It is with great sadness that Matzav.com reports the sudden passing this morning of Rabbi Bentzion Shenker z”l. He was 91 years old.
Reb Bentzion was the famed musical secretary of the admorim of Modzitz and a renowned composer, who wrote some of the most well-known niggunim in the frum world, such as Aishes Chayil, Yosis Alayich and Mizmor L’Dovid.
Born in 1925, four years after his parents had immigrated from Poland, Reb Bentzion Shenker’s family first settled on the East Side of Manhattan and moved to Williamsburg. They then resettled in Bedford-Stuyvesant/Crown Heights. After attending public school for first grade, “Bennele,” as he was known, attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, then located in Williamsburg, for elementary school, and also for mesivta, until 1947.
At a young age, Bennele was recognized as a precocious boy with a goldene voice. His mother later remarked that her Bennele, at the young age of two or three, never needed any toys to keep himself occupied. Realizing how musically gifted her son was, she simply sat him down at a Victrola. Bennele sat at the Victrola for hours, amusing himself and memorizing the popular cantorial pieces of the day. One record after the next, the hours would fly by.
At about age 12, Bentzion’s musical interest and singing talent were further honed when he joined Chazzan Yehoshua Weiser’s choir.
In 1938, right after my bar mitzvah, Weiser took him to a studio to record one of his songs, Der Alter Chazzan, and he also presented him as a soloist in live radio performances and concerts.
While Reb Bentzion was a member of the choir, he began learning how to write and read music, also studying with Seymour Silbermintz, a brother of the well-known Agudah activist Rabbi Joshua Silbermintz, from 1939 to 1941.
As a bochur, in the late 1940s, Reb Bentzion would spend time on Motzoei Shabbos with two of his friends, Rav Moshe Wolfson and Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Rav Wolfson would later become rov of Bais Medrash Emunas Yisroel of Boro Park and mashgiach ruchni of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, while Reb Shlomo went on to become a famous composer and singer.
At that time, each Motzoei Shabbos, the three young yeshiva bochurim would head to the West Side of Manhattan to join the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Halberstam zt”l.
It was in 1940, the week of Parshas Noach, when Reb Bentzion was 15 years old, that his lifelong bond with the chassidus of Modzitz and its great admorim was forged.
The second Modzitzer Rebbe, Rav Shaul Yedidya Elazer Taub zt”l (1886-1947), known as the Imrei Shaul, succeeded his father, Rav Yisroel, in 1920. With the outbreak of World War II, he fled from Poland to Vilna, in Lithuania, and from there he made his way across Russia to Shanghai, China, eventually arriving in America and settling in New York.
On Friday night, Reb Bentzion and his father joined a group of people who walked from the Poilisher shteeble on Dekalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they davened, to attend the Rebbe’s tish in Williamsburg. He was thus exposed for the first time to the Modzitzer Rebbe, whose music he would later make famous and would preserve for more than half a century.
Reb Bentzion’s father hailed from a town in Poland located not far from Modzitz and thus already had a connection to the chassidus and the Rebbe.
A few months later, the Rebbe was invited to spend Shabbos at the large Van Buren Shul in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Shabbos morning, the Rebbe, who had been staying at the home of a chossid of his, invited Reb Bentzion’s father to join for the Shabbos seudah, remarking, “Bring your son along as well.”
Reb Bentzion’s father told him and his brother, Avrohom, to first go home and make Kiddush for their mother before joining the Rebbe’s meal.
