One year ago today, the world lost Ben Zion Shenker, a rabbi, cantor and composer who had been dubbed “the greatest living figure of Hassidic music.” Shenker devoted his life to niggunim—spiritual melodies used in Hassidic worship—in the Polish Modzitzer Hassidic tradition, starting with the melodies of Rabbi Saul Taub.
Known for his extraordinary voice from a very young age, Shenker sang on multiple radio programs and at age twelve began singing in the choir of the venerable Joshua Weisser. A few years later, a chance encounter with the Modzitzer Rebbe led to Shenker being engaged as the unofficial “musical secretary” of the Modzitzer Hassidim, notating the dynasty’s niggunim to ensure their survival.
Shenker composed at least 400 such tunes of his own, several of which became well known outside the Hassidic world through recordings and arrangements. His work served as an example for other Hassidic dynasties to document and preserve their own music through notation and recordings.
A new video from our oral history project features Shenker’s insights about the styles, inspirations and significance of niggunim in his own life, and in the various Hassidic traditions of Eastern Europe. An extended audio version of the interview is also available.