Shira Pasternak Be'eri
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Velvel Pasternak: A recording session to remember

My father thought he was helping preserve Hasidic music for posterity; the singers, however, were busy worshiping God
Velvel Pasternak conducting at a recording session in the 1960s (Courtesy)
Velvel Pasternak conducting at a recording session in the 1960s (Courtesy)

My father, Velvel Pasternak, z”l, was a world-renowned expert on Hasidic music, a conductor, arranger, teacher, researcher, and publisher of Jewish music of all kinds. He preserved the musical heritage of the Jewish people for future generations, touched hearts, and inspired souls with the power of a nigun. He was also a master storyteller, with a fabulous sense of humor and impeccable timing, who conveyed his love of his people, their music, and traditional Jewish life through the stories he told. Today, on the first anniversary of his death, please join my family in remembering him through the most famous of his stories, told here in his own words and in his inimitable style. May his memory, his words, and his music be a blessing to his family, his people, and all who loved him.

“Please Don’t Conduct”

In 1962, I was approached by Benedict Stambler, a Jewish music collector and a pioneer in the field of Hasidic recordings in the United States. He wanted me to arrange and conduct a chorus of Lubavitch Hasidim for the first in a series of Chabad recordings. Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanoff, editor of both volumes of Sefer Hanigunim (books of transcribed Lubavitch nigunim) was appointed music consultant for this recording. He selected the songs and chose the Lubavitch Hasidim who were to sing in the chorus. Neither Stambler nor I had anything to do with the selection process. This was the “handpicked chorus” I would train and record.

At our first meeting a copy of Sefer Hanigunim was given to me, and I was asked to play while the group sang through the program of melodies to be recorded. Because these Hasidim sang so many of the songs differently from the printed musical transcriptions, I needed to rewrite most of the nigunim. Correct transcriptions were necessary for the backup singers and instrumental ensemble that would accompany the Hasidim. After the printed nigunim were corrected, I set about arranging them with simple harmonies.

Our first rehearsal took place in a basement in Crown Heights New York, and I was forced to quickly address an interesting problem. My rather forthright instruction that the chorus must begin and end together was met with very quizzical looks.

“Hasidim always begin and end together,” they objected.

It took me a little time to realize that the members of my chorus did most of their singing during farbrengen (special Hasidic gatherings), which took place several times a year at Lubavitch headquarters. The format of a Lubavitch farbrengen was always the same. Hundreds of Hasidim gathered in the Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn. For several hours they would listen raptly to a discourse by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The long discourse was punctuated at various times with the singing of nigunim by the entire gathering. A designated Hasid, who took his cue when the Rebbe motioned with his hand, would begin a nigun that was taken up by all assembled. The singing ended abruptly when the Rebbe motioned once again, whereupon every eye focused on the Rebbe as he continued the discourse.

For a young conductor to inform these singers that they needed to start together and end together served only to insult them. It took great effort to convince them that a taped recording of a farbrengen would prove beyond doubt that the beginnings and endings of the nigunim were ragged and far below the musical standards needed for a professional recording. It was a small victory when they finally agreed

After several months of weekly rehearsals, during which they learned to watch my hands, sing legato, and produce some elementary shadings of tone, I found that, try as they might, none of the Hasidim were able to sing the harmonies that I had written. This was not due to their level of difficulty, but for the Hasidim to concentrate on anything but the melody seemed almost impossible. With permission from Lubavitch, I hired three “ringers” (professionals) to sing the harmonies. The rehearsals went well, and after several months, when I felt that I had taken the group as far as it could go musically, I asked that a recording date be scheduled.

I was told that the recording session must take place either on Monday evening after dark or on Tuesday before dark. This was in keeping with the belief among traditional Jews that Tuesday, the third day of the week, is a day of mazel (good luck). In the book of Genesis, it is written that God looked out each day and saw that “it was good.” Only on the third day are the words “it was good” repeated a second time. Tuesday, therefore, became a “doubly good” (lucky) day. Whenever possible, traditional Jews choose Tuesday to announce an engagement, move to a new house or apartment, hold a wedding ceremony, open a new business etc., all in the belief that this day holds good luck for those endeavors. For this reason, the Lubavitch Hasidim requested that their first recording session be held on a Tuesday, the day of good luck.

