Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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Velvel Pasternak: A farewell symphony

How and why my father’s soul's graveside ascent to the heavens was accompanied by the strains of a niggun
To the strains of a niggun (Photo montage: Shira Pasternak Be’eri)

Molto Allegro

My father left this world as he lived in it: surrounded by family and admirers, deeply immersed in Jewish tradition, and accompanied by music.

To the world, Velvel Pasternak was Mr. Jewish Music — the world’s foremost expert on Hasidic music and most prolific publisher of Jewish songs. Through his music, he impacted countless Jews across the spectrum of Judaism — touching their hearts, inspiring their souls, and sparking their imaginations. In day schools, Hebrew schools, and summer camps; in dining rooms, workshops, and recording studios; at college institutes, synagogues, and conferences, he shared his passion for Jewish music, Jewish life, Jewish culture, and Jewish tradition. Accompanied by his life’s partner, my mother Goldie, he loved and served the entire Jewish people, producing over 150 books of Jewish music to preserve their heritage. And as we saw from the myriad of tributes and messages that we received after his death, the Jewish people loved him back.

To me and my brothers and sisters, however, Velvel Pasternak was simply Dad — a devoted family man, a loving husband, a generous father, and a doting “Zaidy,” who always had a toddler on his lap, while he sang silly songs. He was a doer and a dreamer, encouraging us to find our own paths and follow our passions, as he did, without ever losing sight of who we are and where we came from.

More than anything, my father was a master story teller. And it was one of his stories that gave me insight into both his essential nature and the way he wished to be laid to rest when his time came. Published in his book Behind the Music, the story is told here as I read it at his funeral in Jerusalem, 30 days ago:

The Sassover Rebbe took upon himself the duty of assisting poor brides financially and providing them with the basic necessities for married life. When he was able to accomplish this, his final act was attending their weddings.

One day, at the nuptial ceremony of an orphaned bride, a group of itinerant klezmer musicians played a melody that impressed the Rebbe. He was overheard saying “It is my wish that this same tune will accompany my burial.”

Many years later the Rebbe died. Hundreds of Hasidim traveled from across Europe to accompany him to the cemetery and escort him to eternal rest. At a crossroad, the mourners saw a group of musicians sitting in a horse drawn cart. They assumed the musicians were on their way to a wedding. Suddenly, however, the horse broke into a gallop and whisked the musicians away.

When the funeral procession arrived at the entrance to the cemetery, these same musicians, who were now holding their instruments in playing position, greeted the Hasidim. The Hasidim were angered and assumed that the musicians had come to mock the proceedings. Why else would musicians be at a funeral?

But just then, one of the older Hasidim remembered the Rebbe’s wish of long ago. He remembered that the Rebbe had expressed the desire that a specific tune be played at his burial.

Consternation broke out within the Hasidim. Up until the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a husband was obligated to hire two wind instrumentalists to accompany the casket of his departed wife. After the destruction of the Temple, however, it was decreed that musical instruments should not be used at funerals. This became the tradition for two thousand years.

Yet, an eyewitness had heard the Rebbe declare his wish for a melody to accompany his burial. What should be done?

To resolve the legal question, a rabbinical court was quickly formed from among the learned Hasidim, with piles of rocks assembled so the judges could sit during their deliberation. The verdict, which broke with longstanding tradition, was that the wish of the Sassover Rebbe must be honored.

The witness, an old man, was asked if he could recall the melody. After answering in the affirmative, he approached the musicians and hummed a few bars. The musicians took up the strains of the melody, and as the Rebbe’s body was lowered into the ground, it was accompanied by a tune which many years before had escorted a poor orphaned bride to the wedding canopy.

Of all the stories related to Hasidic music, no other story has quite the force and emotional appeal for a musician as this one. Long-standing tradition is broken, and music becomes not only the accompanying motif of one’s life, but also the companion of the Hasid on his eternal journey. The soul, in returning to the Maker, ascends to the strains of a melody.

The powerful ending of this story, as my father told it, was a clear statement to me that although it may be a departure from tradition, my father would have wanted there to be music at his funeral, even if it is not the norm, so that his soul could ascend to his Maker to the strains of a niggun.

