Thursday, December 11, 2008
A Fateful Encounter
Rebbe Shaul fled from Poland to Vilna when World War II broke out but stayed there briefly before deciding to come to America.
After Sukkos of 1939, Rebbe Shaul and his family came to Vilna, the hotbed of Hisnagdus [opposition to Chassidus]. Whenever Rebbe Shaul had a Tish in Vilna, the shul was packed by Chassidim and Misnagdim alike, all of them pushing and shoving to get as close as possible. Rebbe Shaul commented, "Had I been alive in the time of the Gra [Vilna Gaon], there would never have been the big machlokes [dispute] between Chassidim and Misnagdim. I would have sung a niggun and the fighting would have stopped."
At a gathering of people in Vilna, a niggun of Rebbe Shaul's was sung. One of the participants told Rebbe Shaul that this niggun was composed by Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever Rav. Rebbe Shaul commented appreciatively, "It feels good to have one’s niggun called a Berditchever Niggun." As an interesting historical footnote, Rebbe Shaul spoke at the 19th of Kislev, 5700  farbrengen [gathering] of the Lubavitcher Chassidim in Vilna.
In late 1940 the Rebbe arrived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he spent seven years before moving to Palestine. It was in Williamsburg that both R. Ben-Zion Shenker and R. Shlomo Carlebach fell into the Modzitzer orbit. Carlebach had just been bar-mitzvahed and was enrolled in the Mesivta Torah Vodaas yeshiva, when he started attending the mobbed gatherings at the synagogue and at the Rebbe’s Tish or table. "It was gevalt [awesome]," Carlebach recalls. "His neshama [soul] was music. He didn't compose it. It just came out of him day and night."
And now, on to our story…
A Fateful Encounter
In 1940, in what can only be described as "a match made in Modzitzer heaven," a scrawny, very short lad, at the tender age of sixteen, met Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub of Modzitz, the second Modzitzer Rebbe (1886-1947). In those days, R. Ben-Zion Shenker would let his singing voice speak for him.
"At that age, what did I know?" said Shenker. "But I did know enough to tag along with my father when he went to Friday night services at the big Van Buren Shul, then situated in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where my family lived."
That very night, in attendance was Rebbe Shaul, the son of Rebbe Yisrael, and this was his first Shabbos since he arrived in America to live. Shenker, the singer who would make Modzitzer music even more famous worldwide, heard the great Modzitzer music for the first time, from the very lips of Rebbe Shaul at a Friday night Tish.
The next morning, after the Shabbos Shacharis [morning] service, young Ben-Zion returned home to say Kiddush for his mother, while his father remained with the Rebbe at his host's home for Shabbos lunch. Sometime later that afternoon, Shenker arrived at that home and quietly took a seat in the living room to wait for his father.
But something happened. Ben-Zion Shenker's eye caught the sight of a book on the coffee table: R. Meir Geshuri's LaChassidim Mizmor. Picking it up, Shenker leafed through the book and, having learned to read musical notation from his earliest youth, began to hum a tune from a piece of music he was looking at. Within moments, the Modzitzer Rebbe appeared before the boy.
Whatever feelings young Shenker had or didn't have at that moment, his whole body froze when he beheld, face to face, the towering figure of Rebbe Shaul.
With a fatherly smile, the Modzitzer Rebbe asked young Ben-Zion if he read music. Shenker found his voice quickly enough to say yes.
"Well, don't stop. Sing on. Sing on," the Rebbe encouraged him.
Ben-Zion started to protest that he had never read the notes before, and that he would be at a disadvantage. But, instead, he sang out, enthralling the Rebbe and all the other luncheon guests who by then had joined the Rebbe and his new protege singer in the living room.
As for Ben-Zion's father, we can only imagine him standing there, his heart bursting with pride, sensing that there was a Modzitzer in his son's future.
"The first song I sang from these notes was a 'Shir HaMaalos.' The Rebbe liked the way I sang it, and was enthused with my precision, even though I had not known this tune before at all. He asked me to sing another song, then another, and still another. Finally, he asked me my name. I told him my name was Ben-Zion."
"Then the Rebbe said, 'Don’t sing like a speeding train, but like a clock: tick-tock, tick-tock; slowly.' That was my first lesson from the Rebbe in Negina."
It began that way with Shenker and his Rebbe. "I helped in every way I could to write down Modzitzer music, under Rebbe Shaul's direction." Within a year, in 1941, at another Shalosh Seudos, Shenker heard the Rebbe sing his father's song, "Song of the Homeless" for the very first time.
"I knew I could--no, I cared not to!--sing anything again but Modzitzer music."
In 1962, he recorded the song, "Mizmor L'David," among other Modzitzer favorites, with the help of an orchestra and an eleven-man choir, conducted by Vladimir Heifetz, with music arrangements by Velvel Pasternak. For him, Modzitzer music separated the Shenker boy from the Shenker man. Surely, Meir Shimon Geshuri unconsciously had in mind Ben-Zion Shenker when he wrote about Rebbe Yisrael's songs: "The general pattern of the lengthy works is to start out on a low level and ascend to a final stage of ecstasy and positive expression of hope and confidence." From singer-composer to singer-composer, from Modzitzer Rebbes to disciple Ben-Zion Shenker, Modzitzer music is inextricably tied up with the voice of Ben-Zion Shenker.