According to the Jewish calendar, a new day begins with the preceding evening, and thus Monday after dark is considered to be Tuesday. The producers promised that they would schedule a recording studio and an engineer for a “Jewish” Tuesday. A studio was booked for a Monday night in early spring, and the final recording date was announced.

Rabbi Zalmanoff instructed that on the Saturday night before the recording, we were to gather for a “mini-farbrengen.” When I asked the reason, I was told, that as Hasidim performing a task for Lubavitch, they needed an evening of good fellowship to wish each other good luck with the recording. Dutifully, the producers and I arrived at the home of one of the singers an hour after Shabbat was over. Upon entering, we found tables filled with refreshments and spirits. For the first time since the rehearsals began, I was afforded the opportunity of listening to each of my Hasidim sing solo. Some of them, on the merit of their vocal abilities, would never have been permitted to sing in any chorus. At the end of the evening, however, we left full of good cheer and spurred on to the forthcoming Lubavitch recording.

The producers had been able to rent a studio on Eighth Avenue near 57th Street in New York City. A well-known sound engineer, David Hancock, was engaged. Hancock had been one of the first sound engineers to transfer old, seventy-eight recordings of the great cantors of the 20th century to magnetic tape for the Collectors Guild Record Company. In the process, much of the static and other extraneous noises were eliminated. Through this rather tedious and time-consuming work, Hancock, who was not Jewish, became very familiar with, and developed great fondness for, Hebrew liturgical music. He looked forward to a live recording session of Hasidic music. He cautioned me to get the “Lubos” (his endearing term for the Hasidim) into the studio no later than 7:30 p.m., for at a rate of $45.00 per hour, the studio was quite expensive. I made sure that each of my singers and “ringers” knew the cost and importance of being on time.

I arrived at the studio by 6:30 p.m., discussed the microphone set up with our engineer, arranged the placement of the chorus and instrumentalists, and set the order in which the selections would be recorded. At 7:20 p.m. Hancock asked, “Where are they?” Looking for my singers, I opened the window onto Eighth Avenue. The location of this studio was a center of rock ‘n roll music, and the area was full of hippies, many of whom wore beards. To locate my bearded Hasidim was like looking for a needle in a haystack. At 7:25 p.m., I repeated the action and stretched my head far out of the window in order to get a better view of the street. This time I saw what looked like my Hasidim about a block away. As they approached, I noticed that there were far too many of them. I could only assume that my singers had encountered another group of Hasidim in the subway and they were walking together up Eighth Avenue.

Was I wrong! After the fifth elevator disgorged itself, there were more than sixty people in the studio. Only 24 of them belonged to my chorus and orchestra; the others were older Hasidim and young boys. Before I had a chance to vent my anger, I saw two men remove bottles of soda from a crate, and several men unwrap baked goods, including honey and sponge cake. Finally, for the piece d’resistance, a Hasid opened two brown paper bags to reveal four bottles of “zeks und ninetsiger” (192-proof vodka). He began to pass filled shot glasses to all the singers. I could no longer contain myself and began to shout, “What is going on here?”

“We’re going to have a farbrengen, one of the Hasidim responded gingerly.

“Here? Now? Why?” I asked in chagrin.

The Hasidim tried to calm me down. I was informed again that as they were not professional singers, they could not simply approach a microphone and sing. Because they were doing the bidding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it was necessary for them to “warm up,” both physically and spiritually. This could only be accomplished through a farbrengen.

“How long will this farbrengen last?” I asked rather timidly.

I discovered that a good question would always merit a good answer from a Hasid.

“This farbrengen will last only as long as it lasts. Not one minute longer,” came the reply.

