Ben Zion Shenker was one of the most gifted and inspired composers of Hassidic niggunim and other related “operas” that became a feature of the Modzitzer dynasty’s tradition. He credited his mother with transmitting to him a wealth of Hassidic melodies and with inspiring his curiosity and creativity. He became fascinated with traditional hazzanut while still a child—attending synagogue services that featured some of the legendary hazzanim and hearing recordings. When he was twelve years old, he joined a synagogue choir conducted by the esteemed cantor Joshua Samuel Weisser [Pilderwasser], who was a virtual dean of hazzanim in the greater New York area. In 1939 Weisser presented him as a soloist in live radio performances, and shortly afterward he began studying composition and music theory.
In 1940 Shenker had a cathartic and life-changing experience at a service led by Rabbi Saul Taub, the rebbe of the Polish Modzitzer Hassidic dynasty, so named for the town near Lublin from which his forebears and that particular tradition emanated. He and a group of his Hassidim who had survived the Holocaust had recently resumed their lives in Brooklyn, and R. Taub was especially known for his charismatic delivery as well as the creation of mystical, devotional melodies; Shenker was spellbound. He would soon become dedicated to collecting, transcribing, and disseminating as well as recording and performing the vast repertoire of Modzitzer niggunim; and he was instrumental in preserving many of the stories and anecdotes surrounding their origin. In addition, he notated new niggunim invented by the Modzitzer rebbe, becoming a virtual musical secretary to the dynasty.
In 1956 Shenker established the Neginah record label to produce his first commercial recordings of authentic niggunim. He was accompanied by a male choir that he trained for that purpose. Most of the niggunim and other melodies he recorded then were part of the Modzitzer traditions, but his example was a catalyst for preservation projects by other dynasties that had also settled in New York after the war: the Lubavitcher (Habad), Gerer, and Bobover groups in particular. Those dynasties soon began to document their musical heritages on recordings.
R. Taub intuited creative talent in Shenker and encouraged him to begin composing his own niggunim—and Shenker eventually wrote more than four hundred. His Eshet ḥayil and his setting of Mizmor l’david (Psalm 23) are probably his most famous songs. Although they had been written earlier, they became popular upon his issued recording of them in 1960 and have remained so. Shenker’s niggunim—those without words and the ones to Hebrew liturgical or biblical texts—all follow traditional European Hassidic structures, forms, and styles. They are thus extensions of an authentic European tradition, and they stand apart from the large body of neo- and pseudo-Hassidic songs with transparent American influences and features.
An ordained rabbi who made his living in the garment and jewelry business while he wrote and recorded music, Shenker also served for nearly six decades as cantor of a Modzitzer synagogue in Brooklyn. He passed away on November 20, 2016.
By: Neil W. Levin
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