Sherwood Goffin Interview

Cantor Sherwood Goffin interviewed by Daniel Schley for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, June 2011

Biographical Sketch

Sherwood Goffin was Chazzan of The Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s West Side since its founding in 1965. He was Coordinator of Outreach of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University, where he has taught college-level classes in Jewish Liturgy and Folk Music since 1987. He was the Honorary and Past President of the Cantorial Council of America.  Chazzan Sherwood Goffin died on April 2, 2019.

Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Cantor Sherwood Goffin. The text follows the spoken audio faithfully, with few edits or contextual corrections of imperfect grammar, etc., so that the original intent and flow of the spoken interview is not compromised.  We have embedded links in the text where it made sense.  We have also included additional links of interest at the end of this page.


DS: What were your influences and how did you 1) develop your music, 2) start singing Jewish Folk Music?

SG: Well, I came from somewhat of a musical background. I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and I had two uncles who were itinerant cantors - chazzanim. They used to daven Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in different synagogues in New Haven and environs. And they always sang - they sang zemiros at home. My zaydie was a Slonimer Chassid who insisted that many of the shuls [in New Haven should] have Shalosh seudos -- they never even had Shalosh seudos in those synagogues. And, being of Chassidic background - they were Slonimer Chassidim - they would always sing…sing niggunim. So, wherever we went and whatever event we had, whether it was a Pesach Seder or whatever, they were always singing. So, when I was three, they say they already put me on a stool and they had me singing already. But, that was the beginning of the influence, and I mean, I never dreamed frankly, that I would ever become involved in Jewish music as an adult. 

But, when I went away to Yeshiva for High school, I ended up in Torah Vodaath, and one of the strong influences in my family was the Bostoner Rebbe of New York [who lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn]. The Bostoner Rebbe of New York was the one who convinced my mother to send me there - to Torah Vodaath - in the first place, and as a result I stayed there [at the Rebbe’s home] almost every Shabbos. And, most of the songs [I learned then] came from the Bostoner Rebbe. (I think Dartmouth may have one of those recordings of the songs of the Bostoner Rebbe.) Most of “the music of the Bostoner Rebbe” came out of New York, not out of Boston, because the original Chassidic group of Boston actually moved [ ] to New York in 1938, and only later on when there was nobody there for many years, they asked the younger brother to come up [to Boston]. The original Rebbe and his older son came to New York, and there they were very much involved in music. So, you can imagine that every single Shabbos I sat around the table with people who sang beautiful songs, and composed beautiful songs, with beautiful zemiros. In fact, one of the sons of the Bostoner Rebbe became a Chazzan in Manhattan for a few years in the Moriah Synagogue, which is no longer in existence. But it was an amazing experience, and really awoke something inside of me that I think I never ever realized was there before. I had played violin from the time I was six years old - I took violin [lessons]. But certainly, in terms of Jewish music, that’s really what really triggered my interest in, and my whole love of it, [were] the years I spent in High School with the Bostoner Rebbe.

Then later on, I took up the guitar, and although I was a pre-med student in college - in Yeshiva College - I got involved in Yeshiva University Seminars. And people wanted me to come and play at different events, and [that] at Yeshiva University Seminar weekends I should be the music director and I should play, teach niggunim, and teach songs with my guitar. And the process began because of the 75th anniversary of Yeshiva University [in 1961]. My roommate, who had always been sitting and listening to me playing my guitar, said, “I'm the president of the Student Council, and I want you to sing as an “interlude.” We're going to have a very big event celebrating the 75th anniversary of Yeshiva University in a very big auditorium [at YU]. And, the president of the university [Dr. Belkin] is going to speak, and others, and I want you to be the musical interlude.” So, that started me off! Everybody thought I was, already, a “professional,” and that sort of “tickled” me [to think of it that way]. [Note: That “interlude” was recorded].

Eventually, I went on and I became very busy doing whole weekends, doing 2 to 3 jobs at a time. And, I figured, “Hey, I can’t do medicine, because this is too exciting! I have to have a little more time. I can’t be a doctor and be ‘stuck’ away [in an office], and be a frustrated singer.” So I switched - first to biology, then to psychology. Eventually, I graduated [with a B.A.] in psychology. Having been the nephew of itinerant cantors in New Haven, Connecticut, when I got to the age of 19 they said, “you know, there is this small shul in New Haven. Would you like to daven Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the Chazzan? So, [I said] “OK.” They taught me how to daven, and I did daven, and each year I went to the next step to a “higher” shul, the bigger shul, and the [even] bigger shul. But that was just for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I never dreamed that I would ever have [this] as a career. 

I was also enjoying, of course, a folk[singing concert] career, and it was very exciting to do. But I was getting married, and I had to make a “few bucks,” so when a job came up in the Bronx for a full-time Cantor after I graduated college, I agreed to take it. While I was going to the Graduate School of Psychology [CUNY] and I guess, about a year and a half later in my second year there [in the Bronx], I got a call from this Rabbi Riskin whom I knew from Yeshiva University - from the Youth Department. We used to go to different places, and I would “warm up” the crowd with niggunim and my guitar, and he would then “hit ‘em” with the Torah. So, it was a nice duo. He called me [to say] that he’s starting this new synagogue, this new shul, in mid-town Manhattan in a place called Lincoln Center, and he wants me to be his Chazzan because he doesn’t want anyone to just “get up and starting davening.” If they would just “get up and start davening,” you don’t know what kind of quality you [would] have from one week to another, and he was trying to attract these people who are not close to Judaism. These are people, basically, with no background, or [with] a Reform or Conservative background. He is trying to give them a Traditional synagogue and a Traditional way of life, and he needed someone who had, and would do, a beautiful davening. 

And, he knew that I sang niggunim. In those days, cantors really didn’t sing many melodies in the synagogue. It was a mostly “cantorial, operatic-recitatives” type of thing. I had studied that in the Belz School of Jewish Music at YU. I did take classes at the Belz School of Jewish Music, and I had studied voice for a number of years, so I could do that type of thing. But he wanted someone who could “turn them on” with melodies - proper melodies, not improper melodies; not just [to] “throw everything in but the kitchen sink.” So, my wife and I said, “well, we’ll try it for a year and see what happens.” I said: “wait, if I am going to do this job…(after a while I said) I might as well get a degree in this,” and I went back to Yeshiva University and got a degree in Cantorial Music. I had taken a leave of absence from the School of Psychology at City College, and I never went back. 

