Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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A jubilee of Jewish music

Velvel Pasternak became a master at transcribing elusive tunes, and preserved an entire heritage before anyone realized it was at risk (yes, he’s my dad)
Velvel Pasternak (Photo montage by Naava Pasternak Swirsky)
Velvel Pasternak (Photo montage by Naava Pasternak Swirsky)

Growing up in Jewish America, I was always my father’s daughter. Upon hearing the name Pasternak, non-Jews would ask if I was related to Boris, author of Dr. Zhivago. But Jews, especially if they had an affinity for Jewish music, would invariably ask, “Are you related to Velvel?”

Moving to Israel after college gave me other identities. I became the author of the purple Shabbat book, my husband’s wife, and my children’s mother. Israelis who heard my last name asked if I was related to Naava the radio editor, Nurit the literary translator, or Chana the women’s activist, none of whom are related to me.

When I began blogging for The Times of Israel, however, my past identity returned. There, in the middle of a string of 100 Facebook comments debating the virtue or stupidity of taking rides with Arab taxi drivers in wartime Jerusalem (in response to one of my most popular posts) was the inevitable question: “Are you Velvel Pasternak’s daughter?”

Eventually, I added my “yichus” to my bio.

Screenshot from the Times of Israel share of “Texting across the Arab-Jewish divide” (Facebook)

So let me tell you about my dad.

My father, Velvel Pasternak, was born in Toronto in 1933 to immigrant parents from Poland. His love of Jewish music dates back to the songs he heard his father sing at the Shabbat table and to the melodies of the Modzitz shtiebel where his family prayed. During his childhood, my grandmother gave his talent a boost when she bought a piano for their home, deeming it “kosher,” even though the local Orthodox community saw pianos as “treif.” Graced with a fabulous ear, my father taught himself to play.

At age 16, my father was sent to New York to receive a Jewish education. He completed high school, studied at Yeshiva University, and was slated to become a congregational rabbi, when his love of music won out. He learned music theory from a lonely scholar in return for keeping him company in a bar once a week, studied at Juilliard, and received a master’s in music education from Columbia University, where he met my mother, his life partner, Goldie.

The early 1960s found my father teaching music as “William” at the posh Brandeis school in Lawrence, New York, and as “Velvel” at the South Shore Yeshiva several blocks away. In parallel, he arranged recordings of Hasidic music — preserving the musical heritage of the Modzitzer, Bobover, Gerer, and Lubavitcher Hasidim. The stories of what transpired at those recording sessions were the soundtrack of my childhood. At conferences and synagogues across the United States, my father told wildly funny stories about a Lubavitch recording session at which the Hasidic singers drank 192-proof vodka while paying tribute to a portrait of the Rebbe that they hung on the wall of the studio, asked him not to conduct (“Mr. Pasternak, you can make with the hands if you want, but we’re not going to watch you”), and vanished mysteriously when a girl in a tutu tiptoed through their space on her way to the restroom. He revealed how “Napoleon’s March” became a Lubavitcher wedding song, “Miserlou” became a holy Bratslaver niggun, and “Jingle Bells” became an original Vishnitzer composition.

Some of the Hasidic recordings of the early 1960s, recorded with “The Velvel Pasternak Chorus”

During his lectures, my father explained how to identify members of different Hasidic groups based on whether they sing “yadi-dadi,” “bim-bom,” or “yama-mama” as the lyrics of their wordless nigunim. And he regaled audiences with a tale about a Bobover Hasid with a long beard and thick Yiddish accent, who told a chorus of professional cantors a story about topless dancers from the Ivory Coast in order to teach the cantors a lesson about authenticity and enable them to correctly pronounce the hilarious lyric “yehai loony” when recording the song “Siman Tov U-Mazel Tov.”

His stories, while wickedly funny, were never meant to mock their subjects. They were told with love and warmth, conveying the message that Jewish music is the music sung by Jews in a given time and a given place, that it is subject to the musical influences of the surrounding cultures, and that Hasidim absorb melodic themes of their host countries, transform those mundane, everyday tunes, and elevate them in the service of God.

