Menachem Herman and the Happy Strings of Gratitude

 

By Rabbi Nachman Seltzer

Diaspora Yeshiva band was iconic in its day — a product of the baal teshuvah movement and a catalyst for many who drew closer to Yiddishkeit after being inspired by its original and authentic sound. Reb Menachem Herman was one of Diaspora’s talented musicians, and he has been part of the frum music world ever since. He has played with hundreds of musicians and at thousands of weddings, always trying to help people connect to Hashem through music and to bring true simchah to Klal Yisrael. Here he reminisces about his musical journey.

I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada. My mother, who had grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, began studying violin at the age of 4 with a teacher who promised to turn her into a concert violinist. Her parents, who had been religious, didn’t allow her to go in that direction, but another of the teacher’s students eventually became Ruggiero Ricci, a famous concert violinist.

I grew up listening to classical music, and my father was a cantor in the local shul. When I was 6 my parents bought me a snare drum, and when I was 8 I moved on to the accordion, which I played for a few years. But I really wanted to play drums and guitar, which I took up at the age of 10. I was an only child — my parents got married in their 40s — and I was alone a lot of the time, but I had my own world.

Music brought me to a place where I felt Hashem in my life at all times. I always felt a connection to something Higher even when I wasn’t frum. Many of the people around me were looking for a high, but for me, the music made me feel connected whether I was happy or upset. It was always a connector and personal power source for me.

When I was 16 years old, my school, which was culturally Jewish, put on a concert for Yom HaAtzma’ut. I remember watching two “Rabbis” standing on stage and playing their acoustic guitars, strumming along and singing. I was already a guitar player by then and I found myself kind of laughing at their efforts. Suddenly, one of them pulled out an electric guitar, and I felt like asking, “Sure, what are you going to do with that?” but he blew us all away with the most incredible guitar solo to the point where I found myself asking, “Is this even possible?”

Seeing him play that solo provided the kernel of a thought that maybe there was a connection between Judaism and spirituality.

I went over to the man after the show and said, “Rabbi, how’d you learn to play like that?”

“Who are you calling Rabbi?” he replied. “I’m a boy from Philly!”

I didn’t understand what he was really saying with that line, but the encounter would remain with me for a long time to come.

***

From the age of 16 to 19 I used to practice playing guitar for a good eight hours a day and then play with a band at night — either rehearsing or playing in pubs. Around that time Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, came to Winnipeg to do a show and I met him after the concert.

“Shlomo,” I said to him, “you play on Shabbos, right?”

Chas v’shalom!” he vehemently replied, the words ripping from the depths of his soul with a kind of deep, primal shudder that went way beyond the conscious mind. The fear that he injected in me with those two words has remained with me until today, and I knew right then and there that I would never again be able to pick up a guitar on Shabbos.

I joined different bands, but I needed something more that just wasn’t there. I needed something deeper. I didn’t know if there was anything deeper in Yiddishkeit because Jewish life in Winnipeg was pretty empty, but everything changed when I came to Israel.

It was 1979. I was 19 years old and a professional, experienced guitar player who had been playing on stages for years. My main instrument at the time was bass guitar, but I played guitar and drums too.

One Motzoei Shabbos I was walking through the Old City of Yerushalayim when I heard music playing. It was like nothing I had ever heard before and I was drawn to it — I couldn’t keep myself away even if I’d wanted to. Following the sounds, I found myself at the Diaspora Yeshiva, where I saw a bunch of guys standing on a stage playing some fantastic music. They were religious — that was obvious — so I knew that they were connected to Judaism. I wanted something spiritual but I didn’t know what, yet here were spirituality and religion coming together through music. It was authentic and it spoke to me.

***

The Diaspora Yeshiva Band included Avraham Rosenblum, Benzion Solomon, Simcha Abramson, Ruby Harris, Adam Wexler and Gedalia Goldstein. I recognized one of the men on the stage. It was none other than Avraham Rosenblum who had played that phenomenal guitar solo in Winnipeg three years earlier — and here he was again, on a stage in the Old City of Yerushalayim!

I returned to the yeshivah the next day asking questions, and it wasn’t long before they roped me in. I was introduced to the musicians and in a beautiful twist of hashgachah, the band’s bass player was leaving the yeshivah that week —which is how I found myself both in the yeshivah and in the band from one second to the next!