A Hasid took out a photograph of the Rebbe and attached it to the wall with a thumbtack. The cake and drinks were passed around, spirits to the men and soda to the young boys. Each singer toasted the Rebbe in absentia, and wished the others good luck in the duties they were about to perform. As the conductor, I was asked to join in the l’chaim (toast) and was given a small glass filled with vodka. Never having drunk alcohol of this strength, I imagined that the effect would be similar to drinking Drano, the liquid that “cleans and open drains.”

As the producers and sound engineers looked on from the control room in amazement, one of them said “I don’t believe this. We should get a reporter and a cameraman from Variety because no one will believe that this scene happened.”

My singers and the other Hasidim took their time – 50 minutes in all. When the farbrengen was over, the soda, vodka, and the leftover cake were whisked away. All those not in the chorus were moved aside, and my 16 singers and three ringers stepped up to the waiting microphones. One Hasid proclaimed, “Now we are ready to do the bidding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

I finally felt that I had control of the situation. However, just before I gave the downbeat to the orchestra, Rabbi Zalmanoff approached me.

“Before we begin, I need a small favor from you,” he said.

“Certainly,” I replied. “What is it?”

“It’s a small favor,” he repeated. “Please don’t conduct.”

“Please what?” I asked in astonishment. “What do you mean don’t conduct?”

For some reason, he must have thought that I was having trouble with his English.

“Don’t make with the hands,” he said. “Sit down, you’ll get paid anyway.”

“What do you mean sit down?” I retorted. “I spent six months of my life rehearsing this group to get them ready for this recording, and now you tell me not to conduct? Please, tell me. What is the problem?”

“I see that you are a difficult man, so I will tell you the truth. You can conduct, but nobody will watch you.”

“Why won’t they watch me?” I asked in almost total desperation.

“Because if they watch you, it will get in the way of their kavanah (concentration),” he replied.

There it was, out in the open. I moved toward the chorus, and gave the downbeat. The instrumentalists picked up the introduction while sixteen pairs of eyes closed. I could have been in another state as far as my singers were concerned.

They sang with joy and fervor, and the entire studio was permeated with the intensity of their singing. I realized that at the very least, I had prepared them well enough to be able to sing their melodies and keep in time with the instrumentalists.

Thus began our recording session. We moved along briskly until approximately ten o’clock when an unexpected event occurred. During a break in the recording, we were rehearsing “Ufaratsta” a hallmark nigun, of Lubavitch. I was busy conducting the instrumentalists, when suddenly a cry of “Cut!” was called from the control booth. I looked up and found that my singers had disappeared.

“Where are they?” I shouted.

No one seemed to know. I ran into the hallway but found it empty. I quickly took the elevator down to the street level. Outside, on Eighth Avenue, I found my Lubavitch chorus.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked trying to restrain myself.

“You did not see what happened up there in the studio?” “What happened?” I asked.

“A girl in almost no clothing came into the room as we were singing “Ufaratsta”, they replied.

God in his celestial abode often creates truly interesting shiduchim (matches) on Earth below. Our main recording studio was attached to a secondary studio, which had access to the hallway and restrooms only through the main studio. The smaller studio had been rented out for the evening to a group of ballet dancers who rehearsed clad in skintight leotards. One of the young female dancers, needing to use the restroom, entered the main studio and made her way to the hallway while we were rehearsing.

“So?” I asked in bewilderment.

“So we left,” said the Hasid.

“So you left?” I said, trying to control myself.

“Yes!” the Hasid replied. “You see, Rabbi Pasternak (Hasidim sometimes give honorary ordination to people who work for them, and although I did not have a degree in rabbinics, I was nevertheless awarded the title), you do not understand who we are. Suppose for a moment that we were in the middle of prayers in the synagogue and a scantily dressed woman walked in. What would we do? We would simply close our prayer books and leave the synagogue. The same is true here. You have thought of us all along as a group of singers. The truth of the matter is that we are not singers. We are Hasidim here to do the bidding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. For us, this recording is similar to a worship service. So in a situation like this, we must do exactly what we would do in a synagogue.”

I am by nature a very modest man, but I thought that my next sentence, quickly delivered, was quite “brilliant.”

