Behind the Music

by Velvel Pasternak

For the past six decades, Velvel Pasternak was at the forefront of bringing the heritage of Jewish music, in all its forms - Hasidic, Israeli, Yiddish, Sephardic, Ladino, Holidays, Liturgical, Cantorial and more to the world. Behind the Music is a small window into his experiences and knowledge, including stories that will inspire you and make you laugh, fascinating information about well-known Jewish songs, and anecdotes and biographies of individuals who have shaped Jewish music.


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Book Review 

“BEHIND THE MUSIC: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles and Reflections” by Velvel Pasternak, Tara Publications, Cedarhurst, N.Y. 2017, 299 pages. Reviewed by Eli Shochet:

For all of us privileged to know and love Velvel Pasternak (and those two categories are inseparable), his book BEHIND THE MUSIC is an enthralling reading experience to be savored.

   With humor, pathos, and vivid reflections, he provides us with an intimate glimpse into the world of authentic Hasidic music.  This is a volume for both scholar and lay person, for both musicologist and niggun appreciator.  It provides us not only with a treasure trove of information, but with the desire to listen with love and new found appreciation to the melodies Velvel has devoted his life to both explicating and popularizing.

  BEHIND THE MUSIC is guaranteed to leave you humming, singing and even dancing with thoughtful appreciation.

Professor Eli Schochet
Academy of Jewish Religion, Los Angeles

Book Review 

“BEHIND THE MUSIC: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles and Reflections” by Velvel Pasternak, Tara Publications, Cedarhurst, N.Y. 2017, 299 pages. Reviewed by Jack Riemer:

"You don’t have to be a scholar of Jewish music in order to love this book. You just have to be someone who loves stories, and who loves to learn about the adventures of Velvel Pasternak, the man who has done more than anyone else in our time to discover, record and transmit the treasures of Hassidic music. Velvel, as everyone calls him, recounts some wonderful stories in this book about his experiences and I promise you that you will laugh many times as you read it, but I promise you that you will also learn much about what lies behind some of the songs that you thought you already knew.

How did Velvel get into the work of transcribing and recording the music of the Hassidim? Velvel says that one of the children of the Bobover Rebbe came home from school one day singing a niggun, and when his father asked him where this niggun came from, the child had no idea that it was his grandfather’s. That was the day when the Rebbe realized that he had to make sure that his family’s musical heritage was transcribed and recorded, and Velvel got the job.

Some of the stories that he tells about his experiences working with Hassidim are hilarious. Once he rented an expensive recording studio at an hourly rate. When the Hassidim eventually arrived, however, they would not sing until they first had a farbrengen, and toasted the Rebbe who had sent them. Eventually, he realized that they were there---not to perform—but to carry out the command of their Rebbe, and so they had to toast him before they could begin their task.

Velvel was told not ‘to make with his hands’ since the Hassidim sang with their eyes closed anyway, and he was told that the instrumentalists that he had hired to accompany the Hassidim were not necessary, since the singers would not pay any attention to them. And so Velvel let them sing without conducting, and he dubbed in the instrumental accompaniment after they had left the studio, and that is how the first album of Hassidic music was published. The album went on to become a best seller, and Velvel went on to publish many more albums and to rescue treasures of Hassidic music that might have otherwise disappeared. 

My all-time favorite Velvel story was what happened when the Bobover asked him to record their music. The only condition was that the music has to be ‘autentic’, which meant that it had to be with the dialect of Hebrew that the Bobever used. This time, Velvel gathered a number of professional cantors to be the choir, since he did not want a repeat of what had happened the last time. The first song he chose happened to be ‘Siman tov umazel tov’ which is sung at many Hassidic simchas. He dutifully transliterated it using the Bobever accent, and so it came out:

“Siman tov, umazel tov yihey looney”. When the cantors came to this phrase: ‘yihey looney’, which is the Bobover way of pronouncing ‘yihey lanu’, the choir simply broke up in laughter and they simply could not continue. They tried several times but the same thing happened every time. Finally, the choir went over to the Rebbe who had been sent to supervise the recording, and they tried to explain to them that they simply could not sing it his way.

The Rebbe listened patiently to their complaints, and then he replied with a story about the dancers of the Ivory Coast, a story that is simply too funny for me to do justice to in this review, and which, in itself, is well worth the price of the book. How the Rebbe knew this story and how he had it ready to tell at this moment is beyond my comprehension, but tell it he did, and the cantors were persuaded by it of the need to be ‘autentic’, and you will be too.

The second task that Velvel undertakes in this book is to go behind the music of songs that we think we know and tell us their origins. He answers such questions as what on earth is the Marseilles doing in the Hasidic repertoire, or why is the “Miserlou” sung at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the yahrtseit of Moses, our Teacher? He tells the story of how Naomi Shemer came to write “Yirushalayim shel Zahav” and the story of how Naftali Imber found the musical source for “Hatikvah”, and many other such stories that make us appreciate the songs that we thought we knew in a whole new light. 

The book is enriched with some wonderful photographs, and for every song that is discussed, Velvel provides the place on YouTube where it can be listened to.

And so, even if you think that you already know Jewish music, read this book for its information, and for its glimpse, not only into Hassidic music and into the worlds of classical Hazzanut and the Yiddish stage of the early twentieth century. Read it, not only for what it can teach you about songs that you thought you knew, but also for its introduction into the soul of the man who has recorded the Jewish musical heritage  for a new generation and who has taught it with love and awith wit and with wisdom all around the country."

Jack Riemer
Noted rabbi, author and book reviewer