And from then on, every single year, this synagogue doubled and tripled and quadrupled in size, and we built a new building. And I was still pretty busy in my [folk-singing] career. By 1970, I started recording. I had been reluctant to record before because I was so busy. I didn’t want to have to be responsible to a record producer who has to make money, and therefore I[‘d] have to go out and have to “do jobs” for him. I wanted to be my own independent contractor. So, until 1970, I really resisted it. But then we put out a number of records and they became very popular. In fact, my 1972 recording [Neshomo] became Number 2 in the Jewish [music] field of 1973. The top slot, the top record that year was Pirchei No. 2, and we came [in] behind it. We were the first one[s] to use professional musicians in the Jewish field. Until then, in the Jewish field, they used orchestras like the Rudy Tepel Orchestra, the Epstein Brothers, and so on. They really didn’t have tremendous professionals behind their recordings. We [in contrast] used only Grammy winners that year, because the guy who produced my record was a commercial producer, and all the big “Grammy guys” – they knew [that] if they made commercials they could earn residuals every time it was played on the radio. So, they would always work for the “commercial” people. We got people like: my guitar, banjo, country fiddle, dobro player [who] was Eric Weissberg, who that year won the Grammy for “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.” You know, where a little boy [is] playing guitar, a little boy [is] playing banjo, and they are sort of “dueling” with each other. It was the Number 1 song in 1973, and he [Eric] won a Grammy for that. My drummer was the guy from “Bye-Bye Miss American Pie.” These are all Jewish guys! My trumpets were the Brecker boys who did all the trumpets for many of the recordings of the Beatles. And so - the music, the tracks, were tremendous! That’s what, I guess, catapulted me to the next level, doing things like Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. I did a live concert in Town Hall, did a live concert in Alice Tully Hall (Lincoln Center), all which were recorded. And I’ve now been in my synagogue in Lincoln Center now for 46 years. It’s a little bit of a trip! And I now teach at the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University, which was where I went to get my degree. I’m now an instructor there, and I conduct outreach programs. I lecture all over the country on Jewish music, and synagogue music especially - and very much so into the Traditional communities that don't have cantors and who think that they’re doing a good job in terms of leading the services. And my job is to “set them straight”- to teach them the right way to do it.

DS: When you started playing, and then eventually when you started recording, what was your target audience? Who were you making the music for? Was it Orthodox Jews? Secular Jews? Everyone?

SG: It was pretty much everyone. The type of thing that we did appealed to everybody. For instance, each song had a different style. One song was country style - country music, another song would be more Rhythm and Blues, another would be soft rock. So, every style was there so that people could find something there that they enjoyed. But of course, it was all… mostly, Hebrew. I did have a couple of [songs] in English, but [ ] one was something called The Little Bird. It’s very famous: “The Little Bird is calling…” That was one of the songs that I put on the record because it was one of my “bread and butter” songs that I used to sing wherever I went. No, it was geared, really, towards the general public. I was not the type of person who would only do it for the Charedi / Yeshiva world as you hear today, but my style of music was geared, really, towards the general Jewish community.

DS: And you had mentioned that the musicians you were playing with were all Jewish, but they weren’t all Orthodox, correct?

SG: No, no, not at all. In fact, many of them had never had a yarmulke on their heads. We stuck a yarmulke on their head and we told, we taught them what the song was about so that they should have an idea [about] “what’s going on.” And we arranged [the songs], of course. With a lot of the [songs] they also did improvisations – you know, did “their own thing.” [ ]Eric Weissberg did a country fiddle for me on one of my songs. I just let it go any way it went, you know, [ ] and it was phenomenal! So…no, they weren’t Orthodox. For one of the songs, I hired a guy to do some bongos for the background - because I thought the songs needed bongos - who was an Orthodox fellow, but most of them [ ] were not. The fellow who arranged the whole thing was an Orthodox guy who [professionally] did commercials. In fact, he lived for four years on one commercial he had made for Clairol back in the late ‘60s. That was probably one of the first commercials on television to have this “slow motion” [effect] - people in slow motion - and he had this girl running through a field and her hair is flowing behind her. And Clairol bought his song: “She walks through the meadow– early in the morning and she lets her hair down.” She runs through the field. ((Singing)) “…and she lets her hair down when the sun comes up and she lets her hair down.” So, Clairol bought that and that was played…well, you can figure it was played 20 times a day on 40 different stations. You can [also] figure that if you get residuals for each time it’s played for a period of four years…you don’t have to do anything. Just sit back on the couch, “drop a couple of grapes in your mouth,” and just let it support you. So that’s how he got to know all these guys, because he became a successful commercial producer even though he was an Orthodox fellow. So, the man who ran the whole thing, Arthur Aaron, is still a dear friend of mine. By the way, those two records [Neshomo and Mimkomo] that were done over that period have been recently released by Aderet Records on CD. They were newly engineered so that it sounds like it was done yesterday!

DS: Actually, I wanted to ask you: what was the process of re-issuing and re-mastering those two albums?

SG: Well, frankly, I’m not privy to exactly what happened. All I can tell you is that nowadays because of technology you can isolate specific frequencies if you want to take out scratches or marks or whines or hums. And, the guy at Aderet seems to be extremely talented at doing that, and he’s now been re-issuing Yossele Rosenblatt’s records.

DS: Did Mendel Werdyger then come to you and say, “Hey look: I really like your records, can we do something?”

SG: Mendy remembers that I did a concert with his father back in 1970 in Brooklyn College. There was a huge choir, and his father sang his [famous] songs. His father [Cantor David Werdyger] was the one who sang [on] the original Gerer Records ((starts to sing “Lo Sevoshi…”)). So, [after him] I did my [songs]. There were two shows - two acts. There was me, and there was his father with this huge choir. And he was in the choir, Mendy remembers, [that] he and Mordechai Ben David were in the choir as kids. And they remember my singing, and they bought my records that day. And he remembers [that], quote: “he grew up on my records.” I don’t know what that means, but he “grew up” on my records. So, when he heard that we were willing to have it re-issued, he was very excited about it, and he did it [converted it to CD]. So, we didn’t really have to push him into it very much. This is something he wanted to do, and he spent a lot of time working on it. It’s a very clear, bright-sounding effect, just like what he did with the Yossele Rosenblatt [CDs]. [Text omitted] The last [volume of the Rosenblatt CDs], certainly the fourth, maybe the third, I don’t remember – but the fourth volume is beautiful, because you can really hear now what Yossele sounded like back in the 20’s. It’s again… clear! Every single pop, any background noise, any hum frequency, whatever, has been totally removed. And the quality…in fact, he says now, as good as it was three years ago - and he thought that three years ago it was amazing - he says [that] today it’s even better. The re-mastering process today, with today’s machinery and today’s technology is just “unbelievable."

DS: OK, so - getting back to your music. Could you tell me about…what the role was for the record companies in your recordings?

SG: Well…, I had been approached a number of times through the 60’s by Tikva Records, which at that time was one of the biggest Jewish music producers. And again, as I said: I didn’t want to work for Tikva, because if I record for [the owner of] Tikva, he’s going to want me to go out and do concerts so that he can sell records. [I didn’t want that pressure]. 

