Music has always been an important part of my life. I grew up an avid Avraham Fried fan; the type that would sit for an hour straight and listen to an entire new album in one sitting while reading the cassette jacket (remember those?) gaining a mastery over who composed each song.
My love of music, particularly vocals, inspired me early on to dream of one day ascending the stages I had grown up on the other side of, and releasing albums of my own. My parents dashed those dreams early on when they’d tell me time and again that you could not make a respectable living selling albums and performing unless you were extraordinarily talented, I guess like my role model Avraham Fried.
So while my musical aspirations were never fully realized, I did sing as a child in the Miami Boys Choir and was featured on the album, “It’s Min Hashomayim,” which in a certain respect were the glory days of the choir when, if I remember correctly, there were about 55 members.
My parents had sought to train me musically, paying for a piano teacher to come to our home to teach Malkie, my older sister by 14 months, and myself. However, due to the fact that my teacher, who was Russian, would spend more time listening to me sing than actually teaching me to play, that was short lived and I never did end up learning how to play piano or, for that matter, any other instrument.
With my aspirations of becoming a professional vocalist or cantor at bay, the next best thing for me was to see my name in print on an album jacket as the composer of a song. However, being ignorant of the basic laws of rhythm and not being able to play music, I’d find myself searching for lyrics and coming up with a tune in my mind. I recall coming up with these unsingable and unattractive tunes and it was extremely frustrating. Until one day, I thought to myself that I ought to think about tunes that I would find attractive and singable. The more I stayed focused, the closer I’d get to producing a marketable tune.
I’d write material and send it off to a circuit of singers; at times personally handing them demos that I had created, never to hear back from them. Disheartening wasn’t the word. Having listened to many of the songs that have made it onto albums and being a natural self-critic I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why these songs weren’t going. Until I wrote “Pischi Li,” had it demoed by Aryeh Kunstler, and sent it off at the time to Yochi Briskman, whom I had previously sent stuff to without getting the courtesy of a reply. The same day that I sent the email I received a reply that if I’d hold the song for a month he’d get back to me then regarding if he’d want it or not. I thought, at the time, that it was an unreasonable request but under a month later he replied that he was producing Simcha Leiner’s debut album and he wanted to use the song on it. Right before the release of that album in 2014, I was informed that it was going to be the title track. It was arranged with a philharmonic orchestra so that was a big breakthrough for me, at the time, in the arena of songwriting.
Once I succeeded in that realm, I had this fear of going down in history as being a one-hit wonder and so I came up with “Kanfei Nesharim” and “Shalom,” which were sung on SL2 by Simcha Leiner. With the exception of a song I wrote titled “Uv’oisoi Hazeman,” which I sold a year-and-a-half ago to Devorah Schwartz who was working on a debut album for girls, I had for the most part taken a backseat to selling my music. However, I would from time to time sit down and try to write in case an opportunity arose to have it sung by the right artist.
Recently, my wife’s cousin reached out to me, asking if I had any songs that I was looking to sell. He said he had a friend whom he was encouraging to get into the business and for whom he was shopping for songs to release as a single. It seemed initially far-fetched, but I met them in my office one day early during the coronavirus fiasco and presented them with four or five options. One of them made a strong impression on him and he ultimately bought and just released the single this past motzaei Shabbos. The singer is Yisrael Hoffman and the song is “Gam Ki Eilech,” which is now available on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes.
When you succeed in selling a song, it gives you the encouragement to write, record, and ultimately sell more. The issue I had encountered was finding people talented enough to produce demos at a reasonable rate. While Aryeh Kunstler and Ari Goldwag seemed to have the magic touch in interpreting my music and ultimately getting it sold, they had lately become too busy to even do it at an increased price. That was when I decided to send this new song to a cousin, Chaim Chodakov, who has been building a musical reputation in California under the name Isaac Gordon. He thanked me for sharing the song and then I noted that he hadn’t shared any material with me for a while. I said that there was no doubt in my mind that he had been busy writing during the pandemic, with almost nothing else to do. He sent me a couple of samples, explaining that he had shifted from releasing singles to creating short one-minute demos and hoping that they’d get noticed by some big names in the broader music world resulting in a windfall of sorts to the tune of royalties, which is really the way to go as a songwriter.