Some of my favorite songs from that period were Hu Yiftach Libeinu; Ivdu — which was written by Rabbi Moshe Shur; Tzaddik — possibly my favorite song; the Kosel Song; Dovid Melech Yisrael; and of course Malchutcha. But every song did something for me. It was a very special time in my life. I was going through a spiritual rebirth — everybody there was in the process of finding Torah and finding Hashem, and that’s what we talked about.

Music had finally become the spiritual experience I’d been searching for all my life. We were being transported to another place every time we played.

For me, everything we did was new and exciting and I loved every minute of it. I was 19 and the youngest. The rest of the members of the band were between 29 and 38. They took care of me like older brothers. Benzion Solomon was the first person to open a Likutei Moharan and teach me the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The concepts and ideas that he taught me were mind-blowing.

***

Professionally speaking, they’d played in the biggest Israeli music festivals and won awards two years in a row — for Malchutcha and Hu Yiftach. We believed that after the Old City was recaptured in 1967 and we got the Kosel back, it opened up a whole new light in the world and an ability to connect to the malchus of Hashem.

At that time the band performed every other Motzoei Shabbos, with Rabbi Shimon Green or Chaim David performing the other times. Aside from those shows we also went on tour all across North America around Chanukah time — spreading Judaism and spirituality wherever we played.

I remember a concert in Minnesota where 3,000 people came to see us. Herschel Bernardi was the warm-up act. Bernardi was a famous comedian and actor at that time— and in the middle of his act, he suddenly disappeared! He’d fallen off the stage into the orchestra pit, breaking his leg. Yet he insisted on being brought back up on stage and continued his performance — while standing on a broken leg. When he was finished and went backstage, he ground out between clenched teeth, “Now get me a doctor!”

I learned an incredible lesson that day. When a person really wants to do something and feels that he’s part of something bigger than himself, if he puts mind over matter he can do anything.

When Yaakov Avinu had the fight with the malach, the malach told him that he had to let go. Yaakov said to him, “I’m not letting you go until you give me a brachah.” The angel then told Yaakov that his name had been changed to Yisrael. What kind of a brachah was that? The truth is, the name Yisrael contains the words shirshin, yud, reish — and Kel — alef, lamed. The angel gave Yaakov a brachah that contained the ability to sing to Hashem in whatever situation he was going through. If things were going great, Yaakov would be able to connect to Hashem and not forget Him. If things were terrible, he’d be able to connect as well.

This became the theme of my life — to sing to Hashem no matter what I was going through.

***

I got married in 1980. The band had left the yeshivah by this time and kind of fell apart, but I had moved on to another yeshivah so it didn’t really affect me that much.

In the years that followed I became so “frum” that I didn’t want to play music any more. I thought that playing music was bitul Torah. I told myself that the Torah was the “song” and I didn’t need anything else. This message was reinforced by some of the people teaching me and I thought it made sense.

Yet although I was trying my best to ignore my musical side, Hashem had other plans for me, and a singer named Binyamin Yefet called me up, telling me that his guitar player hadn’t shown up for a wedding he was playing at and would I please take his place. I tried to tell him that I didn’t know the music and that I didn’t even play music anymore, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He picked me up to take me to the wedding. I played at the wedding and felt extremely connected and spiritual for a few hours, but I was still determined to stick to my learning to the exclusion of everything else. That was two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.

On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, 1982, Binyamin Yefet turned to me and uttered a few words that shook the foundations of my universe.

“Menachem, you’re so ungrateful!”

He explained: “You have this unbelievable gift of music and you’re not using it for Hashem, and you’re not using it for the Jewish people! Look how sefer Tehillim stresses the importance of singing and music with pesukim like Ashirah laHashem b’chayai…”

His words hit me like a ton of bricks and I felt as if Hashem was sending me a direct message, especially since I was a Levi and music was part of my DNA. I began playing at weddings with Binyamin Yefet’s band and I started meeting a wide variety of musicians.

I played with everyone, including the best of them. Zev Vindish was top of the list back then, and I still remember him calling out Shir Chadash! and breaking out with MBD’s Samcheim; Shmuel Brunner, Simcha Fabian and his electronic accordion, with Huna on the drums and a young singer named Mendy Jerufi, who was just beginning his career and was introduced to the band by my sax player and good friend Reuven Marantz, z”l. Things were hopping, and I was very busy with music once again, connecting my neshamah to the Ribbono shel Olam.

