The passing of R. Ben-Zion Shenker on November 20 (19 Heshvan, 5777) marks the end of an era in modern Hassidic music in general, and in the illustrious musical history of the Modzitz dynasty in particular. We shall not reproduce here details of R. Shenker’s biography that are well summarized in the impressive obituary published by the New York Times last week and at the Milken Archive website.
R. Shenker was generous in his sharing of details about his life and work. The following excerpts from an priceless interview with Dr. Hankus Netsky from 2012, recorded in the framework of the oral histories of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, provides Shenker’s insights into key moments of his trajectory.
R. Shenker also shared stories in other interviews, such as his version of the legend behind the arguably most famous of the Modzitz niggunim, “Ani Ma’amin,” that became a staple of Holocaust memorials.
A prolific composer of hundreds of niggunim, the American-born R. Shenker picked up the torch of the celebrated Modzitz dynasty of “musical” tsaddikim when, as fifteen-year old promising musician, he met the second Rebbe of Modzitz, R. Shaul Yedidya Elazar, upon the latter’s arrival to America in 1940. The Modzitzer Rebbe had barely escaped a Europe whose Jewry was going up in flames. R. Shenker himself described this “cosmic” musical encounter in detail in his interviews and it is vividly recounted with utmost detail in the blog Heichal Hanegina (a key concept in Modzitzer “musicology”) that was active until 2014.
Beyond his fame as a niggun composer, performer and teacher, R. Shenker was a distinguished ba’al tefillah (“master of prayer”), a term employed by Hassidim to refer to cantors who lead their congregations into remarkable, spiritual prayer experiences. Standard narratives do not stress R. Shenker’s outstanding cantorial gifts enough. However, these recordings show that, in spite of the Hassidic abstinence from traditional Ashkenazi hazzanut claimed by more than one scholar, R. Shenker certainly was an exceptional ba’al tefillah, competent in the inner workings of the modalities of non-Hassidic Ashkenazi prayer.
The items that we publish here in his memory are two excerpts from an historical recording found in the Kol Israel (the Israeli state radio) archive. On 25 Elul 5723 (late Saturday night of September 14, 1963) R. Ben Zion Shenker led his community in prayer during the Selihot rishonot (the formal opening of the High Holy Days’ season according to the Ashkenazi rite) at the Beit Midrash Modzitz in Brooklyn, New York. R. Biniyamin Tzvieli )Hertzkovich), one of the pioneers of Israeli radio and television religious programming, recorded this event for posterity and edited it for broadcast.
The live recording of the only High Holy Days' event occurring on a weekday grants us a vivid glimpse into the deepest aspects of Jewish liturgy. The first piece is the opening Kaddish of the event in the traditional Eastern European Ashkenazi nussah for the High Holy Days. The subtle interaction between the ba’al tefillah and the congregation creates a unique atmosphere in which formal (if improvised) choral techniques intermingle with the intuitive outpouring from the congregation. R. Shenker’s performance is thoroughly outstanding in that, in spite of its vocal intensity, it never crosses the lines into a purely virtuoso display of hazzanut.
The second piece is at the very end of the same event. It is the Titkabal nign, i.e. a niggun for the ending Kaddish of the service. This well-rounded two-section niggun was authored by none other than the Imrei Shaul, R. Shaul Yedidya Elazar of Modzitz, who induced R. Ben Zion Shenker to become the house composer of his Hassidic dynasty. The niggun shows the Imrei Shaul as a first-rate composer with a true sense of musical structure even within a rather short composition. The live performance of the niggun during the service, i.e. at its appropriate liturgical moment, offers a stark contrast with its “official” commercial recording by the Modzitz Hasidim.
We are thankful to Avi Taylor and Matan Wygoda for facilitating the identification of the Titkabal nign and for other details about the Modzitzer musical tradition.