Mishpacha Magazine: PINKY’S PRAYER
In this past weeks Mishpacha Magazine there is an amazing interview with world renown composer Pinki Weber. You can read part of the interview below.
by Aryeh Ehrlich
photos Meir Haltovsky, JDN
At a typical Williamsburg simchah hall, Reb Pinchas Weber, America’s “king of the badchanim,” transforms the assemblage into a river of tears.
At the Satmar shul on Rodney Street, Rav Pinchas Mordechai Weber, a maggid shiur, arrives early in the morning to deliver a profound shiur in Gemara to a group of 30 yungeleit.
At the studio in Reb Pinky Weber’s home, the composer sits down with one of the Jewish music scene’s top singers, to work on a custom-ordered song.
Three scenes, three facets of one of the greatest composers of recent years — the creator of “Racheim,” “Tefillah L’Ani,” “Aneinu,” and many other songs — a mystery known as Reb Pinchas (Pinky) Mordechai Weber
Say the name “Pinky Weber,” and chances are that someone will start humming. The Satmar chassid from Williamsburg has composed some of the most popular songs of recent years – songs like “Racheim,” “Tefillah L’Ani,” “Aneinu,” and other hits.
But not too long ago, the average fan of chassidic music would have had a hard time putting a face to the name “Pinky Weber.” For more than two decades, Reb Pinchas Mordechai Weber was known to the chassidim of Williamsburg as a badchan with rare talent. Virtually no one dreamed how many hearts that talent would touch, and how far from the mitzvah tantz scene his songs would travel.
The man who discovered Reb Pinky Weber’s rare talent for composition is the American singer Reb Michoel Schnitzler, who put out a popular series of albums in Yiddish over a decade ago. All of the songs in those albums were Weber’s work. Reb Isaac Honig, another well-known American singer, based his album V’sivneihu on Reb Pinchas’s work. Since then, Reb Pinky Weber’s creations have starred in every one of Honig’s albums. This year in Shvat, another Honig album is scheduled to appear in stores, and it will feature five Weber creations.
But Reb Pinchas garnered many more customers in the ensuing years, customers like Avraham Fried (“Peduscha L’Amcha,” “Kah Hartzeh Lanu,” “Eishes Chayil”), Mordechai Ben David (“Midas Harachamim,” “Tefillah L’Ani”), Shloime Gertner (“Hashivah Shofteinu,” “Shuvu Lachem L’Ohaleichem,” “Ashrei Mi,” “Re’eh Na B’Anyeinu”), Lipa Schmeltzer (“Al Taster,” “Ayeh Makom Kevodo,” “Shivati,” “U’bifrat al Yoshvei Eretz Yisrael,” “Gelt,” and others), and Sruly Ginsburg (“Aneinu”). Yisroel Werdyger’s new album, Odeh La’Kel, also contains five compositions that are the fruit of Reb Pinky Weber’s hard work and the product of his emotional world.
Today, despite his stunning repertoire and reputation, composing music remains Reb Pinchas’s secondary occupation. First and foremost, he practices an art form that is enjoyed primarily by the American Jewish public — the composition of grammen. “I created a new genre of grammen. But now it has been copied by many others,” he tells me during an extended conversation that takes place beneath the bleachers of the main Satmar beis medrash on Rodney Street, in Williamsburg, where he opened a tiny crack into his closely guarded inner world. Above and around us are 5,000 chassidim who are celebrating the sheva brachos of the eldest granddaughter of the Rebbe Reb Zalman Leib of Satmar shlita.
He then adds, “I make a living from grammen, but I enjoy composing niggunim much more.”
Despite this revelation, conducting a conversation with Reb Pinky Weber about his work is not an easy feat. He doesn’t easily agree to talk about himself or to open up. In general, people tend to be more open in a one-on-one conversation, whereas they are filled with fear when standing before an audience, but for Reb Pinky Weber, the opposite is true. When he is facing a large group of listeners, his mind is clear and words come to him easily. His talent for improvisation is truly extraordinary. But in private conversation he becomes hesitant, choosing his words carefully. He is obviously uncomfortable with the focus on his talent. Yet in matters pertaining to Torah or hashkafah — and, l’havdil, non-Torah subjects — this devout Satmar chassid displays an impressive amount of knowledge, as well as an authentic kanaus typical of his community.
Parallel Notes Reb Pinchas Mordechai Weber maintains a rigorous daily schedule that combines roles as a maggid shiur, composer, and entertainer.
Even as a small boy, his talent was obvious. “When I was a child, I always felt that I had a sense for song and for rhyme,” Reb Pinchas reminisces. “As a young boy, I had the privilege of singing before the VaYoel Moshe of Satmar on Chanukah.
