A great loss

I have been happily married since 1986 but there are a few men in the world that I admire so much that I think of them as being my boyfriends. I haven't met any of these gentlemen but in my mind, they are my boyfriends.

Two of  my boyfriends are writers, David Owen and James Fallows. Anything they write, even an essay on the telephone book is worth putting everything else down and sitting down and consuming that bit of writing immediately.

My other boyfriend, Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker died yesterday at the age of 92.

 I grew up on recordings of Ben Zion Shenker like this one
You can hear it here.

When I began making Jewish ritual objects in fabric   I found that designing and sewing while listening to Ben Zion Shenker sing helped me think more deeply about the texts I was using in my work.

This recording would often be playing when deadlines neared and I had to stay focused.  I would often find myself singing along at full voice with Rabbi Shenker. His voice invited you to join him to sing the text with full voice and with full kavanah.

Every year before the High Holidays I listen and sing along to this 1963 recording of him leading Selichot services .

Most Cantors of fame sing very much like opera singers in a giant voice that shakes the rafters. The point of that sort of singing is to show off the star cantor rather than to pull in the listeners to sing with a full heart and throat.

Rabbi Shenker could probably sing the roof off a synagogue if he chose to. Instead he holds his voice back leaving room for the listeners to join in. It reminds me of the Kabbalistic teaching about how the Infinite God who fills the universe pulled himself back, made himself a bit smaller to allow the world to be created. Ben Zion Shenker restrains his voice and pulls us all in to sing to experience the music not just as listeners but to be truly part of the musical experience.

I listened to excerpts of this wonderful interview between Hankus Netsky and Rabbi Shenker yesterday.  Netsky mentioned to Rabbi Shenker that while the melodies he was singing were old European ones, the quality of his singing voice was American. Ben Zion Shenker agreed. he spoke about how what he wanted to capture was how the great cantors sang synagogue with great bombast they sang Yiddish folk songs with a sweeter more relaxed voice. He used that  sweeter folk music voice  in all of his work.

One of the reasons that Ben Zion Shenker's voice resonates so deeply for me is that it  replicates the moments of communal singing that are part of religious Jewish life.  I listen to the recordings and am transported to singing Z'mirot with my family Friday night or during the waning light of Shabbat with friends.

I am listening to Ben Zion Shenker as I type this.  He preserved the music  of Chassidim long dead. He also throughout his life continued to create new music that shapes our experience of Jewish prayer.
You can read this interview for a more conventional obituary and listen to more recordings.
יהי זכרו ברוך


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