Andante

Playing music at an Orthodox funeral in Israel is a fairly radical practice, but we had a precedent: the funeral of Naphtali Lau-Lavie, father of Jerusalem’s Rabbi Benny Lau. A journalist and former Israeli consul general to New York, Naphtali Lau-Lavie is perhaps best known for saving the life of his younger brother, former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, during the Holocaust. The Lau brothers were aged 16 and 5 at the start of the war, when they were separated from their parents and Naphtali assumed responsibility for the care of his younger sibling. The following story, told here as it has been told by the brother who was saved, explains the significance of the tune played at Naphtali Lau-Lavie’s funeral:

On the first night of Hanukkah in 1944, Naphtali and “Srulik” Lau arrived at the Czestochowa labor camp in Poland. Naphtali heard a familiar tune. He followed the sound to the corner of the shack they were in. There he found cantor Yossel Mandelbaum, whose voice Naphtali recognized from the Bobov synagogue in his grandparents’ community of Krakow. Mandelbaum, who had been stripped of his beard, was sitting on the cold earth and singing Mikdash Melech (“The Sanctuary of the King”) from the Friday night Lecha Dodi prayer. When he finished the song, he led those present in reciting the blessings on the Hanukkah candles and in singing Maoz Tzur. Naphtali was so moved by the memories of his pre-war past that he took out the inscribed Bible that he had received from his uncle for his bar mitzva, a treasure during the Holocaust, and gave it to Mandelbaum as a gift.

A week later, the Lau brothers arrived at Buchenwald. There they saw a mountain of personal effects that were piled in front of the furnace. At the top of the pile was the inscribed Bible that Naphtali had given to Yossel Mandelbaum. They assumed that he had been taken to the camp, and since they never saw him during the time they were there, they concluded that he was no longer alive.

Forty years later, when Naphtali Lau-Lavie was serving as Israel’s consul general in New York, he visited the Bobover Rebbe on Hanukkah. Naphtali was asked to recount a memory of Hanukkah during the Holocaust, and he told the story of Mandelbaum’s singing in Czestochowa. After the story had been told, the Rebbe mysteriously whispered something to one of his aids. Minutes later, a man with a long, white beard arrived. It was Yossel Mandelbaum, who had survived the war! He sang the tune he had sung in the labor camp, and closed a circle for Naphtali Lau-Lavie.

In the fall of 2014, ashes from Ravensbrück and Treblinka were mixed with the soil of Jerusalem, and Naphtali Lau-Lavie was laid to rest on the slopes of Har Hamenuchot. After his grave was filled in, a lone clarinetist played the soulful strains of Mikdash Melech, the tune that had brought Naphtali solace during the Holocaust, had survived the war, and now accompanied his soul as it returned to his Maker.

Minuetto, Allegretto

When it became clear that my father had been permanently silenced, and five Pasternak siblings on two continents began to think about an impending funeral, I shared my father’s story about the Sassover Rebbe and proposed that a musician would play a niggun after the burial in Israel. Most of my family welcomed the idea as beautiful; there was some concern, however, that the break in tradition was too radical. Reluctant to create waves, I shelved the idea.

But when the dreaded moment of planning the funeral arrived, the idea surfaced again, this time with greater force. My father taught me that there are mansions in heaven that can be opened only through song. He taught me that melody is the key with which to unlock the gates of Heaven, and is the ladder to the throne of God. My father taught me that melody is the outpouring of the soul, and that a niggun can elevate the soul to great heights. It was clear to me that my father’s soul, like that of the Sassover Rebbe, must ascend to the strains of a niggun.

To be sure, I had a rabbinic dispensation, I consulted with Rav Benny Lau, who confirmed that it is permissible to play music once the burial is complete, and added that from what I had described of my father, it would indeed be a fitting thing to do.

The search for a musician then began. When we were unsuccessful in locating local musicians who had worked with my father, my sister Atara suggested that we contact Eliezer Rosenfeld, an Israeli clarinetist known for a heart-wrenching video of him singing at the funeral of his son Malachi, who was gunned down in a terror attack in 2015. Malachi was the second son that Eliezer buried. His son Yitzchak-Menachem — an air force pilot who had been named for Eliezer’s brother, who had fallen during his IDF service — had died in a flash flood in the Judean desert in 2002. Despite the multiple layers of grief, Eliezer stood at the funeral of his second son and sang about his unswerving belief. If there was anyone who could relate to the need for music at a funeral, it was clearly him.

We reached out via email and Facebook. Hours before the funeral, when it seemed that our attempts at contact had not been noticed, we got a boost from a friend of Atara’s, who lived in Eliezer’s community. I trembled when I answered the telephone. Eliezer said he would be honored to play, refusing pay for this act of love. I asked him if he was familiar with my father’s work, but Eliezer didn’t recognize the name. “If he published Carlebach music, I think I might have some booklets that he published,” he said.

I first met Eliezer Rosenfeld outside the funeral hall after the eulogies had been completed. In the satchel at his side, a familiar red book with a spiral binding peeked out. It was Rejoice!, my father’s first paperback book of contemporary Hasidic music, published in the 1970s. Its well-worn cover indicated that it had been used often, over many years.

Eliezer walked with the mourners to the graveside. Then, once the grave had been filled in, he began to play. The clarinet swelled and trilled, its notes reaching down deep into the land in which we are rooted and piercing straight up to the heavens. It wept and leapt and swept us all up with it.

