Velvel Pasternak interviewed by Daniel Schley for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, January 2011
Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Velvel Pasternak. 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: Ok, just to give you an overview of what I’m looking for is basically music from ’65 to’85, vinyl-cassette era both “Hasidic Pop,” like Mordechai Ben David and musicians like him - Avraham Fried as well traditional stuff, such as a lot of the recordings that were made on the Chabad Nichoach label. So first of all I wanted to ask you a couple things about the production side of all of this: Do you know how these recordings came about?
VP: The first actual Hasidic recording. was a 10 inch vinyl Melave Malka. (post Shabbat celebration) by a small group of Modzitzer Hasidim with Ben Zion Shenker as soloist. In 1958 the first of a series of recordings, Modzitzer Favorites was issued. Again the soloist was Ben Zion Shenker, this time with the addition of a chorus of American cantors, arranged and conducted by me and an instrumental ensemble arranged by Vladimir Heifetz. This was followed a year later by a recording L’kovod shabbos, original Hassidic melodies composed by Ben Zion Shenker. Modzitzer Favorites Volume 2 followed a year later and at the same time the first Chabad recording was issued on the Collectors Guild label. This recording featured soloists and a chorus of Lubavitcher hassidim. On the heels of these recordings came other Hassidic groups including Bobov, Ger, Belz, Bratslav, Vishnitz. Originally issued on vinyl they were later issued in cassettes and when the format became popular, compact discs.
VP: The Lubavitcher rebbe was the first to have Chabad nigunim transcribed and published.. Cantor Joshua Weisser transcribed a large selection of Chabad melodies and they appeared in a Lubavitcher publication, The Sefer Hanigunim. The noted musician, Seymour Silbermintz, transcribed the melodies for Volume 2. Ben Zion Shenker transcribed most of the melodies of Modzitz and I transcribed and issued 10 collections featuring melodies from all the hassidic courts.
DS: So the initiative of making this music came from –
VP: The initiative came almost always from the Rebbes themselves. The Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam told me that he realized that the music of his group was getting lost and would I do a recording. Rabbi Laizer Halberstam, a cousin of the Rebbe was given the task of producing the recording. David Werdyger although a professional cantor, was also a hassid of Ger. And together with a well-know musician, Jack Goldstein, issued the first recording of the Gerer Hasidim, in which they included Lo Sevoshi, (which is sung to this day on Friday night in Orthodox synagogues world wide.) Werdyger followed with a series of recordings of Ger (I arranged and conducted the third in the series) All in all, dozens of recordings of traditional Hassidic music were issued by a number of Hassidic groups during the 1960s -1980s.
DS: Why do you think it started in ’57 with the Hasidic recordings? Was it just because of a generation that was going away or other impetuses that played into it?
VP: The great Eastern European cantors of the 20th century had been recording for more than 50 years. Many recorded for RCA, Columbia, Pathe, and other labels. They recorded traditional synagogue compositions with organ, piano or instrumental accompaniment. In the mid 1950’s a recording featuring a male chorus singing standard Yeshiva type melodies was issued. I think that’s where Ben Zion Shenker got the idea to put out the music of Modzitz. Much of the music was well known because the Modzitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Shaul Taub, used to travel and spend time in various cities in North America.. In each city he visited he left a body of Torah discourse and many nigunim that became popular in synagogues throughout the various cities and also were sung in the home during Sabbath and festival meals. A representative selection of Modzitz is available on eight compact disks which were digitally transferred from the original vinyl recordings,. A combined CD of Songs of the Bobover Chassidim Vols. 1 & 2 is available on a CD the Chabad recordings are available, on CD
DS: Why do you think specific nigunim were chosen for the albums? Was there a preference?
VP: In many recordings (Bobov & Lubavitch among others) the nigunim to be recorded were selected by the Rebbe, or a committee of prominent hassidim. In others, (Modzitz, Ger) Shenker and Werdyger selected the nigunim. Shenker also composed and recorded two melodies, which became famous, Mizmor l’David and Eshes Chayil. They are considered by many to be “Modzitz.”
DS: Were any of these recordings not published or were they all published? If they weren’t published, what happened to them?
