Interview With Abie Rotenberg –
Who influenced you musically?
I would imagine that I’m no different from everyone else in that there were many musical influences in my life. I would even venture to say that I am still being influenced by music that I listen to with intent, or even just overhear casually while sitting in the chair at the dentist.
My father was European, and he loved the music of his youth, which was mostly chasidic. He was musically talented in that he could harmonize and play piano by ear. My mother could carry a tune, and on Shabbos, zemiros were a major part of our family dynamic. Outside of the home and shul, popular Jewish music in our circle those days was mostly Shlomo Carlebach and Benzion Shenker, then later the Pirchei albums and the Rabbis’ Sons. I wore out those records and knew all the songs. As a teenager, I also listened to contemporary music on the radio and was quite familiar with those genres. My preference, however, was toward folk and country folk music such as the Mitchell Trio, Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver. I also appreciated the ballads of Harry Chapin. Later in life, the music of Megama was a major influence upon me as I attempted to write original English lyrics on Jewish themes.
What music do you listen to currently?
Honestly, I don’t listen to music all that often. In the car, it’s either the news or sports radio. When I overhear my grandchildren singing a new, contemporary song, if it catches my ear, I’ll try and learn it. Or if I need to sing a current-day song on stage for any given reason, I’ll then make the effort to learn it so that I’ll be able to perform it. Otherwise, I’m quite content with the repertoire of songs that I already know and enjoy.
What are you currently working on?
I’m not currently working on any specific project. I am, however, composing niggunim, and I have quite a few that I think are nice. The past few years I was very busy with authoring two works. One, a novel titled “The Season of Pepsi Meyers.” (Monsey.com April 6, 2017, “Spring is Here and Baseball Is in the Air.”)
The other was a sefer titled “Eliyahu HaNavi,” published by Artscroll. Now that they are concluded, I find myself spending a bit more time focusing on music. With Hashem’s help, perhaps something will come of it.
Which songs of yours are your personal favorites?
That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I prefer to hear from others which of my songs they enjoy most. Very often I’m surprised and especially gratified when they choose a song that is not as popular or well known. But to answer the question, I will say that לפום צערא אגרא, the more work put in, the greater the reward. So, the songs that required both a tune and original lyrics on difficult subject matters (such as “Memories,” for example) are the works I’m most proud of.
How often do you perform and for whom?
I’ve often said that I’m a reluctant performer and this remains true today even though I’ve been on stage many times over the years. I am thankful that music has never been my parnasah, which perhaps allows me to be more selective than others as to when and where I perform. I have a special relationship with Camp HASC and the amazing work they do with special children. I also am more receptive to participating in musical performances if there is a kiruv component to the event.
What, in your opinion, makes something “Jewish music”?
Now, that’s an even more difficult question to answer, and I’m not even certain that a definitive one exists. But I certainly have some thoughts on the matter and I’ll try my best to express them.
Let’s first try to narrow it down. Does any song written by a Jewish composer qualify the song as “Jewish music”? Of course not. Irving Berlin (his real name was Israel Isidore Baline) wrote “I’m Dreaming of a White Xmas,” and John David Marks wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Hardly Jewish music. Do Hebrew words in a song make it “Jewish music”? Well, Ron Eliran sang a beautiful version of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in Hebrew back in 1969. Although beautiful, it certainly does not qualify as “Jewish music.” What about a melody set to pesukim or from our liturgy? This is a bit more of a gray area. Obviously, when Hebrew Christians sing of G-d using verses from Tanach it cannot in any way be construed as “Jewish music.” But what about a contemporary pop song set to those words? Let’s even get specific. The currently popular “Hashem Melech, Hashem Malach,” is an adaptation of the Latin American Grammy-winning song “Vivi Mir Vida,” written by the salsa artist Marc Anthony. Does it qualify as “Jewish music”? Well, there is precedence.
Many years ago, Yisroel Lamm told me the following story. A chasidic Rebbe in Europe was once walking down the street and overheard a gentile singing an extraordinarily happy tune. The Rebbe asked him, “What is that song?” The gentile answered, “I just composed it.” “Why are you so happy?” the Rebbe asked. “Because I just won a case in court against a Jew,” the gentile replied. The Rebbe turned to his chassidim and said, “That is true simcha!” He then proceeded to adapt the tune he overheard to words from Tehillim and it became a popular dance nigun. Perhaps “Hashem Melech” is merely a contemporary version of the same story. Food for thought.
Music itself is beyond affiliation. It is a gift from heaven that enhances our lives. I’m fond of likening it to color or flavor. We could exist in a black and white world…we could all subsist on the nourishment of bland, tasteless food. But God, in His goodness, gave us those gifts and they should fill us with thankfulness for the beauty and pleasure they bring into our lives. Similarly, we could all survive in a world without music. Thankfully we don’t have to. We have music to enhance our senses in every which way possible. Joyous toe-tapping music takes our happiness to another level. Sad and pensive music can accentuate our pain and the depth of our emotions. A brilliant orchestration can be a thing of beauty that can cause us to marvel at the infinite mysteries of the multifaceted universe we live in. It has been medically proven that music can be effective in therapy and that musical associations can cause goosebumps and other visceral, physical reactions.
Notwithstanding the above, people will continue to define the work of observant individuals who compose and produce songs as “Jewish music.” But in my eyes, because it is such a broad term…it is probably not that helpful for parents who wish to restrict the listening choices of their children. Because within what is called the Jewish music industry today there seems to be as many genres as there are in contemporary music. There are even Jewish rap singers who espouse fealty to Hashem and Yiddishkeit with hip-hop songs…and many kids respond to them positively. So it really is up to the parent to determine whether they wish to limit the exposure of their children—much as they must do with reading materials and other choices—or give them free access to the many variations of kosher expression that are available today.
I would just conclude by wishing all your readers a good Yom Tov, and that they find meaningful inspiration and spiritual elevation in whatever type of music they choose to listen to.