Five leading names in the contemporary Jewish music world talk candidly about the challenges — and the joys — of making a living from bringing simchah to people.
Yanky Briskman, musician
Avrumi Berko, musician
Motty Miller, musician
Shia Berko, singer
Sruly Werdyger, singer
Photos by Yitzy Engel
Sukkos is a time when we have a special mitzvah of simchah. The use of music to help one attain simchah is already detailed in Tanach. While we cannot fathom the level of kedushah in the Beis Hamikdash, we know that various musical instruments were used during the simchas beis hasho’eivah.
Based on your own experiences in the contemporary Jewish music world, please share with us your thoughts about authentic Torah-based neginah and bringing joy into Jewish hearts.
Sruly Werdyger: Neginah has two purposes: It brings joy and it brings hisorerus — inspiration. And sometimes, the same song can serve both purposes.
It’s not only simchah. Neginah brings hashraah.
Motty Miller: Neginah holds a lofty place in Jewish thought. There’s a known saying that “chazzanim are naaranim” (fools), because heichal haneginah is so close to heichal hateshuvah and they’re so close and don’t enter.
There’s an organization called Mekimi that arranges for entertainers to visit individuals who are ill. Sometimes they’ll call us to come to a young patient, and the parents will tell us that their child was refusing to take medication but “as soon as you guys got here, he forgot everything and he took it.”
SW: We can attest from our own experience to the influence music has on people, not only from our work at weddings from a professional point of view, but from what the singers and musicians do as volunteers.
That must be very special for you personally.
MM: Yes. The feeling that, wow, you’re not a doctor or anything, but you did something that a doctor couldn’t have done.
SB: You asked about authentic niggunim. We don’t know exactly what music was like in the Beis Hamikdash. We keep the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim alive from generation to generation, but the exact types of music have not necessarily been passed down.
However, you also spoke of bringing joy to Jewish hearts. I don’t think we are machshiv enough what we do. People come to us after weddings to tell us, wow, you don’t know what you did for us. Music is so inspiring, often I myself don’t know or recognize the degree to which it goes into people’s hearts.
SW: He’s making an important point. We have no clue what was going on hundreds of years ago. There’s no way we can imagine it; we don’t know. But today, by the fact that people are uplifted by our music, we know it’s authentic, it’s the real thing.
SB: For them, at least.
YB: I think Harav Aharon of Karlin, zy”a, says, atzvus — sadness — itself is not a sin, and simchah itself is not a mitzvah. But what simchah can bring nothing else can bring, and the same applies to atzvus. We have a big role in making people b’simchah, which is a tremendous thing.
In your experience, what is the primary drive that influences the types of songs that are sung? Is it the composers and singers who are setting the tone, or is it the demands of the audience and trendsetters?
SB: It’s a tough question, because again, we’re on a platform, so people tend to look up at us, and if they hear a song from us, they’ll like it. But again, we’re not setting the trend; it’s not as if we declare what’s in style; it’s what the audience likes. If they like it, it means they’re connecting to it.
SW: When you say the audience demands. … The audience is so varied; there isn’t one trend, there are 10 different trends.
You have requests from the mechutanim at weddings…
SW: Even if there are no requests, part of our job — it’s probably the main part of our job, musicians and singers — is to know our crowd. We need to read the crowd, and know what kind of music they’re going to like. A successful wedding, for us, is one where the crowd connected with the music that we gave them.
Do you research the type of guests you’re going to sing for?
SB: No, I walk into the wedding and I look at the crowd basically and see who I’m singing for.
Sometimes you see a particular person who’s not going to like a particular song …
A lot of Chassidishe singers do Sephardic weddings, and a lot of Sephardim like the really Chassidishe tunes, such as “Ahallelu.” I was once at a Sephardic wedding and I was singing the first dance, all the Chassidishe tunes. The Sephardi grandfather got nervous, what kind of singing is this? You see, he was brought up differently and this kind of niggun doesn’t speak to him.
Twenty-five years ago, most weddings didn’t even have a singer. Do you have any weddings where you are literally the one-man band?
AB: Maybe four or five in my history. Today everyone takes a singer.
MM: Perhaps half a percent.
Is it usually the singer who chooses which niggunim to sing? Are there occasions where the musician is the one choosing the niggunim …
AB: It depends if it’s a one-man-band with add-ons.
If it comes with a band, then the musician is going to pick the songs. If it’s only a musician and a singer, it’s the singer. Technically, he reads the crowd the whole time. That’s where his face is. My head is in the keyboard. So even if I am the one to lead the song, the one who sings is really the one reading the crowd.
Let us hear from the musicians what they think about the topic of trendsetting. Do you have anything to add to what we heard from Shia and Sruly?
