New York – His name may have been synonymous with the house of Modzitz and its sophisticated musical works, but Rabbi Benzion Shenker, who passed away Sunday at the age of 91, leaves behind a rich musical legacy that will no doubt live on for generations.
“He had a treasure chest of Jewish music that he contributed to klal yisroel,” music producer Sheya Mendlowitz told VIN News. “He was a world class musician.”
Among the hundreds of original songs composed by Shenker, the most popular was likely his Aishes Chayil, sung in Jewish homes all over the world.
“When you sing that Aishes Chayil, no matter where you are and whose table you are at, it makes the Shabbos come alive,” observed Mendlowitz. “It’s not just stam a niggun. He was blessed with the koach but it never went to his head.”
The classic Shalosh Seudos Mizmor L’Dovid is another of the many Shenker compositions that have become part of the tapestry of Jewish life, although many have no idea that the song is a Shenker original. Yosis Olayich, another Shenker gem, has spanned the globe many times over.
“It has literally been at millions of weddings since he came on the scene,” remarked Mendlowitz.
Concert appearances by Shenker were few and far between so a 1988 appearance at the second HASC concert was a monumental event for music lovers.
“When he came out on stage there was such a roar from the audience,” said Mendlowitz. “They were so happy. That roar represented many years where the only time you were able to hear him was in shul, at a Modzitzer melava malka, or at a wedding from time to time. The Aybishter made him a shaliach to fill the world with music that made people happy and he gave people tunes that allowed them to express themselves.
In a series of interviews with the Yiddish Book Center, Shenker credited his connection to Modzitz as the inspiration for much of his music. He recalled spending the summer of 1943 in a teacher training program at a yeshiva in Spring Valley and making up a tune one day as he took a walk with a friend, who is known today to the world as Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath.,
“He said to me ‘what is that?’ and I told him I didn’t know because I was making it up as we were walking,” Shenker said. “He said, ‘it’s great, keep on going.’”
Below video is a clip: Niggunim first night of Chanukah candle light, in Borough Park on Nov. 27, 2013 led by Shenker.
As Shenker continued working on the wordless niggun, the young Rabbi Wolfson supplied lyrics that fit the tune perfectly and with that, the popular Hamavdil was born, a song that has heralded the coming of a new week in Jewish households for decades.
Shenker’s technical abilities were unparalleled said Chazan Yaakov Motzen who first met Shenker more than 50 years ago.
“He was a musician par excellence,” observed Motzen. “I don’t think that there was ever someone of his caliber, from all of the baalei minagnim and all of the chasidut, who were so complete. He did everything.”
In addition to being able to compose, score and sing his own music, Shenker was also able to accompany himself on the piano.
Motzen credited Shenker for preserving many Modzitzer niggunim by recording them and lauded his rare ability to sing Modzitzer niggunim, which were often very technically complex. Shenker was equally adept at singing sophisticated cantorial pieces even as a child, a talent honed by listening to records for hours on end in his youth.
A soft spoken, gentle individual, Shenker brooked no compromises when it came to his music. Motzen recalled the last time he saw Shenker just before Purim 2016.
“We were together in Boro Park and people were singing one of this songs, Hatov Ki Lo Chalu Rachamecha,” said Motzen. “I remember people were singing it wrong and here he was a 90 year old man and he was sick but he stopped them and showed them how to sing it correctly.”
Even when Shenker’s health began to wane, the years melted away when he found himself next to a microphone.
“He would be playing the piano and singing niggunim and it was like he was 30 years younger,” said Motzen. “The niggun gave him chiyus.”
Shenker released a song on his most recent album with words from Birkas Hachodesh and , according to Motzen, someone told Shenker that the tempo of the song should have been faster. Shenker insisted that the song had deliberately been kept at a specific pace.
“He said ‘I sang it slow like I was bentshing all the people,’” said Motzen. “It was like deep down inside he knew he was saying goodbye.”
Shenker was responsible for the release of many albums of Modzitzer music, the first of which debuted in 1957.
“It was the first Chasidishe record to come out,” said Sholom Friedlander, who knew Shenker for many years. “He was the singer and he was the one who gathered the niggunim on that record and he continued on with many more.”
Many Modzitzer niggunim were composed without words and it was Shenker who matched lyrics to the music.
“He was the one to choose the words and he was a master at that,” said Friedlander. “He was also able to take a song that had been written for other words and replace them with different words and that is how the world knows that song today.”
While Shenker didn’t look or dress like the typical Modzitzer chosid, his dedication to the Modzitzer Rebbe and the house of Modzitz was readily apparent.
“You listened to the way he sang and you knew he was an ehrliche yid, a chasidishe yid,” said Friedlander. “He would also sing the former Rebbe’s niggunim. To him it was kadosh.”
Benzion Zeitlin, a close personal friend of Shenker’s, said that Shenker knew thousands of Modztizer niggunim and had composed more than 700 original songs. His broad knowledge of music gave his works a rare diversity.
“When you hear a Carlebach song you know right away you are listening to a Carlebach song,” said Zeitlin. “A Shenker song you might not recognize as one of his because they were much more varied.”
Still, all Shenker songs shared several common elements.