“The age of miracles is not past. I, who had my eyes open, did not see the scantily clad girl enter the room, but you, who had your eyes closed, were able to see her?”

“All right rabbi, no jokes.”

“Okay, it’s over. Let’s get back to the recording,” I responded.

I was told that unless the dancers were moved to another studio, my singers would not return.

“How am I to change their studio?” I asked.

“You are a bright man. We’re sure that you will find a way.”

I took the elevator up to the office and looked for the manager.

“We must change the studio of the ballet dancers,” I said.

“Impossible,” said the manager.

“Do you know who my people are?” I asked.

“No, and frankly I don’t care,” replied the manager.

“They are a group of Amish from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and they are here with their spiritual leader to record their music,” I explained. “And if they can’t finish tonight, it will be a financial and spiritual disaster for them.”

The manager hesitated. After all, one should have respect for the Amish even if one does not fully understand their lifestyle. He was thoroughly convinced, however, when I offered him fifty dollars and the remains of the bottle of vodka. While I went to get the bottle, the manager changed the room of the dancers.

There is an expression in Yiddish, “Men lacht mit yashrishkes,” which loosely translates as “you laugh on the outside, but with heartache on the inside.” Looking back, it seems quite comical, but when it happened, it was not funny. To their credit, the Lubavitch Hasidim were right, and I was wrong. These were handpicked Hasidim, instructed to present to the world the first recorded music of Lubavitch, doing the bidding of their Rebbe. As such, they treated the project with tremendous religious conviction.

As the recording session resumed, we encountered another major problem. Bad singers come in a number of varieties, among them are singers who sing flat (below the correct tone) and those who sing sharp (above the correct tone). Given the choice of teaching either of these singers, a vocal coach would probably choose the one that sings sharp. He might conclude that this singer, in an attempt to reach the correct tone, moves above it, whereas the singer who sings flat is not aiming at all. When the Hasidim sang three Dveykut melodies attributed to the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, in each song the pitch began to rise – a quarter tone, a half tone and then finally a full tone. In music, this is quite a distance.

Because they were untrained singers, I assumed that they were not hearing the instrumentalists who were positioned in front of them. The solution, I thought, would be to take the musicians playing portable instruments and place them closer to the Hasidim. I placed the violinist, clarinetist, trumpeter, and flautist each between two Lubavitch singers, so that the instruments were only several inches away from their ears. For a few moments the singing was steady, but soon it began to rise again. No matter how many times we tried, the results were the same. I finally came to the realization that although the Hasidim were ostensibly singing these songs for me, their conductor, they were really directing their songs to God in Heaven on high. As they strove to get the melody heavenward, the pitch kept rising.

The recording of these three songs could not be salvaged. Consequently, several weeks later, the Hasidim were brought back to the studio to record the songs a cappella. After they left, the sound engineer overdubbed an accordion accompaniment to the vocals. When the pitch of the singers began to rise, the engineer adjusted the recorded speed of the accordion to match the pitch of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Thankfully, the songs were saved and became part of the recording. When it was released, a critical review in the London Jewish Chronicle proclaimed this to be one of the finest authentic Jewish recordings ever made.

Several months after this recording was issued, the producers received a call from Leonard Bernstein’s office in New York City. They were told that the world-famous conductor had come across the Lubavitcher recording and wanted to use one of the selections for a program of religious folk music. Truly flattered and awed by the knowledge that this great musician would listen to a recording of Hasidic music, they gave their permission. The selection was played – on Christmas Eve, and on a Friday night, no less!

This story has been reprinted from Behind the Music: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles, and Reflections by Velvel Pasternak (Tara Publications: New York, 2017). The book, which includes stories of his experiences, information about well-known Jewish songs, and anecdotes and biographies of individuals who have shaped Jewish music, can be ordered in print or as an e-book here.

Velvel Pasternak conducting Lubavitch hasidim (Illustration: Avi Katz)
About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who works as the coordinator of the Mandel Foundation–Israel's websites. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three fine young men and two daughters-in-law, and is the happy grandma of one. 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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