One day in 1967, my father received a desperate phone call from a mother-of-the-bride in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Her future son-in-law was importing yeshiva classmates from New York to dance at the wedding, but the closest Jewish bandleader, in Chicago, knew only two pieces of Jewish music — Dayenu and Hava Nagila — and they needed music for the band to play. In response to her request, my father transcribed 15 melodies, added accompaniment, and sent them off, earning a respectable wage of $25 for 2.5 hours of work. Several months later, he received a phone call from a family in Florida with a similar problem. He transcribed a selection of songs for them as well — but this time, he kept a copy. Soon Jewish band leaders from all over the country were requesting transcriptions of Jewish music, which he sent them for free.

Realizing that there was a need for books of Hasidic music with melody lines and chords, my father compiled an anthology entitled Songs of the Chassidim, but had trouble finding a publisher. To prove that there was a market, he sent out a pre-publication offer to a list of cantors and musicians. “Did you ever hear a piece of Jewish music and wish that someone would write it down?” he asked in his cover letter. The 300 advance orders that he received proved that there was interest in the book, which was published by Bloch Publishing in 1968.

The front and back covers of my father’s first book of Jewish music, published in 1968

In 1969, tape recorder in hand, my father set out with our family for a year of research in Israel, where he visited Hasidic groups and transcribed their music — often with the rest of the family in tow. Songs of the Chassidim II was published the next year, upon our return to the United States. (The two volumes have since been reissued as The Hasidic Anthology.)

With two anthologies under his belt, in 1970, my father realized it was time to establish a publishing house of his own. He promptly dropped the “A” from the start of my sister Atara’s name, and Tara Publications was born. (Several years later, he began receiving orders for a Friday night “folk-rock service,” an item that he did not carry. Noting that those orders were all addressed to Tara Publishing rather than Tara Publications, he tracked down the competing Jewish music publisher. “Tell me,” he asked the secretary on the phone, “where does the name ‘Tara’ come from?” It turned out the founder of Tara Publishing had a daughter named Atara as well!)

The office of the fledgling publishing house was set up in the basement of our home in Cedarhurst, Long Island, in a space that had previously served as a den. The pink and yellow fluorescent lights of the psychedelic 70s were replaced with strips of bright white lighting, the couches gave way to a work counter, and the room was transformed into a magical workspace with inventory on open shelves and a console piano flanked by scores of LP records.

“Daddy’s in the dungeon” became a leitmotif of our childhood. Whenever he was not running to the printer, out on the lecture circuit, or teaching (at the Hillel School, the Sons of Israel, Central Brooklyn, Yeshiva University, Touro College, Hillel Institutes, or the Brandeis-Bardin Institute), my father was in the basement, notating music, stripping up manuscripts, reviewing blueprints, packing orders, and taking care of billing. Upon coming home from school, we would clatter down the steep stairs, across the pebbly linoleum floor, and through puffs of pipe smoke to tell him about our day. Every so often, bewildered customers rang our doorbell, shocked to find a modest Cape Cod house when they expected to see a storefront. There were perks to having the business at home. On one happy occasion, my brother Mayer got to try on the Hasidic garb that a Hollywood consultant had asked my father to purchase for Gene Wilder’s role in “The Frisco Kid.”

Three grown-up Pasternak sisters outside Tara Publications. Customers were bewildered when they didn’t find a storefront.

The business was truly a family business. My mother fielded phone calls, took orders, ran to the post office, and kept the household running so my father could devote his time to his music books. The skillset of the five Pasternak children included knowing how to pack boxes, use a Pitney Bowes postage meter, fill out a UPS ledger, and change typeballs on an IBM Selectric typewriter. We became experts at mailings, deftly stuffing catalogs emblazoned with “the pulse of a people is its music” into envelopes, which we then addressed, sealed, and stamped, often enlisting our friends in the process. We shrink-wrapped books and cassettes, loaded and unloaded the family station wagon, and set up display tables at conferences and fairs where we schmoozed with customers and sold Tara wares.