Reb Bentzion told Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger of Yated Ne’eman the following in an interview: “When I came into the house where the Rebbe was staying, I saw him sitting at the head of a table. There were about a minyan of people there. I sat down on a couch located right behind the Rebbe and I noticed a sefer there on the side of the couch called ‘Lachassidim Mizmor,’ written in 1935 by R’ Meir Geshuri of Yerushalayim. The sefer contained a biography of the Modzitzer Rebbe and other rebbes, as well as musical notations of Modzitzer niggunim. I opened the sefer and started humming the songs to myself as I read the notes. I guess it was audible and the Rebbe heard me humming a niggun of his. He turned around, looked at me, and saw that I was a young child. I looked even younger than my age because I was very short. The Rebbe said to me, ‘Kentst lainin nutten?’ (Do you know how to read the notes?)’ I said, ‘Ah bissel (A little bit).’ He said, ‘Nu, lomir heren (let us hear)!’ The Rebbe encouraged me, so I kept on going, one niggun after another.”
Reb Bentzion held the Rebbe and the guests spellbound.
“The Rebbe very much enjoyed it, surprised that even though I had not known these songs before, I was able to sing them, and he told me to continue. He then asked me my name and I said, ‘Bentzion.’”
As the Rebbe sat there, listening to the young boy sing the Modzitzer niggunim from the musical notes in the sefer, he was astounded. That a child of this age could read notes with such fluency was mind-boggling to him.
At the end of the meal, the Rebbe asked Reb Bentzion to sing “Shir Hamaalos,” so he sang one of the Rebbe’s niggunim for those words.
“The Rebbe was surprised that I knew the niggun. I explained that it had just recently been brought over from Poland. He couldn’t get over it! As I continued, however, I rushed to finish the song, because I got very, very nervous singing in front of a rebbe at such a young age. At that point, the Rebbe taught his first lesson to me in neginah. He said, ‘Don’t sing like a choo-choo train, but like a zeiger, a clock: tick-tock, tick-tock. Sing slowly, on beat.’
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Reb Bentzion reflects with a wide smile. “That was my introduction to the Rebbe and the beginning of my kesher with the Rebbe.”
Reb Bentzion became the de facto musical secretary of the Rebbe, who could not read or write music, and he notated the Rebbe’s niggunim from 1940 to 1947. He also assisted in the publication of the Tiferes Yisroel journal, which included many of the Rebbe’s earliest niggunim. Over the years, Reb Bentzion accumulated a treasury of hundreds of previously unpublished melodies from the three admorim of the Modzitzer dynasty.
Chazzan Weiser, who was introduced by Reb Bentzion to the Modzitzer Rebbe, also notated some of the Rebbe’s niggunim.
“I used to notate the simpler niggunim of the Rebbe,” he says. “When I came to a very complicated one, I called Weiser, who was so excited that I introduced him to the Rebbe. I didn’t want to take it on my achrayus to write some of the songs that were very complex. Weiser would sit down and write them as easy as you say Ashrei. He would write chazzanus and speak on the phone at the same time. His talent was remarkable. That was his miktzoah (field) and he was very good at it.”
In 1949, Reb Bentzion married his aishes chayil, Dina, and settled in East Flatbush in an apartment house owned by his aunt.
Reb Bentzion would daven locally Friday night with the Kozhnitzer Rebbe, but on Shabbos morning, he and his wife would walk to his parents in Crown Heights for the Shabbos seudah.
Later, Reb Bentzion relocated to Crown Heights, where he remained until 1976, at which time he moved to Flatbush.
In Flatbush, at the same time that Reb Bentzion settled there, a grandson of the Modzitzer Rebbe opened a shul, assuming that Reb Bentzion would be the chazzan, a position he filled for eleven years.
Later, in 1989, Reb Bentzion and others established the Modzitzer shteeble on Coney Island Avenue, and he has been the chazzan there ever since. In fact, each year, Reb Bentzion composed new niggunim that are taught to the mispallelim before Rosh Hashanah.
The levayah will take place today at 1 p.m. at Shomrei Hadas Chapels, located at 3803 14th Ave in Brooklyn, NY 11218.
Reb Bentzion is survived by a beautiful mishpacha following in his ways: his children are Mrs. Esther Reifman, Mrs. Adele Newmark and Mrs. Brocha Weinberger.
Yehi zichro boruch.