So, it wasn’t until this fellow Arthur Aaron in my synagogue, who was this successful commercial producer, decided that he wanted to make some records [that I finally agreed to record]. So, as to the first one we the way, [it] was for the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Triple-SJ [SSSJ] – we did a recording [for them]. At that time, Rabbi Riskin was the chairman of the SSSJ. This was before the world even knew that there was a problem in Russia. In fact, we were often told by people, even in Government: “What are you talking about? There are no Jews in Russia!” SSSJ was the first one to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community [about] the fact that the Jews living behind the Iron Curtain were being repressed. And so, Rabbi Riskin had gone to Russia in 1970, I believe (or 1969) with one of our members, and secretly had taped seven Refusnik families including among them, Yosef Begun - and I’ve forgotten the others - and he consecutively translated their Yiddish. The record[ing]s were taken out of Russia. How? By one of our members [who] had a concave chest! So they taped these cassette tapes to his chest so that when you put your hand over his shirt you didn’t feel it. That somehow, he had this “dent” in his chest - and they were able to get out of Russia with those tapes. So, on one side were the tapes of the Refuseniks. The other side we recorded, for the first time, songs like Kachol V’lavan – The Blue and the White – the music had been smuggled out of Russia;  Am Yisrael Chai – Shlomo [Carlebach]’s Am Yisrael Chai - which he wrote for the 1964 Jericho March, which was the first, I think. By the way, I participated in every single Soviet Jewry rally from 1964 to 1991, and the first 1964 rally was that one, the Jericho March, and Shlomo wrote the Am Yisrael Chai for that march. So we recorded that. We recorded a number of other things: “The Little Bird,” which I changed over to make it into “The Little Bird is Russian Jewry” instead of “Israel.” And that was the first [recording] that we did. 

And, he [Arthur] made his own record label called AME - Ariella Music. He had a daughter by the name of Ariella. So Arthur Aaron created his own company, in effect, and we had Menorah distribute it, but basically the company was Arthur Aaron. He was independent, and he did the first two recordings. After that, we always did it independently, and maybe that is a mistake, because when you don’t have a company behind you, they don’t push it.

DS: What kind of equipment and studios were you using?

SG: Oh, we used the top-notch studios. We used something that doesn’t exist today. The first one that we did, we went to the Broadway Studio, which was a high-class recording studio. And of course, we recorded the [instrumental] tracks first. In fact, the first album we did (which was unusual in the Jewish world [because] they didn’t do that either [record the tracks first]…they simply brought a whole bunch of guys in and just made “a lot of noise.”), we recorded first the guitars, piano, percussion, and then we overlaid a violin section, the string sections, the trumpet sections and stuff like that. The last thing was the voice. So we did it in layers. At that time it was 16-track recording - those big “wagon wheels” with 16 tracks, and we thought it was wonderful - that you could separate each track and listen to them separately. So we recorded on 16-track, and the second record in ’74 was already done on 24-track. That was done at Minot studios in White Plains, also a very high-level recording place. That was the third recording. And, the other couple of things that I did…NCSY asked me to record something; we did a whole series…the first NCSY record in the studio, and so on and so forth. But my own “stuff,” as far as my own [albums], the next one was Town Hall [1983]. We did a huge concert to say goodbye to Rabbi Riskin who was going on aliyah, and we had a 14-piece orchestra on the stage. That was recorded by a recording engineer from New Jersey [Audio International], and it was put out independently by Rabbi Riskin’s Yeshiva and given to whoever the distributor was at that time. It really came out well. Of course, we tweaked it a little bit in the studio, but it sounds almost like a recording studio record rather than a “live” performance. Then, we sold out Alice Tully Hall [in Lincoln Center]. (Of course, the Town Hall [concert] was sold out, for sure). Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, 1987 – that was totally sold out to celebrate the “mistake” of the Shul [in] giving me a lifetime contract, at which I told them, I said: “Someday you’re going to have a gravelly voiced, grouchy chazzan and you won’t be able to get rid of him!” Anyway, Alice Tully Hall was a sold-out evening and that was also recorded live, but [with] a smaller group - I think 6 or 7 pieces. And I invited, in fact, Rabbi Riskin up to the stage [unrehearsed] to sing with me A Sukkeleh, which we had sung seven times every Sukkos for 18 years, which he used to consecutively translate. So it really is darling - a very, very tender, sweet thing. 

Then, there was another [man] in the shul. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Rashi and Rambam videos – “The Life of RambamRashi.” It was put out by the Berel Wein Foundation. Well, this guy [Asher Lazarus, the producer] was a famous movie director [who] came out of South Africa, and he became religious [years before at LSS] and he wanted to put out a record [with me]. So, he wanted to take some of my “old” things (this was before they were reissued), four or five of them. And he said, “Wait, if we’re doing four or five of them, then we may as well do some new ones.” So, we [also] recorded some new things, and that was the “Ish Echad B’lev Echad,” “One Heart, One Soul” album. That was done in a house studio in Crown Heights with the fellow who does all the background [music for him]. He [Asher] is a big commercial producer – Kodak, Ford and Toyota, and so on and so forth. The guy who did the background music for all his commercials happened to be a frum Lubavitcher Chassid – actually, a Baal Teshuva. He became religious somewhere half-way through his life (Jordan Kaplan) and became known as Yehuda Kaplan. So we did it [recorded it] in his home studio. 

And, since then I’ve been doing MP3s for Davka Software on the music of the synagogue - all the prayers for Shabbat, Friday night through Musaf, based on the curriculum of the Belz School which is very beautiful. I did it both in Sefardit and in Ashkenazis - five and a half hours of music plus a whole siddur, plus a whole manual on Jewish music, on one disc! That’s the beauty of MP3 conversion – that you can do all of that! Of course it’s expensive – it’s thirty, forty dollars [apiece]. Then I also did “Favorite Songs for the Three Festivals and Chanukah” – another one. And that’s what I’ve been doing lately - my main emphasis these days since I gave up doing concerts. I gave up doing concerts once I started having a lot of grandkids. I said [to myself], “Wait a minute. I’m going to be away and a grandchild is going to say to me, ‘Zaydie, I want you to come to my siddur party. I’m being given a siddur in school today and a big party and a play.’ I’d have to tell [him/her], ‘I’m sorry, kid, I can’t be there. I have to be in Detroit.’ ” (I used to fly all around the country). So I said [to myself], “It’s not worth it. What do I need this for?” A position opened up in Yeshiva University to teach at Yeshiva in the Cantorial School – the Belz School of Jewish Music. [Note: I was already teaching at the Belz School, but this was an offer to administrate an “outreach” program, as well]. I took it and I dropped concerts like a “hot potato.” Of course, that was the year, also, that my good friend Shlomo Carlebach got on a plane [to a concert somewhere]. [He died and] never got off. That was “a bit” of an incentive also! So, right now, that’s been my emphasis. My emphasis has been towards the music of the Synagogue right now - the services, not necessarily Chazzanut, although I [also] teach Chazzanut. I have been studying voice for 48 years, so I certainly can do it, if I have to. But my emphasis is really now on the proper conducting of the service in the synagogue [Nusach Hatefilla], carrying on a tradition that goes back to Rabbi Jacob Mӧllin of the 14th century who standardized the music of the synagogue, and to try to proliferate that wherever I can. I have been at Yale; I’ve been at Princeton – all day seminars. I just came back from Washington, and we are going to do a four week series in Edison, New Jersey. We did this four week series in Beth Shalom in Lawrence just recently; we were in West Hempstead. So, we travel around. We try whenever we can to raise the standard in the Orthodox synagogue. At least the Conservative and Reform - whether they have [the same kind of] standards or not - that’s another story. At least they have cantors, because most of the people in those synagogues can’t conduct the service [on their own].

