New Book Goes Be­hind the Scenes of Ha­sidic Mu­si­cal Her­itage

The Jewish Voice - - BOOK REVIEW - By: Rabbi Jack Riemer (JNS.ORG) “Be­hind the Mu­sic: Sto­ries, Anec­dotes, Ar­ti­cles & Re­flec­tions;” by Velvel Paster­nak; Tara Pub­li­ca­tions; May 2017; 229 pages; ISBN-10: 1495098966; ISBN-13: 978-1495098963.

You don’t need to be a scholar of Jewish mu­sic to en­joy Velvel Paster­nak’s new book, “Be­hind the Mu­sic: Sto­ries, Anec­dotes, Ar­ti­cles & Re­flec­tions.” You just need to be some­one who wants to learn about the ad­ven­tures of the au­thor, a man who has done more than any­one else in our time to dis­cover, record and trans­mit the trea­sures of Ha­sidic mu­sic.

Velvel, as ev­ery­one calls him, tells won­der­ful sto­ries about his ex­pe­ri­ences—sto­ries that will make you laugh, but also help you learn what lies be­hind some of the songs you think you al­ready know.

How did Velvel get into the work of tran­scrib­ing and record­ing Ha­sidic mu­sic? Once one of the chil­dren of the Bobover Rebbe came home from school singing a nig­gun (tune). When his fa­ther asked him where the nig­gun came from, the child had no idea it was his grand­fa­ther’s melody. That was the day when the Bobover Rebbe re­al­ized his fam­ily’s mu­si­cal her­itage needed to be recorded or it would dis­ap­pear, and Velvel got the job.

Some of Velvel’s sto­ries are hi­lar­i­ous. Once, the head hon­cho of the Ha­sidim told him “not to make with his hands” since the Ha­sidim would sing with their eyes closed any­way, be­cause they were more con­cerned with ex­press­ing the melody’s spir­i­tual mean­ing than with pay­ing at­ten­tion to Velvel. He also told Velvel that the mu­si­cians he had hired to ac­com­pany the Ha­sidim would not be nec­es­sary, since the Ha­sidim would pay no at­ten­tion to them. Velvel re­al­ized he was ar­gu­ing with an ir­re­sistible force, so he let the Ha­sidim sing with­out try­ing to con­duct them and dubbed in the mu­si­cians’ play­ing af­ter the Ha­sidim left. The record­ing came out fine.

Velvel’s first al­bum was a best­seller—much to his sur­prise and to the Ha­sidim’s sur­prise. He went on to pub­lish many more al­bums, res­cu­ing trea­sures of Ha­sidic mu­sic that might oth­er­wise have dis­ap­peared.

My fa­vorite story from the book re­lates to a re­quest from Rabbi Laizer Hal­ber­stam that Velvel’s record­ings be “au­t­en­tic” (how the Ha­sidim pro­nounced au­then­tic). Velvel had no idea what “au­t­en­tic” meant to the the Ha­sidim. He gath­ered a crew of 15 pro­fes­sional can­tors to be the choir. The first song he chose was “Si­man Tov U’Mazel Tov,” which is sung at many Jewish wed­dings. He du­ti­fully translit­er­ated it, us­ing the Bobover di­alect to please Rabbi Hal­ber­stam, who had come along that night to make sure the record­ing would be “au­t­en­tic.” But when the choir got to the words “yi­hai looney”—mean­ing “it will be to us” in English and more com­monly pro­nounced by its He­brew di­alect, “yehei lanu”—they broke up in laugh­ter and could not con­tinue. They tried sev­eral times, but the same thing hap­pened. Fi­nally, the mem­bers of the choir went over to Rabbi Hal­ber­stam and tried to ex­plain to him why they sim­ply could not sing “looney” with­out laughing.

Rabbi Hal­ber­stam lis­tened po­litely and said, “Let me tell you a story.” He re­counted how the cul­tural am­bas­sador of the Ivory Coast once went to his coun­ter­part, the cul­tural am­bas­sador of Is­rael, and sug­gested they have a cul­tural ex­change. The na­tions could send each other their singers and dancers, but with one con­di­tion: The Ivory Coast’s dancers would dance naked “from here to here,” said the African na­tion’s en­voy, draw­ing a line from his shoul­ders to his waist. The Is­raeli am­bas­sador was shocked. He said, “No way! If I were to let you do that, the min­is­ter of re­li­gion would hang me from a tree, and his peo­ple would throw stones at me as they passed by!”

The Is­raeli am­bas­sador of­fered a com­pro­mise. He said, “You can wear what­ever you want in your own coun­try. But when you land at the air­port here, I will be there and I will give you shmat­tes (rags) that you can put on and that you can wear while you are in my coun­try.” The Ivory Coast am­bas­sador replied that if the dancers were to wear the shmat­tes, they might be able to dance well, but they would not be au­then­tic.

Then Rabbi Hal­ber­stam told the choir re­gard­ing their un­will­ing­ness to sing “yi­hay looney” in the Bobover pro­nun­ci­a­tion, “If you change the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of our song, it may sound nice to you, but be­lieve me, it would not be au­then­tic to us. And if the peo­ple of the Ivory Coast un­der­stand what is au­then­tic, then you should too.” That ended the dis­cus­sion. The can­tors sang “yi­hay looney,” af­ter all.

The book is full of such sto­ries. It con­tains fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial on some of the songs whose ori­gins you think you know, but don’t. Do you know where Naomi She­mer got the idea for “Jerusalem of Gold?” Or where Naf­tali Herz Im­ber got the mu­sic for “Hatik­vah,” Is­rael’s na­tional an­them?

“Be­hind the Mu­sic” is en­riched with some won­der­ful pho­to­graphs and tells read­ers where to find per­for­mances of ev­ery song the au­thor dis­cusses on YouTube. Even if you think you al­ready know Jewish mu­sic, this book is worth­while for the in­sights it pro­vides into the worlds of Ha­sidim, clas­sic Jewish can­to­rial mu­sic and Yid­dish theater. And per­haps most im­por­tantly, you’ll get to know Velvel, the man who recorded a her­itage and saved it for a new gen­er­a­tion.

The cover of “Be­hind the Mu­sic: Sto­ries, Anec­dotes, Ar­ti­cles & Re­flec­tions,” by Velvel Paster­nak. Credit: Tara Pub­li­ca­tions.

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