AB: I think it definitely has to do both with the composers and the people demanding. We, as people who play and sing at weddings, have to do what the crowd wants.
Do you have the ability to influence it, to shift it even a little bit?
AB: Of course you can try, but you can only try.
Let’s say there’s a song that gets popular. Today when a song gets popular, they make sure you play it every single night. After a few months, I just get bored of it. It’s the third month; someone came to the chasunah, and he wants that song. I can’t even play it anymore because I played it all week, and Shabbos I had a sheva brachos where they sang it as well. But at the end of the day, you have to please the audience.
SW: Really, Chazal forbade music altogether, because of Churban Beis Hamikdash. Really, the only reason to have music is for simchas chassan v’kallah. In recent years, the demand for music has increased exponentially. In our opinion, it is a very positive sign. Each crowd in its own way is very into the language of the neshamah, which is music. Some people plan a simple wedding, but they put an incredible emphasis on the music.
How has the Jewish music scene changed in recent years, and in what direction do you see it going?
SW: There is much more emphasis on music today, and I look at it as a very positive thing.
MM: I think the tempo has sped up a little in recent years.
AB: I agree. These days, people always want fast.
Today’s music is also more demanding; people are very into it. But at the same time, people pay more money, so you have to give more.
Regarding the types of music, it will always change. If you look at the old songs, it’s always been changing. What Yom Tov Ehrlich did is probably different from what was 300 years ago. We listen to Shlomo Carlebach and consider it nice and traditional, but when Shlomo Carlebach sang it, a lot of people complained that it was too jazzy. Now this is considered acceptable, because the style has changed.
Even in the courts of the Rebbes, there is a difference compared to what they sang in the same courts 30 to 40 years ago. Everything changes.
Is it changing because of the influence of the secular world? Or is it because, like in most areas, there is an urge for new styles and changes?
AB: I would say it’s like everything else. Why should I say that 50 years ago it changed because of the secular world?
MM: I want to add something that the Bobover Rav, zy”a, said when he was asked about his approach to the chinuch of bachurim, which at the time was considered innovative.
He said, if we would go to war today with bows and arrows, we’d be out of commission in a second. In every war, you have to go out there with the weapons that the enemy has against you.
SW: One of the purposes of creating Jewish music albums after the war was to fight the secular music that was out there. Like Motty says, you can’t fight a tank with a horse, and you can’t fight a gun with a bow and arrow; you cannot fight today’s non-Jewish music with old-fashioned music.
In what other areas do you see the music world changing?
MM: As Sruly mentioned, people started appreciating music much more than they used to. Almost every large Chassidus today has a program to learn Shas; and all the kehillos know that when the Siyum comes, the participants expect a beautiful musical performance. So the demand for music is skyrocketing.
And you feel the music at these events matches the atmosphere that should be there?
MM: Definitely. A lot of preparation goes into it. The organizers review the songs beforehand and make specific requests.
Sometimes there’s a wedding where the mechutan is struggling to pay for a chasunah, and he’ll choose to serve chicken rather than beef, but he’ll add another instrument. They feel, and that’s the feeling we get, that the music is what makes the chasunah. Of course every part “makes” the chasunah, but the music is really very central.
What type of instrument is usually added?
MM: It depends on the budget. Some people will only add a violin for the chuppah, and some will add an entire brass section — saxophone, trumpet, trombone, or a guitar.
That is very much contrary to the concept of chasunah-takanos, which is being strongly encouraged by Gedolei Yisrael. We will leave that topic for a future interview, b’ezras Hashem.
Let’s move on to a related question. Tzaddikim have taught that music is the language of the neshamah. The type of songs being sung have an enormous influence on the community.
You’ve spoken about the need for you to respond to your audiences/consumers. At the same time, do you recognize the tremendous responsibility that you have? How do you see your responsibilities regarding the spiritual experience of Jewish music?
AB: Everybody is different, as Shia said before. If you will sing Ad Heina or Ahallela at a Sephardic wedding — and today’s Sephardic chassanim do want these songs — there will always be a grandfather or great-uncle who will be upset. He wants those old Moroccan songs. So, should I say who is right?
It’s not possible to say that whoever has a certain type of songs, those are the ones that are closer to the Bashefer and the other ones are not. Everybody has a different style.
That is true regarding comparing old Moroccan songs with Chassidishe songs, where all would agree that both types of songs are essentially acceptable, and it is a question of their mesorah. But what about the songs that don’t fall into this category? The line between a leibedige niggun and a song that is hashkafically unacceptable can be a very fine line. In your own way, where do you put that border?
YB: Just this Sunday, I did a hachnasas sefer Torah with Sruly. What was the goal, musically? To sing about Torah. We sang songs such as Ki MiTzion…. What is the goal at a wedding? To be mesamei’ach chassan v’kallah. So we’ll try to do whatever it takes to get the job done well.