***

The Diaspora Band got back together in 1983 when Avraham Rosenblum made a deal with the Israel Center on Rechov Strauss in Yerushalayim for us to perform there every other Motzoei Shabbos. We played old songs and new songs and a good 200 people came to hear us on a regular basis. People were still looking and searching for light, and a million stories happened during those Motzoei Shabbos concerts as we did our best to help Yidden connect to the Source.

I brought C. Lanzbom into the band until he left to the States where he made it big. This was also when I met a young South African keyboard player named Jeff Horvitch, who became part of the chevra as well. (Jeff would go on to produce and record numerous albums at his studio, Creative Audio, in Givat Shaul — but that would be much later.) I also met Moshe Yess, z”l, and the two of us used to play together at least once a week in Yerushalayim. It was post Megama days, and we played My Zeidy and many of his other hits.

At some point Avraham Rosenblum came to an agreement with the manager of the newly built Ramada Hotel to hold our biweekly Motzoei Shabbos concerts at the hotel and, while we had a good time and the audience enjoyed themselves, the magic of those early days at the Diaspora Yeshiva could never be fully recaptured.

I also played guitar in many concerts for MBD and Avraham Fried when they performed in Israel. I used to pick them up from their hotel and drive them to the concert halls. Avreimel was a yungerman/superstar with a beard and a humble manner about him and MBD was the king, but such a mentch.

I found them both to be amazing people and great singers. I felt that they were singing not because they wanted to be famous, but rather because they had been given a shelichus by Hashem to share the talent they had with Klal Yisrael, and they were absolutely conscious of this. That impressed me very much because, as I said, for me the music had always been about the connection between people and Heaven, and they were mamash pulling this off.

One Shabbos I was in Switzerland with Mousa Berlin and Avraham Fried. At the seudah on Shabbos, our host tried to convince Avraham Fried to sing something, but he was too modest. He sang along with the rest of the people at the table and that was it. He made sure that his voice didn’t stand out in any way. Motzoei Shabbos after Havdalah, someone tried to put on one of his albums and he pleaded with them not to play it. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself in any way. He is authentically humble and a pure giver — never taking anything for himself.

It was such a fascinating time. Standing on stage with the biggest names and doing weddings with the smallest names — the music taking me to a place of healing, a place of light and calm. The music would be pumping, the crowd roaring, the stage pulsing, but I was in the eye of the storm — feeling calm and at one with my mission and my Creator. It didn’t matter if it was with Yaakov Shwekey in Caesarea with an 80-piece orchestra or a shul hall in the middle of the U.S. I’d stand there praying that the people hearing the music would be able to connect — because they were obviously looking for something, but they themselves weren’t focused on what it was.

Sometimes it happens, like when Sheweky sang V’hi She’amdah for the first time, there was an instant and deep connection between the people and the music. I was playing then and there’s no question, it happened the second we began playing the song. And that’s exactly what I was praying for every time I stood on a stage and played music.

It happened also in 1992 when Shorashim invited the Diaspora Yeshiva Band to headline at a reunion concert they were producing in Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall was jam-packed and the moment we got on stage, a feeling of magic settled on the entire auditorium. We opened with Pischu Li and it was as though a clap of thunder hit the room.

More than anything, we felt the love and the connection that occurs when music does what it is supposed to do. It was a focused energy — the feeling of people listening and connecting to the words they were singing. It wasn’t about the technique, although that’s important. At that concert the people had come because they loved our music, and we felt it instantly. For me it was a memorable show because my father was in the audience, and I think that was the last time he saw me play.

Life was interesting and exciting. I was learning and davening, raising my kinderlach and playing endless music. Zichron Menachem was producing amazing shows with the top singers of the day — MBD, Fried and Michoel Streicher. It was the heyday of chassidic music; I even introduced Yehuda Glantz to the Israeli audiences, but I still didn’t have a band of my own.

***

Though I played with everyone, I felt that many of the band leaders weren’t truly connected to the simchah they were playing at. It was all about them and showcasing their talents and pushing the new songs, but not about the chassan and kallah or the parents and families. It bothered me for a long time, and then one day I said to myself, “Wait a secon; you know all the best musicians… why don’t you write your own arrangements and put together your own band — where the goal will be to truly connect to the people’s simchah?”

As I was throwing myself into this new project, I got a phone call from my Rav, asking me if I’d take over in the kollel where I learned as a Rosh Kollel while the Rosh Kollel was out of the country for a few months. I was taken aback at this opportunity. Hard to imagine myself as a Rosh Kollel, but my Rav, Rav Michel Dorfman, zt”l, felt that I was suited for the position, and I couldn’t turn him down.