During my college years, I typeset music using Notaset transfers, wrote singable English translations of Hebrew songs, and made book covers of varying quality. One summer, when my parents traveled to Israel, I was left alone, responsible for filling all incoming orders. That’s when “Sarah Parsons” was born, since I occasionally needed a pseudonym that would allow me to refer to “Mr. Pasternak” in explanatory letters to customers. Sarah, whose name was derived from my initials, was always courteous, service-oriented, and ever so polite. Years later, I discovered to my horror that she had continued working for Tara long after I moved to Israel, but had undergone a drastic personality change: she was the one who signed nasty letters whenever there was a need to write them!

Some of the book covers I made for Tara books while in college. The printer accidentally swapped the blue and green plates for the Jewish Band Book. It looked interesting, so we left it that way.

My siblings also played important roles in the family business, which grew as they did. My sister Naava joined my father in the dungeon for four years after college. Upon moving to Israel, she ran a branch of Tara called “Musica Judaica” for seven years, until it became clear that there wasn’t really a market for ethnic Jewish music in Israel. Mayer was involved in the business for five years and built the first jewishmusic.com website, while my youngest brother, Gedalia, provided technical support, typeset music using computer software, and learned Photoshop, so as to help with tasks such as editing out a crucifix in a photo for the cover of a book of Sephardic music. (Today, Naava runs the current incarnation of jewishmusic.com, manages the Jewish Music Facebook page, and makes book covers, while her son Yedidya, a high school senior soon to be serving in the IDF, is carrying on the family tradition of typesetting music for Tara books.)

The first books published under the Tara imprint were a series of affordable paperbacks with selections of Hasidic music reprinted from my father’s original two hardbound anthologies. Israeli music came next, followed by Sephardic music: Ladino, Spanish-Portuguese, and music from Bosnia, Sarijevo, and Calcutta. Next my father moved on to Klezmer, cantorial, choral, liturgical, and Yiddish music. From folkdances to freilachs, music for string quartets to arrangements for marching bands, fake books with single melody lines to books with full piano accompaniment, all could be found under the Tara label, which carries the work of artists from Shlomo Carlebach to Debbie Friedman, Mordechai Gebirtig to Flory Jagoda, and Yossele Rosenblatt to Ben Zion Shenker. There is even a volume of Holocaust music that the Nazis did not succeed in silencing, which received a warm letter of thanks from Elie Wiesel.

All in all, my father has published some 150 volumes of Jewish music, preserving an entire heritage that had never been documented by anyone else. Over the years, he moved from printed books to e-books, and from cassettes and CDs to MP3s. Downloadable sheet music was also added to the product line, in order to keep up with the times.

Goldie and Velvel Pasternak selling music books at a convention (courtesy)

It is now 50 years since the publication of my father’s first music book. In honor of his half century of editing, arranging, and publishing contemporary and traditional Jewish music, he spent the last year compiling The Jubilee Songbook. With 240 selections culled from 12 of his other collections, the book can serve as an overview of popular Jewish music of the 20th and 21st century. My dad says that this volume is his last collection, since no one wants to buy books anymore; from now on, he will focus on sheet music. But my father is a man with a mission. No matter how far he is past retirement age and how much his back might ache, for as long as I can remember him, he has been in the basement, pasting up music books. As I see it, it’s only a matter of time before a new need emerges and a new collection is born; the only question is what it will be.

Did you ever hear a piece of Jewish music and wish that someone would write it down? Well, for over 50 years my dad has done just that. And whether the songs he has documented live on in print or digital format, on records, CDs, or MP3s, Jewish culture is all the richer for it.

______

You can find The Jubilee Songbook: 50 years of Jewish Song and other titles carried by Tara Publications at www.jewishmusic.com. The best of Velvel Pasternak’s stories about Hasidic music can be found in Behind the Music: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles, and Reflections.

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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