But can you be mesamei’ach chassan v’kallah with music that is not hashkafically appropriate? I’m sure there are lines you won’t cross, songs you won’t play.
YB: Yes, of course, but we have to remember the goal.
SW: Each of us has their own lines. Every musician, every singer, and every person has their own standards. It’s a very individual thing and can vary from person to person.
SB: It’s a feeling thing, and can be different for each person.
If you get a request for a song that you feel is not Jewish, what will you do?
MM: There is a song that was recently released, Adamah V’Shamayim, and people made it very clear to us that the tune and the words come from not-good places. Sometimes we can have a request to do it and some of us will draw the line and refuse.
AB: Regarding that song, it’s not that the song is rocky. The tune is a soft tune. But then the singers were debating if it involves thoughts of avodah zarah.
There are singers who say if they [use] different words, then it is OK. So, such a niggun, it’s already about feelings regarding what is acceptable or not.
But there are songs that you wouldn’t sing?
AB: Yes, certainly.
And you take it on a case-by-case basis.
AB: Yes, that’s the answer.
YB: I think in the same wedding it’s a case-by-case decision. Also when it’s the great-grandparents dancing, it’s not the same as when it’s the chassan-kallah’s friends dancing.
SW: It’s not only the what, it’s also the when.
Every kosher food establishment nowadays has some sort of hechsher; a lot of books, especially Yiddish-language novels, have haskamos. Do you envision that a time will come where albums or even singers would have a haskamah from a Rav that this is appropriate for a Jewish home?
SW: A bakery is either kosher or treif. But neginah has to do with very fine sensitivities, and every family has to make up their own mind and know where they want to stand in this threshold of sensitivity.
SB: If you see the cover of a CD, and you know the singer’s name…
You should be able to figure it out on your own.
So you are saying that if one sees Shia Berko’s or Sruly Werdyger’s name on the cover, you feel that would-be consumers can safely buy it?
SB: Within the same family, even between husband and wife, people like different styles of music. The ladies often go for the trendy tunes. I sang at a chuppah the other day where the chassan chose a warm Moshe Goldman niggun to walk down the aisle to and the kallah chose an Israeli tune, a very different style. Even for a CD [which reflects] your own hashkafah … some of your own family members might connect to music differently than you do.
AB: There’s lately a trend called flash mob, which is done at many weddings. The chassan or kallah’s family [prepares] a dance to a certain song. I used to see it at more modern weddings, but now it’s every night. You get a request, they call you before the wedding, they make you crazy the whole wedding, until you play it.
I had a wedding where they were so frum there was no hora played the whole night. But the kallah’s father told me that when it came to his daughter’s friends’ dance I should fulfill their request.
That’s also another answer to your question. This mechutan didn’t let me do anything more modern, almost no new songs at all; but this dance, OK, do this dance already, for the kallah. So we see even for these families who don’t want the new music, the wedding scene has changed. And also, the daughter has a flash mob, and he says, “OK, just do it.” So there are differences in musical opinions within the home itself.
SB: The girls connect to this specific song.
AB: We even have the option now to mute the speaker by the men and just leave the speaker on for the ladies. A lot of times I’m ashamed to put on that type of song. It could be a wild Ivrit song, I wouldn’t say it’s non-Jewish but it’s certainly the next level. People come over to tell me, “There’s a problem with the speakers on the men’s side, it doesn’t work.” Of course it works. I just switched it off. Because that is how they want it.
This phenomenon must be of concern to mechanchos. Especially to think that a kallah has this in mind right before her chasunah.
SB: Even if they grew up in a heimishe home with only ehrliche music, the ladies don’t see this as not ehrlich; they might just connect to this.
Let me ask you, Reb Shia and Reb Avrumi, what’s it like to be brothers in the same field? How often do you get to sing and play at the same wedding?
AB: A lot.
AH: What’s it like?
AB: It’s a great experience, baruch Hashem.
SB: When we started to play, we made an agreement that we would not “push” each other. If we’re really so good together, then people will request it. And it was a great decision. At the end of the day, music is entertainment. People have to be inspired and b’simchah at a wedding. If they feel that they want a different singer, or they enjoy another musician, they don’t particularly like my style of playing — why should we make someone take us both, if they only want one. So we don’t push each other.
I would say most of the weddings, we are together. But there are still many where my brother goes with other musicians, and I go with other singers.
Do you sometimes disagree on the specific songs to play?
SB: Yes. I like a certain style of music, and I might prefer one program while he likes a different one. But in a good way.
AB: We don’t always agree, just because we’re two human beings. And we can disagree on more things just because we’re closer to each other. But we respect one another.
