ran for the stream, hoping to drink a little water. The Nazis gunned them down on site, and menaced the rest of the prisoners. As more and more of the Jews passed their freshly murdered compatriots, slowly a tune started to sneak through the silence. My father in law a"h was already familiar with it from earlier camps. Soon, a large number of the Jews marching to an unknown fate, not very different from the trainride to Treblinka, were singing this very same Ani Ma'amin. It truly had become the Hymn of the Jews in the camps, in the crematoria, and most thankfully, for the survivors. One time when I started to sing the niggun, my father-in-law a"h started to shake violently, as if he had a seizure. We looked at him in shock, worried for his health. He could barely whisper "that's the niggun.. that's our niggun". He then shared with me the story I just recounted above. A niggun, a REAL niggun, when its L'Shem Shamayim, has phenomenal power.

(13) Eliezer Weger, June 28, 2014 8:15 PM

Nice article, a few important points to add

I have the privelege of being to consider Reb Ben Zion a friend for nearly 30 years. As a fellow Modzitzer, I am familiar with the Fastag story and much more. You expressed it well.

The key to Negina in Modzitz, what makes it unique within our world is that Negina is not an emotional expression, as your article implies. Its an essential tool, or vehicle for Avodas HaShem. Its not accompaniment, its an integral part of the Avodas HaTefillah.

The Rebbes of Modzitz have all been composers as well, the repertoire counts in the thousands. When you listen to a composition by one of the Rebbes (same is true of Reb Ben Zion, in this respect), you not only hear a heart-warming tune. If you have the right ears, you hear how the Rebbe has "learned up" that particular tefillah. The niggun is "Mechalkel Chaim", and Mechalkel Chaim is the niggun. They are spiritually inseparable.

If you want to appreciate what a Jew's love affair with Eretz Yisroel, track down a recording of the Niggun Reb Ben Zion composed for the "Shir HaMaalos - Omdos Hayu Ragleinu", composed on his first trip to Eretz Yisroel. No other words are necessary.

(12) David, June 26, 2014 2:39 PM

Truly wonderful niggunim

I was zocheh to meet Reb Ben Zion about 13 years ago on a brief visit [from the UK!] to the Modzitz shtiebel in Flatbush. I asked him which of all his niggunim was his favourite. He responded along the lines that a parent can't have favourites among his children (though I got the impression that his 'Aishes Chayil' perhaps took pride of place).

By the way, there's a very nice article and half-hour video of Reb BenZion singing at a Modzitz Chanuka get-together with the Rebbe last year here: http://www.vosizneias.com/147849/2013/11/29/borough-park-ny-chasidic-niggunim-shine-as-modzitzer-rebbe-lights-chanukah-candles-in-bp/

(11) Anonymous, June 24, 2014 5:01 PM

Thank you for this article.

I “discovered” Ben Zion Shenker as a fifteen year old in 1960 with his recording “The Joy of Sabbath”. I saved my baby sitting money and bought every album of his that I could get my hands on and listened to them over and over again. His beautiful tenor, the sophisticated beautiful melodies, whether his compositions or the Modzitzer Rebbe’s, and the holy lyrics, all pierced my soul and transported me to another place. I wrote about his music and voice and the emotions they arouse for a sophomore writing assignment in a public high school. I received an A.

His recordings and music still continue to inspire and entertain generations. Anonymous? Hardly. I regret I never had the zchut to hear Ben Zion Shenker sing in person.

Thank you for this article.

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