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The Greatest Living Figure Of Chasidic Music

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The Greatest Living Figure Of Chasidic Music

The Greatest Living Figure Of Chasidic Music

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

For the past 200 years, a sect of Chasidic Jews, known as the Modzitzers, have become known for their thousands of beautiful melodies.

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CORNISH: One of the most prolific and respected Modzitzer artists lives in Brooklyn. For our series Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America, Jon Kalish visited the composer and talked to him about music's role in the synagogue and at home.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The role of music in Jewish life was elevated by a Polish rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, who's credited with founding the Chasidic movement in the 18th century. The Baal Shem Tov taught that melody is one of the paths to divine service.

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MEIR FUND: One of the innovations of the Baal Shem Tov was to allow for greater musical expression during the prayers. Music became a very, very important ladder of ascent.

KALISH: That's Rabbi Meir Fund, who leads his own congregation in Brooklyn.

FUND: There's a certain depth and aesthetic beauty in Modzitzer melodies that really defies words but that sets Modzitz apart as the pinnacle of Jewish Chasidic music.

KALISH: Modzitz is the name of the town in Poland where the sect eventually settled. Today, by all accounts, the one living Modzitzer who has made the greatest contribution to music is 88-year-old Ben Zion Shenker.

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KALISH: Sitting on a long porch crammed with Chasidic Jews during the holiday of Sukkot, Shenker sings for two hours. His connection to Modzitz began when he was a teenager. The Modzitzer rebbe, or chief rabbi, had moved to Brooklyn as the Holocaust consumed much of Chasidic Jewry in Eastern Europe. On a Sabbath afternoon in 1941, the rebbe noticed Shenker humming Chasidic melodies written out in a book.

BEN ZION SHENKER: The rebbe couldn't believe that a kid of that age could read music, turned around and said - asked me, you know how to read notes? I was all of 15 years old, and I said, a little. After that, I became what you'd call his musical secretary, actually. Anything he composed, I used to notate. And he used to sing for me things that he had in mind.

KALISH: Shenker had not only studied music theory, he sang in a boys' choir and performed on his own radio show on a Yiddish station. A 13-year-old Shenker even made a record in 1938.

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KALISH: Shenker grew up to become an ordained rabbi. He made his living in the garment and jewelry industries while composing Modzitzer melodies, or nigunim, as they're known in Hebrew, some of which are used throughout the Jewish world. Shenker composed a melody for the Psalm of David, also known as the 23rd Psalm. Orthodox Jews sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath. The melody came to Shenker after he finished the third meal one day in 1946.

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KALISH: This version of the Psalm of David was recorded by Cantor Yitzhok Meir Helfgott and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Shenker himself recorded the first album of Chasidic music in 1956.

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