“I come from a Satmar family, but I must emphasize that I am a Satmar chassid by choice,” he says, dropping a sugar cube into a Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee, the sort that the shuls in Williamsburg supply in large quantities. “My father, Reb Elisha Weber, lived in Yerushalayim. He is the grandson of Reb Moshe Kliers, the famed chief rabbi of Tiveria. At a certain point, he fled from Eretz Yisrael out of fear of the army.” [His father-in-law is Rabbi Moshe Jacobowitz, a prominent member of the Satmar community in Brooklyn.]
As a boy, young Pinky would create rhymes for his friends and set them to music. Later, during his studies in the Satmar yeshivah, he honed his rhyming skills and taught himself how to play the keyboard. “Twenty-five years ago, after my marriage, I began playing the keyboard at weddings for a living,” he details. “Then I moved into badchanus. I’ve been in the field for 21 years. I’ve had the privilege of being the badchan at second-generation weddings, where I was the badchan at the parents’ weddings, as well.
“My greatest privilege has been to bring joy to distinguished men and prominent tzaddikim. I’ve entertained the Bobover Rebbe and the Beirach Moshe of Satmar zichronam livrachah, as well as, yblch”t, the Rebbes of Tosh, Pshevorsk, Skulen, Toldos Aharon, Boyan, and many others.
“Not long ago, the Rebbe of Pshevorsk, who lives in Antwerp, came here, and I was asked to entertain him at the Ateres Avraham hall. When I finished, the Rebbe blessed me, ‘Just as you have brought joy to us, so may Hashem bring joy to you.’”
About 12 years ago, Reb Pinky Weber transitioned from the creation of lyrics to the composition of melodies. At the time, many felt that the genre of chassidic music seemed to be “drying up.” Listeners were getting the sense that all of the potential motifs had already been used, and that there was little possibility for surprise or originality. Along came Reb Pinky Weber, who brought to chassidic music exactly what it needed: innovation and originality, laced with faithfulness to the underlying ideals. “Pinky managed to introduce new motifs within the familiar realms,” one of his friends explains. “He produced compositions that people still find surprising. Being new and original in today’s world of chassidic music is not a simple proposition at all. A number of his compositions are not simply popular hits for a short time; they are songs with a long shelf life. That’s the true test of every composer, and Pinky is one of the few composers who has passed the test.”
Reb Pinky was uniquely suited to breathing new life into the chassidic melody because he had already established himself as something of an innovator in the world of badchanus.
“When I became a badchan, the old style of grammen was in its death throes,” he explains. “Large portions of the American public had ceased taking any interest in it. There was a need for innovation. But my innovations followed the example of veteran badchanim, such as my mentor, Rabbi Chaim Mendel Mermelstein.”
Granted, there are some aspects of badchanus that never change, no matter what the event or who the participants. Reb Pinky explains that “each wedding requires individual preparation. I always need to know the names of the mechutanim and their family pedigrees. After that, it depends on the personalities of the participants and whether I’m singing with others or solo. The problem is that sometimes I prepare one grammen and then find myself reciting an entirely different text, since the audience is completely different from what I had expected. In those situations, I improvise on the spot.
“Someone was once asked how long it takes him to prepare a drashah. He replied, ‘A 15-minute drashah requires four hours of preparation, but for a four-hour speech, 15 minutes of preparation is sufficient.’ Sometimes, I find that the lengthier pieces don’t require more than a small amount of preparation.”
In Action The scene is a typical wedding at Ateres Avraham. A quick glance around the hall is enough for Reb Pinky Weber to assess his audience: a young crowd that will pay careful attention to every word. He begins with some humor, like Reb Yankel Miller on a particularly cheerful day. “It’s important for me to match the mood of the audience,” he will tell me later.
Now Reb Pinky’s in the spotlight, and he must seize those first few moments to establish a rapport with the listeners. “With such a large number of chesed organizations,” Reb Pinky Weber exclaims to his audience as he warms them up, “it’s absolutely unbelievable that Mashiach still hasn’t come. Just yesterday, I was paying a condolence call to aveilim. I saw that Misaskim was there, arranging meals, schlepping in the low chairs, and setting up a mechitzah. I asked them why they needed a mechitzah, and they told me, ‘There are two brothers sitting shivah here who don’t talk to each other.’”
Peals of laughter sound from the audience; Reb Pinky has achieved his goal, tickling the celebrants even as he maintains a sphinx-like expression. In his head, he is already planning his next witticism, with which he will engage the audience before he segues into the serious, emotional portion of his repertoire.