DS: Can I ask you: How has Chazzanus changed over the past 30 years or even longer? I know there has been a big change. And, obviously you’ve been doing work on it, but what is going on?

SG: Well, before I even tell you what’s happening…people will tell me (they’ll come over and say): “Oh, I see Chazzanut has been revived,” “There’s a whole new future for Chazzanut,” because of the concerts that were going on. Cantor’s World, (by the way, which of course is no longer in existence), used to have these big cantorial concerts in Lincoln Center, and so on and so forth. And you have these big concerts in Israel. But, that’s absolutely not true [that Chazzanut has been revived]. In fact, I heard one person say: “they are making a great, wonderful funeral for Chazzanut.” None of these concerts, none of these performances are creating one job in the Traditional [synagogue] world. In fact, the cantorial positions in the Traditional world are shrinking monthly – certainly by the year. When I started out 48 years ago (I can’t believe it’s 48 years already- I still feel I’m 25!), out of college, there were [approximately] 30 full-time Orthodox cantors in Brooklyn. [I’m] not saying that they all made full-time salaries. Some did, some didn’t. But they were the [officially] assigned cantors of a synagogue. They came once a month, they came every Shabbos. There were 30 back in the 1960s - the early 1960s. There were almost 20 in the Bronx. The Bronx, we know, is gone. There’s no Jewish Bronx anymore, but there are two cantors in the Bronx [in Riverdale] left . There are four [full-salaried] cantors in Brooklyn left. I’m talking about Orthodox synagogues. There used to be [a] full-time cantor in Cherry Hill until a year, two years ago. The cantor left and they didn’t replace him. That’s happening all over, all over. All the major cities used to have cantors, full-time cantors, in Orthodox synagogues. Chicago has none. Atlanta used to have one, [now, not] at all. Los Angeles used to have eight or nine. There is [now] only one full-time Orthodox cantor that I know of in Los Angeles. 

So, all I can tell you is that, because of a positive thing - which was that Orthodox synagogues became populated now with Yeshiva-trained members (now, that’s positive )…at least now you had members who were learnèd, who sat down and knew what the meaning of the prayers were, and they were sincere at it. And they were Sabbath-observing, fully shomrei mitzvot, which wasn’t true of the Orthodox synagogue 50, 60 years ago. People came there [then] because they liked an Orthodox synagogue, not necessarily because they knew anything, or because they kept the tradition. So now you have over these years – this past 50-year period - all of a sudden now you have synagogues that are populated with Yeshiva-trained people. Now, that’s good.

As a result, however, people began to dislike Chazzanut [in part] because everybody [many chazzanim] tried to be “like Moshe Koussevitzky.” Moshe Koussevitzky was the greatest voice in the cantorial world in history, as you know. And everybody [many Chazzanim] said, “Oh, I can do that!” So you ended up with a generation of “screamers.” But they weren’t Moshe! So, who wants that type of thing in shul? Why would you want a fellow standing there “screaming his head off”? And, the Yeshiva-trained member didn’t grow up appreciating Cantorial music, and he didn’t like this “repetition stuff” and what he perceived to be [a] “performance.” So, [as a result] when it came to allocating funds in the Synagogue, what happened was again, a positive occurrence - I guess it was very positive. Instead of spending money on a cantor, “why don’t we (all of a sudden) now get an assistant rabbi.” This was not true 50 years ago! All of the rabbis now said, “Let’s get an Assistant Rabbi. The Assistant Rabbi can help out with outreach, he can help out with adult education.” Lincoln Square, by the way, was the first Outreach Synagogue, anywhere. We developed the whole idea of adult education – huge adult education programs; Shabbat Across America, Turn Friday Night into Shabbos, [Beginners Services], Crash Courses in Judaism - all came out of Lincoln Square. But they all said, “let’s do these things. You need an assistant rabbi to help us do adult education, outreach, but [then] we can’t afford a cantor. So hey, you know Yankel in the front row there - he sings nicely. Let’s have him daven for us. You know, we won’t have to pay him! Or, we’ll hire someone [for] Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur.” That’s also falling by the wayside, by the way, as people [no longer] spend money, they are using people from [within] the shul, rather than hiring outside people. 

I’ll give you an example: At the Belz School, when I went [to classes] there back in the 60’s, they used to get over 100 inquiries every year in the Placement Department for either full-time cantors, or cantors for Passover, or cantors for a Shabbos, or cantors for “whatever.” If we get 15 [inquiries] now, that’s a lot, that’s a lot. Full-time jobs are extremely rare. Many cantors are just staying in their positions because there’s nowhere else to go. It is rare [these days] that some [Orthodox] synagogues are taking cantors. Like, [for instance], Englewood [NJ] just took [Cantor]Yanky Lemmer full-time. They haven’t had a full-time cantor for the last 10 years. Because Englewood [Cong. Ahavath Torah] is a very wealthy synagogue, so they can afford it. In Teaneck - you have all of those synagogues in Teaneck - probably one of the busiest…that and Five Towns are the most active, the [fastest] growing, the most dynamic Jewish communities in the greater New York area. There is not one cantor in an [Orthodox] synagogue in all of those synagogues in Teaneck. Some of them are quite large, like the Roemer [Street] or Bnai Yeshurun. And, in Five Towns, [the] last time I counted [when] we did a program in the 5 Towns, I got 36 synagogues together to agree to co-sponsor this [Belz] program I was doing: “Leading the Shabbos Davening,” and we did a series of 4 weeks. There [are] only two cantors in the entire Five Towns community, in the Orthodox synagogues. Two in the 36 or 37 synagogues or more! 

