Ben Zion Shenker z”l: The Music Fades with the Loss of a Friend

November 21, 2016

The sad demise of Ben Zion Shenker has left a void which cannot be filled in the world of Jewish spirituality.

Our nation has been able to slowly begin to recover from the trauma of the Holocaust partly because of the revival and proliferation of Chassidic music. Ben Zion was the pioneer of this revival and the first to issue a recording of such music. It was exactly sixty years ago that the first phonograph record of Chassidic melodies was released at his initiative, and it was then that the Jewish world was introduced to his mellifluous and inspiring voice, a voice that has become familiar to all of us. In that record, he began the process of preserving the repertoire of the music of the Modzitzer Chassidic dynasty, a national treasure that would have been lost were it not for Ben Zion. That record was soon followed by recordings of the music of other Chassidic groups, and of course the music of Shlomo Carlebach, who considered Ben Zion one of his mentors.

Ben Zion himself composed over a thousand of his own niggunim, including such universally popular songs as his Mizmor L’Dovid, Aishes Chayil, and Yasis Alayich. He released a new CD just weeks ago and planned to release another one shortly. He was nearly 92 years old at the time of his passing, yet he composed several new melodies in honor of the most recent Yamim Noraim, and conducted the Neilah service this past Yom Kippur.

I had a close personal relationship with Ben Zion, who typically insisted that he be referred to as Ben Zion and not as Rabbi Shenker, although he had semichah and was a talmid chacham in his own right. I was privileged to daven at the Modzitzer shtiebel with him for many years and kept up a lifelong friendship with regular monthly phone calls for many decades. From time to time, he would send me informal recordings of his melodies and shared with me his vast knowledge of the history of the Modzitzer Chassidic leaders, their followers, and their huge treasure of Torah and neginah.

The Modzitzer Rebbeim, including the current Rebbe, R’ Chaim Shaul Taub of Bnai Brak Israel, were all gifted composers. But they encouraged their followers to compose niggunim of their own, and many did. Ben Zion long ago joined the list of such followers. Moreover, he undoubtedly heads that list because of his own creative contributions, and it is to him that Modzitzer music owes its very survival and its current growing popularity.

Personally, I cannot confine my words about him to his music alone. He was able to unfailingly attach his melodies to appropriate texts, displaying an uncanny ability to interpret those texts and instill in them new spiritual significance. He was humble and indeed self-effacing. He sensitively shared in the semachos of his friends and family, composing new tunes in honor of numerous weddings. In fact, he composed an unforgettable new melody in honor of my own marriage to Chavi, a granddaughter of the second Modzitzer Rebbe, R’ Shaul Taub, to whom he was especially attached.

With his passing, I lost a friend. The world lost a connection to the unique spiritual depth of Jewish music that he created and preserved. Thankfully, the world can retain some of that connection through his many recordings. But I have lost a friend, irrevocably.

May his memory be a blessing.

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