Is there a specific niggun that you have a special connection to?
MM: I would say Kah Echsof — even though it’s played every night at every chuppah — when I play it and when I hear it, I have shivers going through my body. Even though it’s on a daily basis, and you could have thought I’m sick and tired of it … Every time I do it, it’s like, wow.
Indeed, that is a very powerful and moving niggun. It is interesting that while both the niggun and the words were created by Harav Aharon of Karlin, they were not made for each other. Some have pointed out that the words and the niggun don’t really match.
YB: Correct. Kah Echsof is a Stoliner niggun, from Rav Aharon Karliner. The tune that we sing for Kah Echsof, Stolin sings for ve’Al Hakol. They’re both Stolin, but they don’t come together. When I play at a Stoliner wedding they tell me, “For the chuppah, play v’Al Hakol,” referring to this tune.
SB: There are a lot of niggunim that I like, but what really inspires me is Meron. “L’kavod haTanna…” That’s when I think of Meron, I think of Rabi Shimon.
SW: There’s a niggun from Reb Hershele Rimanover that the Satmar Chassidim sing for Ahavah Rabbah.
You sing that at chuppos?
SW: Yes, a lot of chuppos. Bichlal, chuppos in general are something that touch me emotionally in a very profound way. Singing at a chuppah is something that brings tremendous inspiration. At a lot of chuppos, this niggun is a request.
YB: For me, when a father dances with a child at the mitzvah tantz, it is a very moving moment.
There’s a tremendous sense of achdus I see among those in the music industry, even among competitors. To what do you attribute this?
YB: There are a few things. Some of the people I know were friends since before bar mitzvah.
AB: And some are brothers.
YB: Obviously, parnassah is bashert. But in any case, if I have a job, I can’t take another wedding that night. In a business where I can have 10 customers, if he has two, I might feel like I could have had 12. In a business like ours, if we both have a wedding, we’re not taking anything away. I can’t take away the other wedding.
AB: I agree with that. Also, it’s entertainment, and you can only be there if you are welcome there. Of course there is achdus, because you never fight to get a certain job, because you have to feel while you play that people want you there and they appreciate you.
SB: There’s a lot of sharing going on in our business. We recommend each other for jobs, and we share song lists and musical ideas as well.
You’re in touch with each other often.
SB: Yes. Definitely.
SW: I agree with what everyone said before. Maybe I’ll just add, we see our job as a shlichus to bring happiness to people, so why should we fight?
MM: I think that they answered it.
A final message for our readers.
MM: There’s a myth going around that when you book a musician, he’s anyways going to make it loud, he’s anyways going to do whatever he thinks. I want to make it very clear that that’s not the case. Sometimes I get a phone call, “I heard you at that wedding, and it was so loud!”
I like to take a steak as an example. You see someone in a restaurant with a steak that’s medium-rare and wonder, “How can he eat that? It’s raw,” or the opposite.
Every night is an individual night. We’re here to listen to your requests and follow whatever you want. If you see us one night at someone else’s wedding doing something [other than what you would like], that’s because we had a specific request from those people to do that. That doesn’t mean it will affect your wedding in any way.
AB: I had a wedding recently where the chassan was on a different level hashkafically than his father. Both mechutanim were very frum people, and the chassan specifically wanted really the opposite type of music. This is a nightmare for the musician; you really don’t want to be in that position. The chassan actually emailed me his song list. I called the father and asked him, “What should I do?” The wedding is almost here and I’m going to be in a very uncomfortable position. He told me, “Don’t worry. It’s his wedding. Just do whatever makes him happy.”
When it came to the wedding, there was a cousin there who spent the whole wedding trying to make fun of the music, trying to criticize. After the wedding, the mechutan came over to me and gave me a hug, he was so grateful. “You were mamash mechayeh.” I had managed to put in Meron songs and make it a little more Chassidish, even though the chassan and his friends wanted their [style music]. I went over to this cousin, and told him, “This is the father of the chassan, who is real frum, and he can accept that; I think you should also accept it, and know that I’m just following instructions from the chassan and the mechutanim.”
SB: Mamash the same words that Motty said.
When people see us performing at a wedding, some don’t like a particular song or style … We’re not davka’niks here, we’re trying to please. Everybody has a style that they like. It’s not about what I like. This is my parnassah. I listen to the mechutanim. It’s not about, a lot of times, what we chose. They shouldn’t judge us.
So you are saying that if the population you service would demand from the singers more heimishe niggunim, that is what they would be getting.
SB: A million percent.
SW: I want people to realize that we are shluchim to bring you simchah and, ultimately, it’s up to each of you to be b’simchah, and take the simchah to your own heart, and enjoy the music.