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.
Benzion Miller's Oral History
Benzion Miller, world-renowned Hasidic cantor and collector and composer of nigunim [wordless melodies], was interviewed by Hankus Netsky in Borough Park, New York on June 6, 2012. Benzion came from a family of cantors, including his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. His father, Aaron Miller, from a Galician (Bobover) family, composed many pieces that are sung today throughout the Hasidic world. Benzion and his family listened to all kinds of Jewish music on WEVD and he could pick up a song after hearing it once. Benzion does not have one favorite cantor; he likes the improvisational style that he learned from his father and demonstrates. He sings a prayer differently every time. He believes that "being at home" in the music allows one to improvise. He thinks that the singer must know who he is – he, for instance, would not sing Italian arias or risqué Yiddish songs. Benzion listens to all kinds of music but considers atonal music, rock-and-roll and rap to be "sound pollution." Benzion realizes that the interviewer speaks Yiddish and switches to that "juicier" language. His father was born in Oshpitsin [Auschwitz] and his mother in a shtetl called Limonov. His father lost his first wife and children in the Holocaust; he met Benzion's mother in a DP camp in Germany. They had seven children and came to the United States in 1949. They lived in Jewish neighborhoods in Brownsville, Crown Heights and Borough Park, Brooklyn; Benzion recalls all the Jewish-owned businesses and pushcarts, synagogues and mikvehs [ritual baths]. His father had a butcher shop and he also worked as a mohel [ritual circumciser] and cantor. His parents never talked about their suffering during the war, except for gently reminding their children of what they would have done to have something good to eat in the ghetto and the camps. Benzion talks about how things have changed in his world. Many now pray in the shtibls [small houses of prayer] rather than the synagogue. Benzion is the cantor at Beth El synagogue, where congregants are a unique combination of Modern Orthodox and Hasidic. He explains that he sought the Bobover rebbe's permission before accepting the job. Benzion looks forward to the Krakow festival every year and has performed there many times. As his family came from this part of Poland, he has visited his father's house and his great-grandmother's grave. You can still see the mark of the mezuzahs on the houses there. He received medals from the President of Poland and the mayor of Krakow. He feels that the antisemitism in Poland derived from jealousy of the Jews' remarkable accomplishments, exacerbated by the church. Benzion's father started composing and even formed and led a choir as a boy. He sings songs composed or sung by his father and other relatives. He and the interviewer talk about friends of Benzion's and various musical styles. He reflects on how new music tends to be popular for a short while and then disappear, while the old music lives on. He is very touched, listening to his five year old grandson learning the traditional music. Benzion talks about how his father composed while listening to the hum of fluorescent lights in his butcher shop; Benzion also works as a schoykhet [ritual slaughterer] and has composed during the process of killing an animal. He does not approve of turning Hasidic music into rock music or something else to sell records. He is organizing a concert with his sons and several well-known klezmer musicians to sing only authentic Hasidic music from the various sects. The interviewer tells Benzion that interviewing him has been like a dream fulfilled; Benzion responds with humor.
This interview was conducted in Yiddish and English.
Benzion Miller was born in Munich, Germany in 1946.
Video highlights from this oral history
I Walk Around Improvising All Day: Benzion Miler Shares A Melody Composed in the Car
2 min 39 sec
Slide 3 of 11