Identifying me as a man from Eretz Yisrael, the singer/badchan/composer/poet has found material for his next line. “There is a Jew from Eretz Yisrael here,” he announces, “and I must tell you that I was recently in Eretz Yisrael. While I was there, I traveled on an Egged bus. Nowadays, there are mehadrin buses. On the bus, I saw a man sitting next to his wife, and I said to him, ‘Sir, this bus is mehadrin.’ He replied, ‘I am fulfilling mehadrin min hamehadrin — ner, ish, u’beiso.…’”
After a few more jokes, Reb Pinchas decides that the audience has laughed enough. Transitioning to the star players at this mitzvah tantz, he removes a small note from his pocket, which has the technical details about the chassan, the kallah, and their families. To the tune of “Tzamah Lecha Nafshi”, he masterfully strings together a tapestry of psukim, words of praise, expressions of longing and emotion, and tales of the merits of righteous ancestors.
Weber wrings emotions out of his audience. The most indifferent and apathetic listeners are moved to tears by his songs. Sometimes he skips from one tune to the next, and then returns to the first. At certain points, he splices bits of emotion-laden chazzanus into his songs.
And all the time Reb Pinchas is in complete control of his audience. No one utters a word. At the entrance to the hall, a few young men appear. Neither friends nor relatives, they’ve been drawn in by Reb Pinchas Weber’s vocal wonders, like butterflies to a lightbulb.
Later, he will tell me that despite his stoic countenance, his emotion beneath the surface is alive and pumping. “I have an ironclad rule: It’s impossible to evoke emotion in others unless you feel it yourself.”
A Candle, a Soul There was once a shattered, traumatized woman whose life had been destroyed by the Holocaust. Her son, the love of her life, had been snatched from her hands by the Nazi beasts. She never forgot her precious child. She went through the camps, she survived aktions, she experienced death marches, she was transported by cattle car while other people dropped around her like flies — until she was finally liberated by the Allies and came to the United States, broken and devastated, her soul torn to shreds.
Every Erev Shabbos, when she lit candles, she would add one small candle in memory of her only child. Every week, while standing before the lit candle, which she saw only through a haze of tears, she would remember her child.
Once, while she watched the flickering flame in which the face of her son seemed to be reflected, the image of an elderly man appeared before her. “You should not light a candle for a person who is alive,” the apparition told her.
The following Friday, this survivor of the camps went to purchase candles to light in memory of her son, who had been taken away in an aktion to an unknown fate. Another customer in the store stared at her for a long time. Their gazes locked, and the woman fainted on the spot. It was her son!
This true story is recounted in Reb Pinchas Weber’s song “Lechtele.” The song has gained popularity in every chassidish court. Many use the tune for the passage of Mimkomcha, in the Kedushah of Shabbos. Every Shabbos, the Tosher chassidim sing the actual lyrics for their Rebbe.
And though Reb Pinchas has created many songs, he concedes that this gem is his personal favorite, predicting with confidence that it will remain popular for generations.
As for “Racheim,” once considered the greatest hit of all times and now hardly heard, Reb Pinky displays the same confidence, mixed with a dose of bittersweet experience: “That’s the way it is with music. Sometimes a song goes up, and sometimes it goes down. ‘Racheim’ will be back.”
At the Keyboard The creative process can be a frustrating one for composers and artists. It’s hard to command inspiration. But Reb Pinky has been unusually fortunate in this regard. “Usually, niggunim come to me when customers put in orders.” Reb Pinchas describes how his songs are created. “A singer comes and asks for a song, and I tell him that I just saw a particular midrash or pasuk and I feel that I can make a hartzige niggun, a stirring melody, out of it, or a shnelle niggun, a fast-paced tune. I invite the singer to join me at the keyboard. If I’m feeling ‘warm,’ the tune will come out very emotional and moving. If I’m in a cheerful mood, it will be a happy song.”
Along with his authentic chassidish creations, Reb Pinky Weber’s repertoire includes a number of more contemporary pieces, the kind of music to which young bochurim dance spiritedly around a chassan. In other words, songs that would not be sung at a tisch. What brings him to these styles?
“Most of my compositions are in an authentic, traditional chassidic style,” he clarifies. “There are a few exceptions, but in general, I try to retain the chassidish imprint even on those. In an ideal world, I would stick exclusively to the old style — but remember, I compose songs to order. I accommodate every singer and cater to their style of choice. Still, even when I create a more contemporary tune, I make sure to compose a tune that is only slightly modernized, in order to counterbalance the foreign winds that are blowing.
“I get encouragement when I go to a wedding and I discover that all the new, bouncy songs that we thought would be hits simply do not interest anyone. Even when they dance the hora, people nowadays choose to sing more traditional songs, such as “Tzamah Lecha Nafshi,” “Rachmana D’Anei,” and classic Lubavitcher tunes — heimishe zachen, authentic material.”
