The Yiddish Book Center's
Wexler Oral History Project
A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.
Ben Zion Shenker's Oral History
Ben Zion Shenker, z"l, a world-renowned composer of nigunim (wordless melodies) in the Modzitzer Hasidic dynasty's tradition, was interviewed by Hankus Netsky on July 3, 2012 in Brooklyn, New York. His father, whose mother was a widowed customer peddler, grew up near Chelm and hid from the Polish army as a young man. His mother arranged a marriage with a young woman from Chelm and her father was able to bring the young couple to America in 1921. Ben Zion was born in 1925 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He went to kheyder (traditional religious school) as well as a public school in his early years. His musical talent was recognized at a very young age. He cared little about toys but loved playing Yossele Rosenblatt records on his wind-up Victrola. He still remembers hearing Rosenblatt perform at a yeshiva benefit when he was only five years old. He was invited to join Joshua Weisser's choir, replacing the soon-to-be famous Richard Tucker. Weisser convinced his parents to allow him to associate with less religious children and promised that he would have Ben Zion stay with rabbis when on the road. Ben Zion learned his first Chabad nigunim from one of the rabbis and was impressed with their yearning sound. At thirteen, Ben Zion was asked to helm a radio program on a Jewish radio station. Weisser took the choir to sing at weddings and concerts, where Ben Zion often sang American and Jewish songs as a soloist. Unusually for a boy singer, he was able to sing coluratura, and was once complimented by famous cantor David Roitman. Ben Zion studied theory and piano with Seymour Silbermintz. He was required to bring in an original composition every week. By this time, he was involved with the Modzitz Hasidic sect. He recalls how exciting it was when Silbermintz arranged for a contralto with a beautiful voice to sing one of Ben Zion's songs at the prestigious Manhattan Center. As a very young man, Ben Zion became the musical secretary of the Modzitz rebbe. He estimates that the rebbe composed 100 pieces during the six years that he lived in Brooklyn. Ben Zion was also composing his own music, inspired by Modzitz as well as other Hasidic influences. Ben Zion became involved in early recordings of nigunim; he even included one of his own melodies in the first record which came out in 1956. Benedict and Helen Stambler, who were well known for recording Jewish music, approached him repeatedly and "wore him down." In 1946, Ben Zion traveled to Palestine with his father and met the son of the Modzitz rebbe who was the rov (Orthodox rabbi) of the Modzitz in Tel Aviv. He talks about how he composed the music for several now famous songs. When Ben Zion came back to America, he recorded some of his songs as well as the rov's. The interviewer remarks that he sang in a relaxed way that was more accessible to people outside of the insular Hasidic society. Ben Zion now has serious cardiological disease and can no longer lead the singing in his shul, but he still prepares the program and the choir and composes. He talks about the importance of preserving this music. Unfortunately, Ben Zion's three children are all daughters; while musically talented, there are limits to what role they can play in their Hasidic society. He is not happy that so many young Jewish musicians are composing popular rather than religious music; a few Hasidic young people are even performing rap and rock-and-roll.
This interview was conducted in English.
Ben Zion Shenker was born in Williamsburg, New York in 1925. Ben Zion died in 2016.