Church Sunday School, Jewish Music, and a Funeral

This past week, I attended the funeral of maven of Jewish music in America Velvel Pasternak. Like other funerals, the loving family members fought back tears while recalling their beloved father before he was finally put to rest. What struck me about the eulogies takes me back, ironically, to my day in church.

I only attended Christian Church Sunday school once in my life. As an active, albeit traditional, Jew, the thought of going to church wasn’t exactly in my typical day to day plans. But my close high-school friend, Welborn Excell Alexander III who we just called Web, knowing my love for rock music and lyrics, once urged me to attend a class at Lakewood Presbyterian Church. Web was no missionary; he simply thought I would enjoy the discussion of music lyrics that took place. Indeed, it didn’t appear to me that the focus was theology. I loved poetry and music lyrics, and so did the people leading the group. I suggested we analyze the song “The Trees” by Rush and as a poetry junky, I found the give and take fun. But here is the thing. It seems to me that popular music aficionados often come in one of two verities: those who love music for the music’s sake and those who care about what the artist was saying: text, language, and meaning. I fell in the latter category. This may help explain my path later in life.

In college and yeshiva, I eventually studied the disciplines of math and engineering as well as rabbinics. I’ve worked both in high-tech and in Orthodox education. Orthodoxy pulled me for many of the same reasons that engineering did. Orthodoxy demands borders, lines, accuracy, textual backing, arguments, and parameters. The Talmud and codes, in other words – actual words, define life. As Rabbi Soloveitchik famously described, “When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and principles…When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he possesses a fixed, a priori relationship with this real phenomenon… the spring is fit for the immersion of a zav (a person suffering from impurity)…” (Halachik Man, p.19).

We Orthodox rabbi types are trained to define who is in and who is out, who is following the Law and who is missing the mark. And the yardstick for these borders is Jewish Law – the word of God.  As the Rav wrote elsewhere, “The unity of the Jewish people as a community based upon the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life as practiced by us – a Torah existence.  What ties the Yeminite water carrier in the streets of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Boston?  A uniform Orah Hayyim, the Shema Yisrael, Shabbat, Kol Nidrei night, the Seder night, kashrut, tefillin…” (Community, Covenant and Commitment, p. 144)”  So it was the words more than the tune, which helped me define my understanding of the world.

And this is where the funeral of Velvel Pasternak comes in to play.

I didn’t know Reb Velvel personally. I attended his funeral to share the sorrow with some of his children. Pasternak created Tara Publications which became one of the largest publishing houses of Jewish music. A lover of all genre’s, he recorded and preserved the Niggunim of a myriad of Hassidic dynasties. As recounted in the New York Times, “’ He was a pioneer,’ said Zalmen Mlotek, an authority on Yiddish music and the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. “He was the first to recognize that all this music, whether it be Hasidic, cantorial, Ladino, klezmer or Yiddish, needed to be available for someone to play it. He felt a sense of responsibility to make the songs accessible.’” The historian in me appreciates such research and breadth. But this is not what was so moving at the funeral.

Child after child recounted their experience being brought up in the Pasternak home. One repeated theme struck me. Pasternak’s love of the Jewish people and their varieties of music allowed him to befriend all kinds of Jews. For Reb Velvel, there were no borders. Music became a universal language. Hassidic groups and Reform rabbis were his clientele. In his personal life, he was a committed Orthodox Jew; yet, his commitments to music and personal Jewish expression allowed him to open his home and his heart to Jews no matter what their religious preferences were.

As a traditionally trained, Orthodox rabbi, my orientation, as outlined above, is formed of walls made of words called laws. For Pasternak, music could climb those walls. The funeral and the eulogies presented, from an Orthodox vantage point, a different way to look at the Jewish world. Velvel Pasternak’s life is a profound testament to looking beyond the “four cubits of Jewish law” into the permeating mixture of rhythm and harmony. The spiritual cadence of Jewish life reverberates with music sung by numerous, sometimes discordant, voices. In many ways, the tune, as much or sometimes even more than the words, is the language of prayer.

A famous story is told of a young boy who could not pray. He never properly learned the words. When Yom Kippur came, his father brought the boy the services led by the famous founder of Hassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov. Nearing the end of the service, feeling overwhelmed by a desire to reach out to God, the boy played a flute. In his shock and anger, that his son had seemingly violated the Yom Kippur prohibition in playing music, the father chastised the boy. Upon hearing the events, the Ba’al Shem Tov approached the congregation and explained that finally, the gates of heaven were opened. Through the entire day, the Ba’al Shem Tov felt pained that the gates were closed and no words seemed to penetrate. Until this young lad, who didn’t know the proper words, played, and pushed open the doors to Divine. (see S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, p. 269)

My rabbinic sensibilities shudder at the thought of playing music on Yom Kippur. I have been trained in the intricacies of Jewish Law and what is permitted and what forbidden. But the Hassidim, at least in the legends, had different attitudes and understandings; an openness which allowed for the flexibility the kind offered by Jazz Music. From the descriptions I heard of Velvel Pasternak, it seems he discovered the secret of music to open gates and remover boundaries.  It was certainly a lesson worthy of learning.

In Mishlei, the wisest of men, suggests that it is better to attend a funeral than a wedding feast. From the message I learned at Velvel Pasternak’s funeral, I have new insight into what King Solomon meant.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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