So, that’s what’s happening today. It is good to a certain degree, because the synagogues are filled with traditional, with learned, observant people who bring the synagogue up to a certain level. But then again, because there’s no professional, “anything goes but the kitchen sink,” and I think that the quality of the prayer service is deteriorating. There are some exceptions like Aish Kodesh in the 5 Towns - Rabbi Weinberger, who gets everybody [involved] – that’s a really singing shul. They do a lot of singing there, so the guy who gets up there [as the chazzan] has to be good [in order to be able] to lead everybody in singing. So there are some exceptions. But generally, the cantorial field [today] is not a field for an Orthodox Jewish boy. 

Now, we in the Belz School do have 120 students every semester. So then you’ll ask me, “What are they doing?” Well, maybe there are 5 or 6 very serious students whom we counsel to have a profession other than the cantorial profession. And, if something happens to come up - certainly Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - we’ll try to get them a job, you know. The [full-time] position, as it rarely pops up - maybe they will have a chance for it, but they have to have a way to earn a living. You cannot depend [nowadays] on the cantorial profession for a living. Those 5 or 6 [students] - they do take it seriously. What about the other 110, 112 students? Most of them are guys at Yeshiva University or Yeshiva College - and the Smicha program by the way - and some seniors in the High School who are taking a class just for credit. The Yeshiva College student gets a credit for each class that he takes, and if he needs an extra credit or two, so he’ll take an extra credit or two at the Belz School. You can get Smicha credit at the Belz School, and so on and so forth. [Even] so, most of them are coming in not “just” for credit, but they are also coming in realizing that they don’t know how to lead the prayer service properly. They don’t know how to daven properly and they want to be able to get up there and not feel foolish. And so, they’ll take a class in Shabbos, or in Rosh Hashana, or in Yomtov, or in Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, and learn how to daven. So, that’s what we’re doing now. We’re training lay people. 

But, most of my job now, [a significant part] is traveling around, educating lay people how to properly lead the services, and I believe, I hope, that as the laity of the Orthodox synagogues become more trained in the proper way to daven, they will realize that they need someone who is a professional. I know one [fellow] who davens all the time in his synagogue in New Rochelle (and by the way, we do [Outreach classes in] Westchester, too. We get together 11 synagogues and go there too). He’s very good! But, after he took our first couple of courses he [said], “You know, I used to get up there [to daven] with alacrity. But now I’m scared to get up there, because I know I am not doing it right, and I have to learn how to do it right.” You see, that is what I want to hear! I want people to realize that this is not “just get up and do whatever you want to do.” It’s not “free-for–all” day. There is a structure. Every small prayer of the davening has a given mode. You have to do it within that mode. We have seven different modes; we are an oriental people. We don’t just use major or minor. And, that there are certain [prayers] that are fixed and have to be done in a certain, fixed way. And, as you go up in holiness from weekday all the way to Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, more and more paragraphs are fixed and have to be done in certain way, based on the Shulchan Aruch 619, which [is where] the Rama quotes the Rabbi Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Mӧllin) from the 14th century, that “you cannot change the musical tradition of a community.” And we are the Eastern European community, unless you’re in a German or a Sephardic synagogue. We’re the Eastern European Community here in America, and we have to follow the way that they davened and the rules that were set up over the last centuries how one has to daven. 

Now, there are certain areas, of course, where you can improvise. You can improvise, you can have cantorial improvisations, but you have to know on what it’s based. The great cantors didn’t just “do” improvisations, or invent or compose out of nowhere. It was based on what that particular prayer required to begin with. So, what they did when they did an elaboration - they embellished on the Nusach itself. And those were the great cantors who knew what they were doing. So, every single prayer has its required mode and required style – either fixed, or the mode alone. And, that’s our job now - to try to train the Orthodox laity to realize that this is something that’s important; that perhaps in the future they’ll come back again and say, “Well, we should hire a professional who knows what he’s doing.” 

And again, the Conservative and Reform movements don’t have that problem. The Reform [cantors] - basically, they can do whatever they want to do, as long as they do it in an artistic way. They are not bound by these rules and regulations. The Conservatives over all are more traditional, but little by little as you know, Conservative and Reform are getting closer and closer now. They’re also taking that on very much themselves too - [that] for the first time, (they never did this before), they [the Conservatives] have cantors who are playing guitar [during services]. That was [previously] only in the Reform movement. [They’re] playing the guitar. You [have] cantors who are playing the keyboard. They hold kumzitzes on Friday nights. So, you have people getting up and dancing around. OK, that’s nice. But you know, they never did it before. They always said, “We are Halachic Jews, and we hire goyim [non-Jews] to play the organ.” And for the first time now, the cantors themselves - of the Conservative movement - are playing instruments. So it’s a different world, a different world. They have different rules and different regulations. But we are, as Traditionalists [in] the Orthodox world, [we] have to keep this…certain Halacha of prayer. There is a Halacha of prayer and music; not just [a] Halacha of prayer, but a Halacha of prayer and music that one has to be very careful about.

GS: Getting back to your music: When you started playing and eventually recording, did religious authorities ever talk to you about problems with your music? Were you encouraged to keep on creating this music? What was the reaction from the religious Jews?

SG: Yes…well, frankly, I started out in the early days of NCSY, and even before that with something called the Yeshiva University Seminars. And basically, we were trying to bring young people into the fold, you know - to reach out to them. Even [at] the adult concerts that I did, there was very rarely a time, by the way, when you just did Hebrew “stuff.” Even Shlomo Carlebach sang “Kumbaya,” you know. So, half of my “stuff” was usually English songs like “ O, Sinner man,” or “Michael, row the boat ashore,” or “Where have all the flowers gone?” Then you mixed in a few [ ]…Hebrew songs, Israeli songs. There wasn’t a lot out there that was very good [for concerts] in the Chassidic world until the late ‘60s. And I introduced for the first time, the songs of the Bostoner Rebbe: Torah-Torah, Hatov, and so on and so forth. And…no, I think they [the “religious authorities”] encouraged us pretty much. 

