I “met” Velvel Pasternak through his daughter and blogger Shira Pasternak Be’eri. Shira happens to be another blogger for The Times of Israel. In April 2019, she published a blog entitled “How the Frisco Kid got his Hasidi Clothing”. Paying tribute to her father who had just suffered a heart attack and painfully attempting to recover, it was also a humorous narration on her father’s attempts to assist Hollywood in making a movie. A rabbi from Los Angeles called Velvel for assistance having discovered that LA was not exactly a haven for Hasidi clothing. Common knowledge had it that New York, specifically Brooklyn, definitely was. Velvel had written a scathing humorous piece on his collaboration with Hollywood and its attempt to depict Hasidi Jews as “real” as possible. Being Hollywood, they ignored most of Velvel’s suggestions on authenticity, but thanks to him still managed to successfully get the clothing.
That April blog started a long-distance Facebook friendship with Shira. We exchanged “messages” and accepted each other’s electronic camaraderie. I must admit that prior to April I had never heard of either Shira or Velvel Pasternak. Then last week Shira announced her father’s passing. As a friend, I wanted to learn more about Velvel Pasternak. Going through various articles, I eventually discovered the life behind the man who dressed Gene Wilder as a Hasidi Rabbi in The Frisco Kid. In heartfelt support of my new friend Shira, I wanted to pay tribute to the man most of us might not have known, but wished we had.
Velvel Pasternak is responsible for approximately 150 volumes of Jewish music. He was the brains behind Tara Publications, a small company that published, preserved, and disseminated Jewish music. Not just any Jewish music, but music that would keep Jewish heritage alive and thriving. Music that would otherwise be forgotten as generations of Jews evolved or passed on.
Hasidi music was very hard to come by, but through his various endeavors Velvel discovered a cache of Hasidi Jewish song and instrumental collections that otherwise would have been lost. It is the reason why his early publications were of Hasidi songs he had arranged and conducted himself. A colorful kaleidoscope of Israeli, Yiddish, Klezmer, Choral, Cantorial, and Instrumental collections. He threw the proverbial Jewish musical net across continents to capture all flavors, ethnicity, and cultures that he knew required protection and preservation.. He published anthologies of Sephardic music; Ladino, Spanish Portuguese, and from Bosnia, Sarajevo, and Calcutta. Adding to the list of published music is also a volume on Holocaust music.
Who was Velvel Pasternak? Velvel Pasternak was born in Toronto in 1933 of Polish Orthodox parents. He can be defined as a musical prodigy having taught himself how to play the piano as a small child. His love of song must have come from his father Chaim who used to sing Modzitzer (Hasidi sect) songs, and take Velvel to a Modzitzer synagogue. His parents must have also realized his unique potential because they sent him to the Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Washington Heights, New York. At one time he was even toying with a rabbinate education, and in 1955 graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University. But his love of music prevailed and took him on another path. He studied at the famous Julliard School of Music and received a Master’s Degree in Music Education from Columbia University.
Velvel’s interest in Hasidic music was intrinsic; taking pains and opportunities in recording original music. With a tape recorder in hand, he was known to travel to the large Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhoods to record Modzitz, Lubavitch, Bobov, and Ger scores. In 1968 he published his first book of songs; Songs of the Chassidim. In 1969, he took his family to Israel and visited Hasidic enclaves like Bnei Brak, where he recorded a handful of unheard songs and scores. Eventually they were published as Songs of Chassidim II. Both volumes are now known as The Hasidic Anthology.
Hasidic music is essential to Hasidi life, culture, prayer, and heritage. Music is integral to Shabbat, weddings, ceremonies, and holidays. Distinctive nigunim (religious melodies) also identify the uniqueness of the various sects and groups. This is true of the many different musical arrangements in Hasidic music which is normally sung by men. Another good reason why Velvel was compelled to keep identifiable Jewish music alive. Therefore, it was no surprise that he managed to be the first to arrange and conduct a recording on vinyl of Modzitzer selective soulful melodies.
Velvel was a simple man wrapped up in great love of music, Judaism, and family. Tara Publication was and still is a family business that is run from the family home in Cedarhurst, Long Island. The publishing “house” is in the basement, fondly referred to by the family as “dungeon”. There, Velvel’s wife Goldie, and the children, pack, seal, stamp, and process the merchandise for mailing and distribution. They have been known to pack a station wagon and proceed on “Partridge Family” like trips to conferences and fairs displaying their merchandise, or as Shira so aptly put it: “… schmoozed with customers and sold Tara wares”.
It is a pity that Velvel entered my life a few months before he was called away to earn his wings. As a goy, my knowledge of Jewish music is understandably very limited; almost as limited as the bands who in the 1960’s attempted to play at Jewish weddings with a repertoire of Dayenu and Hava Nagila! I am so blessed that through Shira’s Frisco Kid April blog I got to know about Velvel. Unfortunately, it took his passing for me to really get to know him.
For 50 years, Velvel Pasternak dedicated his life in preserving Jewish culture and heritage through music and song. He did not dig archeological sites, and he did not delve into Biblical nuances of Jewish identity. Instead, he listened. He listened to the wonderful songs of Jews in prayer and who told their stories in song and verse. He managed to take those stories and give them to the rest of us to cherish and enjoy. In their sorrow and loss, I hope that the Pasternak family also finds time to rejoice in the knowledge that Velvel left more than his name on a musical script or publication; he left the world a historical and cultural thread into the uniqueness and beauty of Jewish music. Thank you Shira for sharing your father with us, and thank you Velvel for sharing the beauty of Jewish music with the rest of the world. alav ha-shalom
Pasternak, S. October 14, 2018. A Jubilee of Jewish Music. Times of Israel Blogs. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-jubilee-of-jewish-music/