Last week, the father of modern Hasidic music, Ben Zion Shenker, passed away at age 91. Imagine a world in which no recordings of Hassidic music exists — that was the Jewish world before Shenker’s initiatives. Imagine Jewish households without Eshes Chayil and Jewish weddings without Yasis Alayich and you will get a sense of the depth of one man’s penetration into the hearts and hearths of the Jewish people.
Collectively, we owe a debt of gratitude to the person who redefined public Jewish music by bringing to it the traditions of a Hasidic dynasty (Modzhitz) and his own creative compositions (numbering over 500 in the span of a 75-year career).
Ben Zion has not only enriched Jewish spirituality by making widely available hidden treasures, establishing precedents for virtually all Hasidic dynasties to follow suit. He has enriched Jewish musical life by ensuring a high degree of professionalism and artistry. He has left us some of the most hauntingly beautiful songs, such as his bene hechala, or karev yom. Above all, he has enriched Jewish prayer life by a rare ability to match words to music, and to wed intentionality and musical proficiency to an unparalleled degree. Ben Zion was not only a composer and performer, but a man of prayer.
I had the privilege of observing this in person for over a decade, during frequent visits to the Flatbush synagogue of which he was the unofficial leader, equaling or surpassing the rabbi as eminent presence. 60-year-old recordings still give a taste of how first rate vocal abilities combine with attention to words, and with deep and prayerful intentionality, creating a spiritual experience that is unparalleled. I recall those rare moments when he would lead prayers. There is not a single hazzan in the Jewish world, I dare say, who had the combination of prayerfulness, presence, musicality and technique as did Shenker. There are qualities in life that require first hand encounter. Some unique individuals can teach us of possibilities we never knew existed, and these remain impressed in our memory and aspiration. Ben Zion demonstrated to me what Jewish prayer could be. None of this can be dissociated from his person.
Ben Zion’s Heart
Music at its best is heart speaking to heart and Ben Zion’s music and prayers were a glimpse into and radiation of the heart and inner life of a unique individual. The adjective by means of which I would describe Ben Zion is noble. There was a nobility to his character. A lengthy oral history interview gives us a glimpse of the person, his warmth, openness, as well as his class and open horizons. But more importantly, one notes just how unassuming he was. For all his greatness, recognition and fame, he retained a directness, simplicity and availability to one and all. It is humility in action. I would refer to it as presence. He inhabited his reality, his story, in a factual and unpretentious way. He was present to his life, rather than boasting of it. He was present to whomever he encountered. Similarly, he was present in prayer, not hurrying, present to every word, spoken or sung.
Personal stature manifest in simplicity is also key to his service. Ben Zion played a dual role. He was a composer and performer. But he was also the musical memory of the musically most prolific Hasidic dynasty, a repository of thousands of melodies, some of them lengthy and complex musical compositions. He was musical secretary to his teacher, Grand Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Taub, and continued to serve successive generations of Modzhitz rebbes. He was in many ways the consummate Hasid, mentally never taking the front seat, even if in fact he all too often occupied it. He was at the service of the greater good of his masters, the community and the Jewish world and the public at large.
Ben Zion balanced in his person fidelity to tradition with innovation and creativity. Deeply grounded in a particular musical tradition, he also developed beyond it and brought it to the world at large. It requires deep authenticity to negotiate this dual function. And it was a heart grounded in presence and humility that made it possible to maintain such authenticity.
Ben Zion will remain for me not simply a source of musical enrichment. He will ever be a model of an important way of being in the world, one that harmonizes and reconciles poles of personality and activity that very few are able to harmoniously reconcile.
Torah, Song and Prayer — Thoughts on Essential Hasidism
It is told of Ben Zion’s first rebbe, Rabbi Shaul Taub, that he would regularly move between teachings and singing at his gatherings. He would explain this by saying: once their hearts are open, I can then deliver Torah to them. In this view, music is only instrumental to what counts most, teaching, Torah. Shenker never had any pretensions of being a teacher, even though he was an ordained rabbi. Seen in this light, Shenker’s contribution was only instrumental, playing “second fiddle” to his grand rabbis, or whoever the local Torah authority was.
In reality, I submit, Ben Zion actually taught us something fundamental about music and prayer. His personal example is one that invites us to reconsider the conventional hierarchy and the secondary and instrumental role assigned to music. Being in his presence in prayer and song was being “in presence” in ways that were often more powerful than the teachings delivered. It required a humility, a spirit of service and a social matrix in which he was the “Hasid,” not the teacher or “tzadik” to sustain this presence. And yet at the end of the day, Ben Zion was testimony that simple and profound being, the call to God in prayer, and the inspiration of high musicality are a spiritual path in itself.
Without attempting to redefine Judaism or innovate it, he offered a powerful personal reminder of the roots of the Hasidic tradition from which he came. Authentic Hasidism can undermine hierarchies, including hierarchies of knowledge and authority and to make God’s presence primary, in particular through prayer and song. In this sense, then, Ben Zion Shenker was indeed the consummate Hasid, a reminder of one of the core messages of the Hasidic movement.