I will tell you…when my first record came out - the “official” [first] record in 1972 …(I had done some “unofficial” things. I had appeared, as I said, on other recordings. We did the SSSJ [record, etc.])… I did a Bar Mitzvah in Philadelphia. And the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elia Svei, bought one of my records and he asked me to come to see him the next morning. I went to the Yeshiva, and he’s sitting there [in his office] listening to the record! So, no one complained! You know, it was the time then of more acceptance (I think, generally) of “general” music. Of course, they didn’t like Rock and Roll, of course. But I never got any “heat” then, because [when] I did it [recorded], I tried to be faithful to what I was, to my goals - to SSSJ, to Israel, to the Yeshiva world, and it was only when I performed [in concerts] that I did [secular] folk music. But, it depended on who the audience was, [and that’s how] I geared it. You know, some people always did the same show no matter where they went. You had comedians with the same jokes wherever they went. But to me the important thing was: who was the audience? And I used to gear my shows to who the audience was. If they needed more of this, they got more of this; if they needed more of that, they got more of that. If they were more Israel-oriented, they got more “Israel”; if they were more religious, they got more religious music. But, in terms of my recordings – no, I never got any “heat” about it. I didn’t use women singers, you know. So I never had that problem. I just was reluctant to do a lot of recording because I was so busy in the shul. I was principal of the Hebrew School, you know. I was teaching Bar Mitzvahs, and I had kids - thank G-d, I had a family. And as it is, I was away Sundays. I remember my oldest daughter once said to my wife on a Wednesday, “Did daddy come back yet from Chicago?” I had gone Saturday night, so they didn’t see me Sunday. I did a Sunday show. I think that time (I don’t know if you remember the comedian) Sam Levenson, he was a very famous comedian, and I did a show with him in one of the major theatres in Chicago, and I flew back late, late Sunday night. I didn’t stay over. So, I didn’t see the kids yet. I probably came in 3:00 o’clock in the morning, and so I slept late. Meanwhile, the kids went to school. I got up, I davened, I ate, I went to the shul and I took care of the Hebrew School which was in the afternoon of course, late afternoon – and Bar Mitzvah boys - and I had to make up a lot of work which I had missed. So, I didn’t get home until 8 - 9 o’clock. The kids were already sleeping. Somehow the cycle went on, so that by Tuesday or Wednesday, my daughter asked my wife if I came back yet. You know, that’s the only thing I didn’t like about the folk-singing profession. It took away from my kids. I didn’t take my kids out on Sunday park outings. My wife did that because I was busy travelling around. Look, it was something that I had to do, too, because I had four kids and I had to pay four Yeshiva tuitions, you know. So, even though Lincoln Square [Synagogue] was not a poor synagogue, but they weren’t going to pay me enough to pay for all of my tuitions. And so, I had to go out and make this extra money. But I don’t regret what I did. 

I think that, hopefully, I touched many people. But I did realize at one point, that even though you do a concert… [ ] tomorrow they forget about it. In only two or three days they forget that it happened; they go on with their lives. I had to do something that was more – that meant more to people and affected their lives, and that was more doing outreach, and doing… which I still do today, and teaching Hebrew School - bringing kids from non-religious homes - teaching them about Yiddishkeit. I have one now, I have one student who just got smicha at Yeshiva University last year, from a totally “nothing” home! We have many of our students who now are religious – who are living in Israel [who] came from “nothing” backgrounds, treif homes, and so on. So, I feel at least, that there’s a future. And now I’m teaching people how to daven. I feel I’m doing something for the future, you know, rather than just doing something that’s temporal, that lasts [just] a couple of days. But no, I never had any problems. In fact, I performed for Rebbes, and in yeshivas and, you know, as long as they perceived me as a sincere, Torah Jew…, I never had any problems with it.

DS: Do you think that different frum groups such as Chassidish versus Modern Orthodox – do you think that they related differently to your music?

SG: Well, nowadays I would say yes. Nowadays - yes. My kind of music wouldn’t really go over today that much [as it did]. I mean, it has to be the Avraham Fried, Mordechai Ben David [style] - crying, singing; you know…big band, a lot of noise, a lot of drums, a lot of trumpets.

DS: So, younger people aren’t into your music and your contemporary music?

SG: I would say, [only] in the Chassidic world - not. The more modern Orthodox people who are more “in touch” with the world will find something there, because you have, you know - the music, the tracks that I, that we, recorded. A lot of it is very… even today, is still contemporary. There’s something that people can still relate to. The Chassidic world is different. You have to have huge violin sections, you have to have all this “big” music. I mean - it’s very beautiful. You go to a Shwekey concert in Israel and you have an orchestra of 50, 60 violins. You know, it’s very impressive! But my stuff was, I guess, based on the folk genre of the ‘60’s very much. But the musicians were so professional, and the arrangements were done in such a way that I think in many ways they are timeless. So, that still touches a chord. Nachum Segal still plays it on the radio today because he still feels that it has appeal - and he was brought up on that music when he was a kid, so it still appeals to him. [Now,] whether he can play the old Rudy Tepel records, and Epstein brothers? No [he won’t], because that’s antiquated, very antiquated, and it wasn’t even [musically] “together.”

But, thank God, I think my music has many, many years left to it. Something that even in the future, hopefully, people will be able to relate to, because it was done on a very highly professional level. So, from that point of view I am satisfied that I contributed something [to Jewish music].

DS: Do you think that there has been an evolution in Orthodox Jewish music?

SG: Yes, to a certain degree. The music has become, can I say, more “Chassidic,” perhaps. I mean - you have to understand that back in the ‘60s, you had Modzitz. Modzitz had beautiful recordings with Ben Zion Shenker and so on and so forth, and lot of it was very lush and very complicated. You take that and you contemporize it, and put in a big band and big violin and trumpet sections, and a lot of pounding percussion and a lot of “high voice” singing (you know, they sing up into the “stratosphere”) - that’s contemporary Chassidic music today. So, they just took what was there before and they just – really - took it to a “higher” level. They’re not really using much of the “folk” genre. But occasionally, you’ll hear a song that has only a guitar behind it, but that’s rare, you know, to let the voice come out by itself. Perhaps they’re afraid (for them) to hear [what] their voices really sound like. Look, when you go into a studio, you can take a voice and (even) do anything with the voice now. You can make it sound phenomenal; you add all kinds of reverb and “sheen” to it that doesn’t exist in real life. But, Chassidic music now is a “big production.” Everything is “big.” No [one] is going to come out with a record now with one or two orchestra players – with one violin, one guitar, and a drum. It’s not going to happen. For some reason… well, in a way, I can understand that to a certain degree, because in the very religious communities that’s their only music. Their only music is either that, or the music of the synagogue. That’s why the “big” cantors today, like Helfgot and Lemmer and others are coming out of the Chassidic community, because that was the only music that they had when they were young! That was their music. Their music was the music of the Synagogue, and they absorbed it, and [when] they came out, this was “natural” for them. So, I can understand why they are now – the Chassidic cantors - perhaps the most popular ones in the concert field today. Again, the only problem is [that] there are very few jobs. I mean, the ones who have the jobs are the “superstars” like Helfgot, and then… and so on. But, who knows how long that’s going to last? 

DS: I’ve heard from some previous people [that] I have spoken to about Orthodox Jewish music today. They say that there has really been a decline in the standard of music compared to the music that came out when you first started recording. Do you believe that’s true?