This meant that my plans for the band were temporarily moved onto the back burner while I began reviewing everything that I needed to teach. In the process I found that instead of teaching, I was learning better than I’d ever learned before, because I had to make sure I was clear on everything I was teaching the other avreichim.

Then a funny thing happened. As I immersed myself in my learning with the band on hold, I started getting phone calls from people asking me if I could put together a band for their weddings or simchahs. Today when people ask me, “Tell me, how do you start your own band?” I tell them, “Try teaching in a kollel; it’s a tried and true method.”

It was uncanny. I wasn’t doing any advertising, yet Hashem was sending me clients; people were getting hold of my phone number and calling me out of the blue. If Hashem wants something to happen, He doesn’t need advertising, He just needs you to be open to following the signs that come your way.

In the end I formed my own band. It took me time to put together the right mix of musicians since I was searching for people who would play with heart and feel the connection with the people we were celebrating with. I had this vision of myself playing music in the Beis Hamikdash — everyone is bowing down to Hashem, and I am in the back, helping Klal Yisrael connect to Hashem.

***

It was in the 1990s when the shift first occurred and yeshivah guys began approaching us at weddings and asking the band to play modern music. It was also around this time that I came to know Yochi Briskman, who would become a yedid nefesh, a true friend.

I told Yochi about all the requests I was getting from yeshivah bachurim, and he told me that he was getting them too. It bothered me and Yochi said, “Menachem, we have to show these guys that we can do this in a kosher way.”

I had a guitarist friend named Dani Maman. We had played at many baal teshuvah weddings together — they were the most spiritual weddings I ever played at, and all about connection: think a few hundred people singing V’sein banu yetzer tov over and over for half an hour straight…. It was Yom Kippur with complete simchah!

We decided to call the album Metalish and recorded it in Jeff Horvitch’s studio. I played bass, Dani guitar and Yochi drums. The album made some waves and Yochi wanted to do another one.

“Yochi,” I said, “I’m willing to do another one, if we do it with Carlebach songs, and there needs to be singing on the album unlike the first one.”

“If we’re going to have singing on the album,” Yochi pointed out, “we need to find the perfect voice to carry the album.”

One day he called me and said, “Menachem, I want you to hear this voice I recorded as a possible singer. I think he’d be great for the album.”

“While I love his voice,” I told Yochi, “I don’t hear the sound that we need for this album.”

Which is how I came to turn down Yaakov Shwekey!

I later met Yaakov at a concert he was doing in Israel.

“I’m the one who saved your career,” I told him.

“How so?”

“I didn’t let Yochi put you on the Metalish album.” He laughed.

We would end up doing many concerts — especially in Russia, where thousands of Yidden came to hear us — and it was also the start of my friendship with Yochi Briskman. He helped me immeasurably as I built my band and took it up to the next level (creating a Neginah orchestra look and sound), combining elegance and simchah/connection in one product. Yochi was always there for me and never asked for anything in return.”

When I play at a simchah I want to know my client’s vision and try to bring those vibes to life. Not to market myself, but to give my client exactly what he sees in his mind. One of my Rebbeim told me, “When you’re playing, the first thing you should have in mind is to make Hashem happy. Your second priority is to make yourself happy, as it says ‘Sameach tesamach’ — when you’re happy, you can make other people happy. Third priority is the chassan and kallah, then their families, and then the wedding guests.”

***

There’s always something new around the corner. I was introduced to the Torah of Rav Shalom Arush and Rav Lazer Brody not too long ago. Rav Arush is the author of the bestselling The Garden of Emunah, and many other incredible sefarim, and his approach is to focus on the gratitude that every person should be feeling to Hashem. When we wake up in the morning, the first words we say are Modeh ani — thanking Hashem for giving us another day. We need to be conscious of everything around us and not take anything for granted.

This approach came to me just prior to a time in my life that was very challenging, and it was a clear example of Hashem preparing the refuah before the makkah. When things were hardest, it was the gratitude that I was able to feel to Hashem that kept me going, and I have been trying to incorporate this into the music that I play and record today. I am composing and producing new songs with lyrics that bring these messages to life — still trying to help people heal and connect to Hashem through the concept of hakaras hatov for all the amazing things He does for us, every second of every day.