The Nign of Reb Mendel: Hasidic Songs in Yiddish

Eli Silberstein photo Anastasia Chernyavsky

The Joel Rubin Ensemble featuring Rabbi Eli Silberstein, voice

The Nign of Reb Mendel is a continuation of Rubin’s exploration of the intersection between the Jewish instrumental klezmer and Hasidic vocal traditions that began with Midnight Prayer. It grew out of the four years Rubin spent documenting the vocal repertoire of Rabbi Silberstein. Whereas Midnight Prayer featured instrumental versions of a number of Hasidic nigunim, this project integrates a Hasidic singer as a member of the klezmer ensemble, something that had not been done since the klezmer revival began in the 1970s. The singing of nigunim has occupied a unique position in Hasidic life since the emergence of the movement in mid-18th century eastern Europe. Songs and, especially, pure melody are seen as being capable of establishing a direct connection to God, without the interference of text. These beautiful melodies, which range from introspective shepherd’s laments to ecstatic dance tunes, have been created over the centuries by Hasidic rabbis and musicians and may be sung at many occasions: in the synagogue, at the Hasidic rebbe’s table, at sabbath and holiday gatherings, at life-cycle celebrations like the wedding, in the home, or today as popular music of Jews the world wide. It is the Yiddish song repertoire as it was cultivated among Hasidic and other religious Jews of eastern European heritage (e.g. Lithuanian ultra-orthodox) for over 250 years that forms the core of The Nign of Reb Mendel. Here we present largely unknown gems, such as the Nign of R. Meir Shapiro of Lublin and Geloybt bistu (Praised Are You), alongside chestnuts such as the Dudele of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Vos vet zayn? (What Will Happen?). By combining old Hasidic nigunim with the sound of instrumental klezmer music, the ensemble reunites two worlds, creating an aesthetic close to that which might perhaps have been heard by the Ba’al Shem Tov (founder of the Hasidic movement) or R. Shneur Zalman (founder of Chabad hasidism) and their descendents, yet which is thoroughly contemporary at the same time.

Clarinetist and ethnomusicologist Joel Rubin has long been considered by many to be the leading performer of Jewish instrumental klezmer music in the world today, earning accolades from sources as diverse as klezmer giants Dave Tarras and Max Epstein, international clarinet soloist Richard Stoltzman, avant garde composer John Zorn, and Nobel Prize Laureate and poet Roald Hoffmann. He studied with Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman, attended the California Institute of the Arts and received a BFA from the State University of New York at Purchase. Rubin holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from City University (London) for his pioneering work on improvisation and ornamentation in klezmer clarinet music. He is currently Assistant Professor and Director of Music Performance at the University of Virginia’s McIntire Department of Music. He has concertized throughout Europe, North America and Asia since the 1980s. In addition to appearances with traditional performers such as the Epstein Brothers, Moshe “Moussa” Berlin, Seymour Rexsite and Miriam Kressyn, Leon Schwartz, Sid Beckerman, Pete Sokolow, Danny Rubinstein, Ben Bazyler, and Leopold Kozlowski, Rubin was the founder and clarinetist of some of the most internationally respected klezmer ensembles, including the pioneering revival group Brave Old World. Rubin’s albums Midnight Prayer (Traditional Crossroads), Beregovski’s Khasene (Beregovski’s Wedding), Bessarabian Symphony, Zeydes un Eyniklekh (Grandfathers and Grandsons) and Hungry Hearts are considered to be masterpieces of classical Eastern European and American Jewish music. His music can be heard in several films, including the recent L’armée du crime (France, 2009), and the award-winning documentary portrait A Tickle in the Heart (Germany/Switz./USA 1996) about the Epstein Brothers Orchestra.

Rabbi Eli Silberstein, vocals, comes from a long line of Hasidic scholars from Russia and can also trace his lineage to the Vilna Gaon, one of the foremost rabbis and scholars of the 18th century. He has been the charismatic leader of the Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for over twenty-five years. Rabbi Eli, a noted Talmudic scholar, is renowned for his vast knowledge of Jewish law, philosophy and kabbalah. He lectures and publishes extensively, and has developed many courses for the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Eli is also a ba’al menagen, a masterful singer and an acknowledged expert on Hasidic nigunim and storytelling.