SG: Not necessarily. I can see where [ ] everything [today] has to be a lot of “shturm and drang,” there has to be a lot of noise - big orchestra sounds, big band sounds. Well, I’ll tell you: when I first started out, if a person composed, his song became popular. That song became something that everybody sang. And, when I first came out with my first record in 1972 [Neshomo], my first solo record, there were maybe, 30 records that year - the entire year! So, for me to be number 2 [that year], that’s not such a “big gedilla.” I mean, it’s nice, but only 30 records came out that year. Today, there are 30 records coming out every month! You know, today [this is] especially [true] since you don’t have to use live musicians any more. We used live musicians who were really talented. Today, everything can be done on a keyboard - everything is “sampled,” everything is computerized. So you don’t have to have a [live] big orchestra any more. I mean, if you’re a really “big” guy like Shwekey, you see - in Israel - and he’ll have a 60-70 piece orchestra. But, anybody today can pick up a computer and put [in] a “big band” sound, just because everything is done by “samples” – everything is “sampled.” So you have an actual sound of a “real” instrument in the computer chip or in the memory, and you take that and you can make anything out of it. That plays any song, any note you want. And you have all your trumpets, and you have your wind sections and your violin section, you know. You can put together anything today and make it sound half-decent. But so much is coming out today. You have a few good composers. You have some good composers who are doing beautiful stuff. You still have Abie Rotenberg from “Dveykus” records, you know - he is still composing. You have some [new] things coming out there, but obviously, there is so much out there you don’t know what to pick from!

And, it’s hard to say now that there is one “big star” out there anymore. Avraham Fried is slowing down a little bit; Mordechai Ben David is out of the picture already. You have all these young guys coming up: [Dovid] Gabay and the others. Obviously, they are doing concerts and making records. Would I say that they’re on a lower level? I don’t know. There’s so much coming out. Where are they going to get the songs from? If you only have 30 records [in] one year, a lot of those records were using songs from before, or [from] composers of that time. But, if you are putting out 100 or 200 records a year, who’s creating the music? And [for example] a guy has a little music, a little song that’s a little…not very, perhaps…very creative. But he puts it into the machine [computer] and he comes out with this huge arrangement. [It] sounds nice! But, you know, whether the quality is the same as it used to be, I don’t know. I remember Shlomo, alav hashalom, Reb Shlomo Carlebach (and you had [then] a few people who were wonderful composers - BenZion Shenker, Shlomo Carlebach [etc.]). Shlomo, almost everything he wrote, although very “simple,“ (I must say [that] most of his stuff was relatively simple [in its structure]), but it was syncopated and had a certain attraction to it and “caught” people. Even if you repeated [the] phrases over and over again, it was done in a way or it was composed in a way [that] it really caught on. And, he had the zchus, he had that certain “chush,” that certain magic I guess, that most of what he wrote attracted people. You had BenZion Shenker, you had the early arrangements of Yisroel Lamm which were very pretty and very sweet. (I used him [Lamm], by the way, in my Town Hall album). 

And, it’s hard to say - it’s hard to say [that there is a decline in the standard/quality of the music these days]. There’s a lot out there now, because it is so easy to make a record. See, in the “old days,” in order to make a record, you had to get people who put in a lot of money to “back you up,” because you had to pay all these people. You have to pay a studio, you know; you have to get all these instrumentalists, and you have to pay $500 to $1,000 a song for an arrangement. So you had to spend money. Today, that’s not necessary anymore because of electronics. You save all that [expense] “stuff,” you know, and anybody and everybody can come out with something today. So it’s hard to find…maybe it’s hard to find “real” quality. You know, if you pare all this away, what’s left? What’s the “bones” of it? Is it a quality song? Is it a quality production under all those bells and whistles? I wouldn’t necessarily say that. 

You have to understand also, that as the years go on [ ]…the tastes of people are changing little by little. I don’t see anything there that…I mean, you have a guy like Shwekey who puts out quality things, but a lot of it is all the same, you know. It all sounds the same. That’s probably what they’re talking about [when they say that] “everything sounds the same” - a big orchestra, a lot of noise, a lot of banging and a lot of trumpets. And, maybe we all yearn for the simpler days of the 60’s, when the backgrounds were much simpler and the voice was the main thing, and the melody was the main thing, and that’s what turned you on instead of all the “lightning and the thunder” today that you have in all the records. I don’t know – it’s hard to say. I mean, obviously, I come from a different generation, too. So I doappreciate when Shwekey comes out with a song like “Vehi She’amda,” which is beautiful, that was beautifully done. But the body of that song was just a piano playing along with Shwekey, and the guy who wrote it…his name escapes me at the moment [Yonatan Razel]. But yes, [ ] the “fill-ins” were [played by] that huge violin orchestra. But basically, the song itself was Shwekey all by himself with a piano. That’s a beautiful thing! If a guy has that quality and that ability and that talent, I guess people will discover it soon enough. But, it’s just that the field is so muddled with all that stuff that’s out there, it’s hard to find. 

I can’t say that there is less quality, there is less genius in what’s coming out there today, because it’s hard to see. There is so much going on out there, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, you know. And look, there are always going to be talented people in every generation, and you’ve just got to hope that they will be recognized. Sometimes there are talents that go by a whole lifetime and you don’t realize it until they’re no longer here. “Hey, that guy was talented!” [they might say]. So I don’t know if there was a diminution in talent. I think it’s just that there is so much out there now it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad.

DS: Can I also ask you for your personal take, I guess, on the musical styles that you used in developing the ambiance of Lincoln Square Synagogue, as “Orthodox Cool,” - if you can comment a little bit about that.

SG: OK. When I began, the cantors rarely sang melodies that people could sing to. In fact, if you started singing with them, some cantors would start speeding up or slowing down just to throw you off! It was a style of Young Israels[, however]. They used to sing along a lot.

Young Israels did do a wonderful thing: they saved a whole generation by bringing in [congregational singing] for the first time. By the way, nobody realizes this, but in 1910 when Young Israel began, they really were the first to bring in congregational singing [into the synagogue]. Until then there was no singing in the Shul, even among Chassidim. Chassidim maybe sang Kel Adon and L’cha Dodi. But, before that for a whole century [in the 1800’s] there were choirs. Choirs were a big thing in Europe…[ ] with the cantors. The choirs sang beautiful melodies. Maybe people in the synagogue hummed along, but mostly, they listened. Young Israels really developed the “sing-along” style. But basically, even by the 50s and the 60s it was starting to come into the generally Traditional community of cantors. But, it was even rare then. 