VP: Whatever was recorded at the time came out on vinyl. There were individuals who recorded at Melave Malkas and weekday celebrations that never saw the light of day. But Modzitz, Ger, Bobov, Belz as well as other Hassidic groups were able to record a sizable portion of their better known melodies.
DS: Who was the target audience for these recordings?
VP: The target audiences of these recordings were Hassidim, Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva students. Although in the early days many Hasidim did not own recording equipment. Gradually record players gradually became common household items. The recordings initially however, were not targeted to Conservative or Reform Jews.
DS: Do you think the same is true of the later music by Mordechai Ben David and later Hasidic pop groups?
VP: Mordechai Ben David, Avrom Fried and other new singers brought a new sound to Hassidic music. The instrumental backgrounds were now lush and showed strong influence of American music. One of the most popular Mordechai Ben David recordings featured the song Yiden performed in Yiddish. The melody was actually a well-known rock song, Genghis Khan, popular in Germany and seen worldwide on You Tube. Once introduced it became extremely popular at Yeshiva and Hassidic simchas. .
A new venue for Hassidic music was created. Concerts sponsored initially by charitable fundraising organizations took place in Madison Square Gardens, Lincoln Center and other large auditoriums. Soloists, boys’ choirs and instrumental ensembles performed on stage in front of large, adoring audiences. Gradually smaller events took place during the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover in Israel as well as America.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit about the musicians and singers? The singers and arrangers in general – like their religious background? Were they all 'Frumm from birth'? Grew up in Brooklyn? Were there any Ba’alei Teshuva? Were they all Hasidic?
VP: My Bobover, Modzitzer and Gerer choristers were cantors. You know why? Because they could read music, they knew Hebrew, and most grew up in Orthodox synagogues. With Lubavitch, I used their Hasidim. but added a number of professionals to sing the harmonies which they found difficult. The instrumentalists were pick-ups from Radio City and the wedding bands. The instrumental arrangers were secular Jews, the lead singers were always frum Jews.
DS: What was the role of the producer?
By and large the recordings were all self produced except Collector’s Guild. Benedict Stambler, the owner of the label, served as producer. Ben Zion Shenker acted as producer for Modzitz, and David Werdyger acted as the producer for Ger. Lubavitch had their own Hasidim who took charge.
DS: Record companies -- did they play a role?
VP: In the beginning only Collectors Guild played a role. Today there are no longer official recording labels. There have been several including, Tikva, & Menorah but they disappeared. To be truthful there is not enough of a broad market for a Jewish recording company to turn a profit.
DS: How were the recordings financed?
VP: Werdyger financed his own recording for Ger. Modzitz was financed from the shtiebl. The Modzitz shteibl paid for the first two Modzitzer Favorites, and the third and fourth were done with the money that came in from the first recording. Sometimes the recordings had a benefactor who would donate some funds for the projects..
DS: What kind of equipment and studios were the musicians using?
VP: In in 1961 Modzitz was recorded, we used a studio in New York City at a cost of $75 per hour, .which at the time was considered quite expensive. Later on, we used an engineer, David Hancock. who brought his recording equipment to various locations. A number of small studios opened in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island subsequently.
DS: So what types of controversies did the musicians run into? – I guess more with the Hasidic pop. I know there have been a lot of controversies recently with rabbis about concerts. Were those the same back 20, 30 years ago?
VP: No. This is something relatively new. There is even a Vaad for Kosher music in Israel that is attempting to rid the simcha music scene of the influence of rock and roll. Long before Rabbis created the controversy with Lipa Shmeltzer’s concert, Israeli rabbis had prohibited a number of the neo-hasidic singers from performing in Israel.
DS: What do you think prompted this? Is it a notice of the times? Is there something else?
VP: The problem is “what happens in the Gentile world also enters the Jewish world.” The beat was on, rock and roll was in. It is necessary to use, in the best possible way, what you find in the culture that’s surrounds you, and to use it in a Jewish way. So individual performers adopted the style and beat and began to compose themselves.