“It had to be musical,” said Zeitlin. “It had to be Yiddish. And it had to be hartzig.”
Shenker also had an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history, Chasidic history, rabbeim and roshei yeshiva.
“He never set foot in Poland but he knew every street and shteibel in Warsaw,” remarked Zeitlin. “People thought he came from there but he was born in Williamsburg. He learned about Warsaw from the alte Chasidim.”
A true gentleman whose humility was exemplary despite his considerable talents, Shenker’s yiddishkeit was also noteworthy, said Zeitlin.
“His neshama was bound up in his davening and when he opened his mouth in song and prayer you could see he was having a conversation with Hashem,” said Zeitlin.
Having grown up in Crown Heights and davened in the Modzitzer shteibel, Alex Wieder had a relationship with Shenker that went back over 40 years.
“I remember when I was a little boy and on the first Pirchei record, he would come and listen to us sing and he would give advice,” said Wieder. “Rabbi Eli Lipsker and Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum were running the choir and they would listen to his advice.”
There were often new Shenker compositions sung at Shalosh Seudos in the Modzitzer shteibel and Wieder said that Simchas Torah was a truly epic event.
“He was a powerhouse and he led the entire hakafos,” said Wieder. “The greatest musicians would come to Modzitz -Velvel Pasternak, Jo Amar – and they would close off all of Crown Street. It was extremely leibidic with hakafos that went on for hours.”
While every Shenker composition was laden with meaning, he had the unique ability to make his songwriting appear effortless, noted Wieder.
“There was one time he came to visit me in Florida and he was working on a Pesach album,” recalled Wieder. “I asked him why he had never written a Chad Gadya. Two days later he called me from New York and told me he had written one on the way to the airport.”
In another instance Wieder remembered seeing Shenker singing music at a wedding that he had just made up, the notes written on a piece of tissue paper.
“When my son got married I asked him to make up a song for the wedding,” said Wieder. “He asked me what pesukim my son wanted to use and I gave him a few choices. I went out and came back half an hour later and there was the song, all written up and waiting for me on the fax machine.”
Among his most recent musical efforts were two albums of original music released together with musician Andy Statman. The first, titled Hallel V’Zimra, came out in 2014 and featured 20 original tracks. The second, Shiru Lashem, was just released this year with 15 songs. Statman said that he and Shenker were in the midst of collaborating on a third album.
Statman said he first met Shenker approximately 30 years ago when he first moved to Flatbush.
“As a singer his interpretations of the niggunim were unsurpassable,” reported Statman. “His sense of phrasing and timing were just genius and very, very powerful. I learned just listening to him about how to give over the feeling in a tune.”
Statman recalled Shenker as a person who was sweet, warm and kind and easy to work with. As the baal tefilla at the Modzitzer shul on Coney Island Avenue, Congregation Imrei Shaul, for 50 years, Shenker would introduce many new compositions during his davening. He continued to daven for the amud and record music even when his health began to falter.
“We recorded a lot of things when he was quite ill,” said Statman. “He would come alive in the studio. And when we would have huge snowstorms and there would be huge embankments blocking his way, he would just go around them no matter what it took. Nothing would stop him from doing what he wanted.”
This past Yom Kippur Shenker was back at the amud in Brooklyn at Congregation Imrei Shaul for Neilah, leading the congregation from a chair.
“His avodas Hashem was tremendous,” said Statman. “Nothing could stop him.”
While previously Shenker had managed to bounce back from a variety of ailments, he passed away on Sunday morning.
“He was one of a kind,” said Statman. “We were lucky to have had him. He was a real bracha.”
Below video: Shenker on Feb. 6, 2011 singing for first time ‘Yismach Tazdik’ Shimon Gifter/VINnews.com.
Iconic Jewish singer Avraham Fried described his last visit to Shenker’s home in Brooklyn several months ago in a Facebook post.
Fried, who was searching for new songs for an upcoming album, recalled being humbled to be in the presence of such a musical giant. In addition to his brilliance as a composer and a singer, Fried recalled Shenker’s immeasurable talents as a baal tefila.
“He lived and he breathed his davening,” said Fried. “His yiras shomayim were the wings that carried his tefilos and those of his congregants upwards to Gan Eden.”
Shenker’s loss is one that affects the entire Jewish community, observed Fried.
“His voice, his talent and his genius have been stilled,” said Fried. “But thank G-d, his voice, his talent and his genius will live on forever through his recordings.
Hundreds came to bid a final farewell to a man who filled this world with beautiful music on Sunday afternoon at Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park.
Among those who eulogized Shenker were three of his grandsons, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, a son of the Modzitzer Rebbe, and close friend and associate Lazer Menachem Borenstein, with the Kel Maley Rachamim recited by Chazan Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.
Shenker was buried at the Washington Cemetery in Deans, New Jersey next to his wife Mrs. Dina Shenker who passed away several years ago.
Shenker is survived by his daughters, Mrs. Esther Reifman, Mrs. Adele Newmark and Mrs. Bracha Weinberger and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Below video: Kel Maley Rachamim recited by Chazan Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. Credit: Dov Lenchevsky/VINnews.com.
Below photos: from the Funeral in Brooklyn Nov. 21, 2016