I introduced contemporary melodies that were appropriate, I thought, for those days, [although] in many cases I know better now! I got people to sing with me, and I chose things that were [effective]. Now, the one problem that you have if you are a cantor [is, that according to Halacha, Jewish law,] the congregation has to hear you - especially in the Repetition of the Amida. And, if you’re singing your song and everybody sings along, they can’t hear you! So if I pick a song, I would pick a song where I could sing the harmony over the top. So, this way I’m much higher and stronger than they are, [so that] they can hear me if I sing the harmony “over the top.” I still do that today when I pick a melody. So, very much, Lincoln Square [Synagogue] was one of the first “singing” shuls outside the Young Israel movement, with a cantor. So, that is still our hallmark today, but [now] everyone is doing it, just like everyone is doing “Outreach,” everyone is doing Kiruv, everyone is doing all the [things] that we began. And some of them are doing it better than we are! So today, that’s the hallmark of the Synagogue: that people should have congregational singing to sing along [with]. But, I must tell you that some Young Israels are stopping that, by the way. They are singing less now. It’s interesting! That’s one of the articles [that] I wrote. I do [write] a lot of articles now [ ]. One of the articles I wrote was: “Is it more frum not to sing?”(!) But, from that point of view, I think that’s what Lincoln Square contributed. And that’s what I helped to contribute, too: to attract young people by singing contemporary melodies (or even old melodies, but that have a “contemporary” feel to them) that people felt that they can participate [with], and make it into a “participatory” experience rather than a “let’s sit back and listen” type of thing. First of all, it keeps people busy, so [that] they don’t talk so much. That’s one thing. And second of all, I think it beautifies the davening. People come away and, you know, they feel [that] they have been uplifted to a certain degree. 

DS: Two quick questions: First of all, I wanted to ask you - could you tell me a little bit about how you started with the Soviet Jewry campaign, and can you tell me a little about the musical style that came out of that work?

SG: OK. [It started with] one of the students who worked with me. When I started out [in my concert career], I started doing Yeshiva University Seminars, which was geared, basically, to kids from non-Orthodox backgrounds. Their rabbis would send them twice a year to the Yeshiva University Seminar. And, you had instructors there, sort of “wet behind the ears” without much experience, by the name[s] of “Stevie” Riskin, “Saulie” Berman, “Avi” Weiss, “Normi” Lamm [all famous rabbis today]. People from that time period may recognize the names. And then, me [on staff] as well. I took care of the music. But we also had some young advisors who worked with us, who (sort of) “worked” the bunks. One of them was Glenn Richter, who also had come up through Seminar. And, when he and Yaakov Birnbaum started the SSSJ movement, the first ten years, as you know or may not know, they didn’t take a penny. They had no income. Yaakov Birnbaum came with a fortune (from Toronto) that he had inherited, and in 10 or 12 years the fortune was gone, because they didn’t have [funds] to pay them. They just did it on their own [time and money]. They were…I would say they are one of the 36 holiest people in America today [“lamed-vavniks”]. What they did was unbelievable. They contributed in the long-run to the dissolution of the Communist empire, I believe. It was not only Reagan; it was also the demonstrations for Soviet Jewry [that led to this result]. 

But anyway, in any case, [ ] Glenn Richter was very close to Rabbi Riskin and me through the seminars. When we started Lincoln Square - even before we started Lincoln Square - he still kept in touch with us at Yeshiva University and other places. And when he started SSSJ, he needed someone to do music - a little rally here and there in front of the Soviet Mission on the corner of Lexington and 67th Street, or later on, the first Jericho March, as I said, by the U.N. in 1964. So he asked me to come and do it [to lead the singing]. In fact, Yaakov had been collecting certain songs from different people and different composers. He wanted to have songs that were written [specifically] for the Soviet Jewry movement. There were songs written by this [Moshe] Denberg who wrote: “There’s a Fire Burning;” Mickey Posnick wrote: “The Time Has Come.” These were very “folky…folky type” stuff, for that “folky” period. But they had songs like: ((singing)) “Reach out and save them, in their need,” and things of this type which we recorded (some of those) back in 1970 on The New Slavery record, which was the SSSJ record. And he drew me in, so whenever they needed, [whenever] they had a demonstration or something, there was Goffin with his guitar. So, you know, I realized the importance of this – that this was something greater than all of us and that it was important to do. So I was very busy with it. And the music was either composed by individuals like that, or Shlomo Carlebach wrote a couple of songs. But the most popular one [he wrote], of course, was the “Am Yisrael Chai” – ((sings)) “Od Avinu Chai,” so on and and so forth. Seymour Rockoff wrote ((sings)) “Am Yisrael Chai, Am Yisrael Chai” [a different version]. And then, you had people like… [the band] who wrote “Leaving Mother Russia,” they put out four or five records…Safam. They wrote a number of Soviet Jewry songs. Among them: “Leaving Mother Russia,” which I sang quite often [at the Solidarity Day rallies] in the years before Natan Sharansky got out of the Gulag, because his wife [Avital] used to always come and appear at our demonstrations. 

When the major Jewish communities [organizations] suddenly realized: “Hey, this is something for us,” they finally took over. They created the Greater New York Conference for Soviet Jewry and so forth, and SSSJ was, sort of, “squashed down” underneath, you know. They created these big Solidarity Day rallies which were very popular. So I still sang there… [ ] and we would use the Safam song, “We are Leaving Mother Russia.” And, when Anatole Sharansky - before he was known as Natan - came out [of the Gulag], he came to that rally. And we had 300,000 people down 47th street - about five blocks down - greeting him. And he asked me to sing with him two of his favorite songs, because he was afraid to sing alone: Hineh Ma Tov Uma Na'im, and Gesher Tzar Meod. He explained that that is what he sang when he had to walk alone between East Berlin and West Berlin across that bridge. They wouldn’t allow anybody to go with him, but he sang Gesher Tzar Me’od  [“A Very Narrow Bridge”]. So, we sang it together. And we [the Neshoma Orchestra and I] sang: “We are Leaving Mother Russia,” which is a song about Anatole Sharansky writing a letter [from prison], ((singing)) “My name is Anatole, in prison I do lie.” So, we sang that too. We took songs from wherever they came from. 

Now, I must say that to my [own] detriment I never sang the “most popular” songs, because Yaakov Birnbaum and Glenn wanted us to sing the Soviet Jewry songs which, frankly, were second rate. They had a message: “reach out and save them,” and so on and so forth; “There’s a fire burning in the sky,” you know, [etc.]. But they were second rate. But I felt that if this is what they wanted, and it’s important for their organization and for their campaign, so I’ll sing them. So, I didn’t always sing the most “beneficial” songs [for a performer] in front of these hundreds of thousands of people, but I did what was important for the organization and for the cause, you know. That’s how I got into it. And until 1991 I was always out there, standing on that improvised stage in front of the U.N. and “singing my head off.” I did some Israel rallies also, that were also [organized] for Israel, in the same place. So I became, sort of, a “rally singer.” Yes, if you needed an outdoor “rally singer,” you got Goffin. It didn’t cost you anything because I did it for free. But, that’s how I got into it. And, that’s how I got the songs that we used [for the Soviet Jewry movement].

~ End of Formal Interview ~


Additional Links of Interest








Sherwood Goffin Interview (Audio) Songs of the Bostoner Rebbe
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Sherwood Goffin - Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry DJSA Search - Rudy Tepel
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