As Reb Pinky opens a window into the world of the chassidic music maker, he also paints an image of a grueling schedule dictated less by the clock than by an unarticulated simchah cadence. “We in the music business do most of our work at night. I finish my day’s work at two o’clock a.m., sometimes at three, and sometimes even at six in the morning. I sleep a bit, wake up in time for zman kriyas Shema, and I go to the beis medrash on Rodney Street, where I deliver a Gemara shiur to 30 men. Then I go home, have something to eat, rest a little bit, and prepare my grammen for that evening’s wedding. I then return to shul for Minchah and Maariv, and afterward I prepare my shiur. During the long summer days, I find more time to sit and compose new songs.”
How much, I inquire, would it cost me to purchase one of those songs?
“I wouldn’t tell you that unless you were really serious,” he says. “I will say only one thing: The prices are not too high, because unfortunately the singers make very little today.”
With so many singers, so many songs, and not much money to be had, is there more room for development in the genre? “There are directions it can go,” Reb Pinky affirms, “but none of them lie in the non-Jewish realm. There are those who tried to push chassidic music in that direction, and I’m glad that the movement stopped. Nowadays, we are witnessing the reverse. I feel that people are returning to the original forms of music.”
To Gush Katif It’s the month of Av 2005, right before the evacuation of the shul in Neve Dekalim, Gush Katif. All of the powerful emotions that the world can possibly contain are emptying into the tear-soaked sanctuary. Some 1,500 young people sit crowded together on the floor, wailing and weeping. Their orange shirts are torn, and their hearts are crushed. The Zionism that they were taught is ripping them to pieces. An entire country watches the events unfolding in this settlement with dread.
A soft hum is heard from somewhere. “Tefillah l’ani ki yaatof,” a student from the Mercaz HaRav yeshivah in Jerusalem begins to sing. His friends, sitting in a nearby circle, join in. The sorrow-filled room quickly becomes a blazing bonfire, roaring with emotion: “Hashem, hear my prayers, let my cry come to You. Do not hide Your Face from me, on the day of my distress.…”
Over time, this song became known as the theme song of the Disengagement from Gush Katif. Even today, at every gathering of those expelled and at every event commemorating the expulsion, this song is sung; the images and feelings come flooding back.
At that time, the creator of the song was torn between his hashkafos, his feelings, and his thoughts.
The exiles from Gush Katif never imagined in their wildest dreams that the man responsible for the creation of the song was a Satmar chassid who is fiercely opposed to the settlement enterprise and to whom Zionism is anathema. How did Reb Pinky Weber feel when he heard that the Gush Katif refugees were expressing their emotion at the Zionist betrayal through a song he’d composed?
Reb Pinky Weber’s answer is complicated and torn. It combines compassion for the exiles with pity for their Zionist sentiments and pointed quotations peppered with analogies, some of them from the sefer VaYoel Moshe. Later, though, he asks that his complete response be erased from the record.
For the record, he says, “I cried with them. They cried over the Disengagement, and I cried over their philosophy.”
Before we part ways, Reb Pinchas offers me a sefer that he authored entitled Miliba Lepuma (From Heart to Mouth). The 542-page book, which follows the order of the parshiyos of the Torah and quotes from works of drush and Chassidus — from teachings of the Amoraim to newly developed ideas — is written in clear, flowing language, as befits America’s king of verse. Published two years ago and graced with approbations by gedolei Torah of America, Reb Pinchas’s sefer demonstrates that more than music is his livelihood, Torah is his life.
At the end of the book, in the section devoted to chiddushim on sugyos, Weber devotes a lengthy chapter to the subject of “the issues and laws of song and music.” The chapter begins with the “wisdom of music,” and Reb Pinchas quotes Reb Yisrael of Shklov, one of the students of the Vilna Gaon, who wrote that the Gaon was familiar with “the wisdom of music,” and that he “praised it greatly.”
Music connoisseurs claim that, aside from his talents for badchanus and composition, his songs take on a life of their own when he is the singer. Why won’t Reb Pinky record his own work?
“You aren’t the first person to ask this question,” he smiles ruefully. “Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time it would take to record an album. The day I decide to do that, I’ll set the bar very high for myself.”
For now, Reb Pinky spends his days in the beis medrash, at his keyboard, or at the many wedding halls he frequents. His personal prayer remains the same, no matter the venue or the audience: “that I bring joy and emotion to as many people as possible.” —
This article was available in last weeks edition of Mishpacha Magazine. For more articles please visit your newsstands to pick the Mishpacha Magazine or visit Mishpacha.com.
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