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Monday, December 08, 2008


The HOMELESS Mizmor L'David

Tuesday night and Wednesday, 13 Kislev, is the 88th yahrzeit of Rebbe Yisrael of Modzitz, known as the Divrei Yisrael. My previous posts can be found here:
Setting the Record Straight
The Divrei Yisrael on Negina
The Ezkera of the Divrei Yisrael

The following brief bio also serves as an intro to our story:

The Modzitz Chassidic dynasty was founded by Rebbe Yisrael Taub zt"l, who was born in 1849, in Ratcoinz, Poland. In 1888, upon the death of his father, Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu of Zvolin, he assumed the leadership of the Kuzmir-Zvolin Chassidus. In 1891, he settled in Modzitz and resided there until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, at which time he fled to Warsaw. He remained there until his death, on the 13th of Kislev 5681 (Nov. 24, 1920).
He was a prolific composer of niggunim - hundreds of which are remembered to this very day, in Modzitz and across the Jewish landscape. One of his most famous, the Heimlozer Niggun - (Niggun L'Mechusrei Bayis) or the Song of the Homeless - which is perhaps better known as his Mizmor L'David - has become a classic. Through it, the Rebbe expresses musically the feelings of a Jew uprooted from his home due to war, wandering around and living almost exclusively from emuna [on faith].

"Mizmor L'David" - the Story of the "Homeless Niggun"

Modzitz became famous because of its Rebbes, beginning with Rebbe Yisrael Taub, whose niggunim won the hearts of many. He paved a new, unique way in this realm. In his lofty, original compositions, one does not feel an imitation of the people or the environment in which he lived. He created a special world without interference from the outside. His compositions are noted for their clarity, loftiness and strength of soul.

His "Melody of the Homeless" achieved unusual popularity. It was composed in the town of Radom at the time of the First World War, when hunger and distress were the lot of thousands who passed through the city to find refuge and calm from the attacks of the Germans. The niggun is replete with legend. Some called it "The Niggun of War or Peace." It is said that the Rebbe composed it when Kaiser Wilhelm turned to England and France with an offer of peace.

Others called it "Mizmor L'David," since the Rebbe sang it to these words [Tehillim 23] each Shabbos at Shalosh Seudos [the third meal]. In the niggun, Rebbe Yisrael poured out his pain and distress over the lot of the Jews - and there was no one that wasn't in distress. The Rebbe would say that only through niggun could one attain redemption, an idea that all the great leaders of Chassidus, from the Ba'al Shem Tov onwards, espoused and promoted.

As mentioned, the niggun was composed during World War I, when the soldiers of the Russian Czar's army banished the Jews from the fortified cities. The Rebbe, together with the other Jews, had to take up the staff of exile from Modzitz, known as the Ivangrad Fortress. The decree was made hastily, and no form of persuasion could help to deter it. Situated on the Vistula River, the Ivangrad Fortress was considered a key stronghold, and the Jews were seen as potential spies and enemies of the "Homeland".

Rebbe Yisrael accepted the decree and moved to Radom. There he saw the tragedy that befell Polish Jewry - thousands of refugees, homeless, wandering from place to place. This pierced his heart, and gave rise to new niggunim. The niggun "Mizmor L'David", composed in Radom, gave expression to his pained heart, which was filled with hope and trust in Hashem as well. What an expression of faith can be found in the words, "Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I'll fear no evil, for You are with me." The niggun is an admixture of pain and comfort. The uprooted refugees found the tune to be a balm for their distress, and sung it at every opportunity. It became an anthem of the homeless refugees, on the trembling lips of many - a true "song of the people." It was sung on Shabbos and Yom Tov, by Chassidim and non-Chassidim alike, and became a theme song for Jewish musicians [klezmerim] at weddings and other musical events.

Together with the famous "Ezkera", this tune gave Modzitz a name for outstanding music. At the war's end, with the restoration of free, safe travel, the niggun spread far and wide. It enchanted hearts with its warmth, soulfulness and lyricism. It even began to outweigh the "Ezkera" in popularity. However, this was in no small part due to the difficulty in singing and remembering the latter, more complex niggun.

It is not a lengthy tune, befitting to an anthem, with easy movement. It can be compared to a gripping story that one cannot put down in the middle of reading. The tune rises in waves from the beginning, and so on throughout its various parts until the end. It is based on a Jewish musical scale. Sung slowly, it contains six parts, some short, some lengthier, which fit together perfectly. The notes were published in many newspapers in Poland, Germany, Argentina and America with many details of the life of Rebbe Yisrael. Once heard, it is not easily forgotten.
Here is a link to the niggun as sung by R. Ben-Zion Shenker:

The niggun has the unique distinction of being sung annually on the Divrei Yisrael's yahrzeit. Those readers in Israel or the NYC area, can attend the yahrzeit seuda Tuesday night, with Ma'ariv at 9 PM in Bnei Brak, or 8:15 in Flatbush, New York.

The niggun has also been sung on the rare occasions that the Modzitzer Rebbe and his Chassidim have visited the kever [gravesite] of the Divrei Yisrael in Warsaw, Poland. I was told by those who have participated on such visits that the feelings generated by singing it there are indescribable!

Zechuso yagein Aleinu v'al kol Yisrael - May the Divrei Yisrael's merits protect us all!

I learn so much from your posts.
Hey Yitz, nice pinup of Eliezer! Any info on how & when the new CD will hit thew US????
Does anyone have or who can make a recording of Reb Yisrael's Ezkerah?
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