It occurred to me then, that I should ask him if he knew of anyone who could produce demos for songs that I was seeking to sell. He then introduced me to his friend Izzy Drihem.
I mentioned to Izzy that I write songs in my head and that due to my inability to play music or my overall grasp of the laws of chord progression and tempo, I often come up with tunes that need to be revamped to fit within the proper tempo. He then said something then that was so profound and could not have come at a more apropos time than now, ahead of Rosh Chodesh Elul when Jews the world over begin to hear shofar and get in the right frame of mind ahead of the Yomim Noraim. He said, “Yes, I believe most good ideas come from breaking the rules, even by the greatest musicians.” It was our first correspondence but I had to acknowledge just how profound an observation he had made and he admitted that it was an idea that not only manifested itself in music but in life as a whole.
In some ways, this is a continuation of my article from last week, titled “Nothing to Write About,” which addressed the intense light that exists within the darkness. There is a Midrash that states that G-d observed the deeds of the righteous as well as the wicked and declared, “I don’t know which of them I desire more.” The Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer, which records this anecdote, concludes that since the Torah writes and G-d saw that the light was good he concluded that the deeds of the righteous were more endearing to Him than the wicked.
This seems counterintuitive for an Elul schmooze and it’s an extreme departure from the awe and dread depicted in the stories of some of the rosh yeshivos of old, when the days of Elul would arrive and the sound of the shofar set in.
But there is an additional problem and that is based on a vort from Rav Tzaddok Hakohen from Lublin on the parah adumah. The Torah tells us that the ashes of the red heifer purifies the impure and emits impurity upon those who are pure. The ashes of the parah adumah were brought essentially to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf as Chazal state, “Let the mother come and clean up the filth of her child.” The mother is a reference to the sefirah of binah which the Tikkunei Zohar says is ima. Rav Tzadok writes that from the vantage point of binah someone who fell into the grasp of sin and thereby dirtied his soul can be absolved of any wrongdoing by the mother.
What motivation is there for someone to remain righteous if they could indulge to their heart’s desire, only afterward to be absolved? Rav Tzaddok notes this paradox in explaining the anomaly of the purification of the impure and the contamination of the pure.
However, Chazal states that anyone who says I will sin and repent, sin and repent will not be given the opportunity to repent. So it seems that there is a providence in specific people who find themselves in the clutches of sin — some Divine spark that is trapped in and needs to be released that could only be done by them. There is another interpretation of Rav Tzaddok on the Gemara: “In the place where the penitent stands, even the truly righteous can’t stand.” Rav Tzaddok explains this on an extremely literal and pragmatic level, since repentance as codified in the Rambam’s laws of repentance requires the sinner to encounter the same sin under the precise same circumstances in which he initially succumbed to it in order to have effectuated complete repentance. Therefore, Rav Tzaddok explains that only the penitent is permitted to enter into the potentially sinful space that he is required to reenter in order to absolve himself of his past wrongdoing.
This leads me to a verse in Tehillim that seems to support the premise that although we are firm believers in free will and reward and punishment, there are situations in which G-d leads certain people down the sinful path for the sake of a rectification of sorts that they need to effectuate in that place. The verse states, “Norah alilah al bnei adam.” The full translation of the verse is, “Come and see the works of G-d, who is held in awe by men for His acts.” The ending letters of each of the words of the conclusion of the verse comprises the word Elokim. Chazal uses this verse in explaining the sin of Adam HaRishon, implying that in a certain respect it was ordered by G-d for a specific purpose and was not something that was within Adam’s ability to avoid.
Our creation in this world was an extreme descent; we were sent from the throne of G-d down into a spiritually vulnerable world fraught with uneasy terrain and extreme wear and tear to the soul wherever one turns, all for the purpose of creating a dwelling place for G-d in the lowest of realms.
Every song possesses a verse and a chorus. The verse in layman’s terms is the low part of the song, the anticlimactic aspect of the song, if you will, whereas the chorus is the mantra, the part that every singer or listener anticipates and repeats, perhaps representing what is ultimately everyone’s aspiration in life. However, a song without a verse is not a song. Like Hillel told the ger, cited in last week’s article, “That which is reprehensible to you do not wish unto others.” As we prepare ourselves mentally for another Yomim Noraim and we take an accounting of the places that life has taken us over this past year, let’s do so with the mindset that every movement is another key in the song of life, and ultimately the song of repentance.