Reading an article written in 1912 by a professor at Dropsie College, I was amazed that exactly the same thing was true in 1912: Melodies were being taking from American music and used in the synagogues. In addition, North African rabbis encouraged their cantors to adopt well-known Arabic melodies, add Hebrew liturgical lyrics and bring them into the synagogue.
DS: In Hasidic music or the “frum” music scene, do you think there’s been an evolution? Has it paralleled secular culture?
DS: Are there any other factors?
VP: First of all I don’t think you can legitimately call it “Hasidic music” At best, it is “neo-Hasidic” or yeshivishemusic Most of the younger composers and performers do not follow a hasidic Rebbe. or daven in a shtiebl.. Go to many Orthodox or traditional weddings and listen to the music and watch the dancing and you will see how Eastern European hassidic music and dancing have morphed into something that sounds and looks quite different.
DS: What type of reception did these albums receive when they were published?
VP: The London Jewish Chronicle praised the first Lubavitcher recording as being truly authentic. Modzitzer recordings were taken under very dangerous circumstances to Jews in Russia.. Gerer recordings achieved much success. Later the vinyl recordings were turned into eight track, cassettes and compact disks.
DS: How do you think the reception differed from how the musicians thought they would be received?
VP: I honestly can’t answer for them. The musicians were hired for the recording sessions only. With the earlier Bobover, Modzitzer, Gerer and Lubavitcher recordings our primary motivation was to preserve a heritage of quality hasidic music that was being lost.
DS: Did different frum groups relate differently to the music?
VP: I heard one Hasidic Jew say, “this is not Jewish music,” the first time he heard the song Mi Ho’ish on the Rabbis’ Sons recording. It took some time until frum groups began to take to all the newer groups and their music...
DS: What was the role of live performances for these musicians? And what impact did that have on the recording?
VP: Many live performances took place during the intermediate days of Sukkot. During intermission and post concert, CDs by the performers were sold. The concerts also increased recording sales in the Judaica shops, especially in the northeast, Sameach Music Company became the prime distributor of the new recordings.
DS: What type of radio exposure did these musicians get? Was it all through Nachum Segal
Originally and for a number of years, the Art Raymond Show on New York station WEVD gave these recordings their most exposure. Later on, Nachum Segal on his broadcast from a New Jersey radio station did the most to bring these recordings to the broad Jewish Public.
DS: Have there been attempts to reissue some of these old vinyls and cassettes?
VP: The Modzitz, Bobov and Lubavitch recordings were re-digitized and issued on CDs as cassettes sales began to wane. Many of the other Hassidic recordings never got past the cassettes stage and have all but disappeared..
DS: I guess there’re more interested in hip-hop influenced music?
DS: Is that for different frum circles? Is that across the board?
VP: I would say so, across the board.
DS: Have there been in recent years reunion concerts or retrospective performances by old bands?
VP: Reunion concerts have been rare and infrequent. The Diaspora Yeshiva band, and the Rabbis Sons had single retrospective events in the US.
DS: So this brings me to an overarching question. These LPs that were released in the 60s and 70s by these Orthodox groups – do they have much of an impact on Orthodox life today?
VP: What do you mean by impact?
DS: So do you think that it's in the same way as people listen to secular music from the 60s and 70s and some of it’s been discarded?
VP: I think it’s not a question of being discarded. There is still appreciation of this recorded music by individuals who are interested in nostalgic nigunim meant to uplift rather than bravura performance singers and commercial bands.
DS: And one last question which is something that possibly goes back to the rabbinic authorities and their recent problems with concerts – I’ve heard that a couple of musicians when they first started 20, 30 years ago were very modern in their outlook and appearance and since then have become much more yeshivish. For example, musicians who were clean shaven or had small beards now have much fuller beards. Do you know why musicians made those changes?
A number of Rebbes prohibited expensive weddings. In addition, they ordered that standard sized wedding bands be replaced by a single individual on keyboard. These became known as “one man bands.” One man bands proliferated and this afforded the opportunity for some talented hassidim to earn a living through music. A beard and payot would be quite desirable—they fit in with the crowd
DS: Thank you so much.
VP: You’re absolutely welcome
Additional Links of Interest