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Almost Anonymous

June 12, 2014 | by Tzvi Gluckin

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

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 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:




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