“The soul is Yours and the body is Your work,” he played as we cried and swayed. While we had expected just one tune, he continued with another — a song of praise from the Shabbat morning liturgy, and then another: the profound statement of faith “Ani Maamin.” And then, unexpectedly, Eliezer Rosenfeld, the musician who had not recognized my father’s name, spoke. His words gave us goosebumps:

Dear family, I feel like I am closing a circle. I have been playing for 40 years. When I first started out, I looked for notes for niggunim and I found the books of your father, of blessed memory. The songs and tunes that your father transcribed helped me to overcome a period of great mourning in my life. It is not by chance that you called and you wrote to me. And when I came here with all my heart, I closed a circle of 40 years, from the time when I first searched for music notes, through my years of playing them. In playing at this time, when your father’s soul is ascending higher and higher together with the niggun, I am closing a great circle. I would also like to thank him, for the great work that he has done for the treasury of Jewish music for the generations of the Jewish people — all types of Jewish music.

Eliezer concluded with “Rabot Machshavot” — or, as it was pronounced when first recorded by The Rabbis Sons in the late 1960s, “Rabos Machshavos,” a song that he had learned from the book that he had brought to the funeral. If my father had one professional regret, it was that despite his efforts, he had never succeeded in selling his music books in Israel. And yet, through one of his books, this song by Rabbi Baruch Chait had made aliyah from New York, had entered the Israeli musical repertoire, and was being played by an Israeli klezmer musician as my father’s soul ascended to the Heavens.

If there had been any remaining question as to whether there should be music at my father’s funeral, it had been answered.

Finale, Allegro Assai

My father’s soul ascended to the strains of a niggun. But even if we had not found a musician of flesh and blood to play at his funeral, I believe that music would have been my father’s companion on his eternal journey. As I described it in my eulogy, in my mind’s eye, I imagined the reception he received on high as follows:

It didn’t take long for word to get out in the Heavens that my father was on his way. As he arrived, the great masters of Hasidic music all came out to welcome him: Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Kabbalists of Tzfat, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Taub dynasty of Modzitz, Rabbi Yankel Talmud of Ger, the Hasidim of Bobov, and the Hasidim of Karlin.

King David’s magical harp was playing when the north wind touched its strings, and the stairway to heaven was flanked by the 12 singers of the Temple playing the 12 instruments of its orchestra.

And they were singing tish songs, and rikud dances, and meditative dveykus niggunim, Hasidic marches, waltzes, and even operas, with lyrics like bim bom, yam bam, and yadi dadi – lyrics that let your spirit soar, punctuated by the occasional “aha aha” and “oy vey!” And they were singing the Marseilles (“a holy Lubavitcher niggun”), Misserlou (“a holy Bratslaver niggun”) and Napoleon’s March.

And all the characters of my father’s stories were there in full force: the conservative cantors who couldn’t contain their laughter when they sang the lyric “yehai loony” in a Hasidic recording of “Siman Tov Umazal Tov”; the stately Hasidic rabbi who made a point about authenticity by telling a story about bare-chested dancers from the Ivory Coast, and the Lubavitcher Hasidim who told my father to “make with his hands” while they sang to the Rebbe and had no intention of watching him conduct.

My father’s soul was accompanied by the strains of Rossi’s Barchu, and Lewandowski’s Zacharti Lach, of Hava Nagila and Bei Mir Bist Du Shain. Reb Shlomo was there singing Essa Einai, Naomi Shemer was singing Shirat Haasabim, and Uzi Hitman was singing Adon Olam. Ben Zion Shenker was singing Mizmor L’Dovid, and greeted my father, thanking him for recently immortalizing his musical legacy. And as my father passed Debbie Friedman singing her Misheberach, she winked, and the two of them shared a laugh at the fact that her Havdalah is being sung all across the Orthodox world.

My father’s soul returned to his Maker on the wings of the melodies that he preserved and the merit of the souls that he touched in his lifetime. May the strains of the musical legacy to which he dedicated his life accompany us and our generations for all eternity.

____
This post was published on the 30th day after the passing of my father, Velvel Pasternak z”l, who died in New York on June 11, 2019 and was buried in Israel on June 12th. Its four movements are patterned after Mozart’s 40th symphony, which I played to him while sitting at his bedside in the hospital during the weeks before his death.

Thank you to Shlomo Zwickler for facilitating our contact with Eliezer Rosenfeld and for filming the clarinet playing at the graveside, to Shifra Osofsky Friedman for the photo of the cemetery used in the montage, and to Yael Shahar for inspiring the graphic. And most of all, thank you to my sister Atara Pasternak Greenberg, for pushing me to follow my heart. Without her, there would not have been music at my father’s funeral.

You can learn about my father’s life and work in his New York Times obituary, in my blog post about his 50 years in the Jewish music business, and on his Facebook memorial page. There is comfort in knowing how many lives my father touched and that his musical legacy will live on. You can find that legacy on the Tara Publications website. And if you have any memories of your own to share with my family, please share them in the comments below.

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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