From the Depths of Prison Spring Hope, Faith and Song

When you think “Yaakov Shwekey,” the association that immediately comes to mind is his sweet and powerful voice, with his trademark Middle-Eastern style, admired and loved by all demographics of Jews across the globe, famous for his ever popular hits, “Racheim,” “Mama Rochel,” and “Ma’amin B’nissim.” He is one who uses his talents to be mesameiach Yidden, whether at chasunos or other occasions.

All this is true, but for the last six years, Yaakov was also busy on another mission. He was one of the regular visitors to Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, while he was incarcerated at Otisville Correctional Facility. Yaakov originally went to give Reb Sholom Mordechai chizuk, but like many others before him, he left the jail in awe of the powerhouse of emunah he encountered. He saw a man in the darkest of night with a smile that gave chizuk to all those in his presence.

By nature, every musician turns to his music to release his emotions, and as Yaakov travelled back home, feeling sad and in despair over his newfound friend’s situation, he turned to song to lift himself up. “Ma’amin Benissim” was the song of Sholom Mordechai, the song of his unyielding belief that Hashem will perform a miracle. As every Yid vividly remembers, the moment of Rubashkin’s release became a moment frozen in time, a moment when the entire klal celebrated together.

But Yaakov’s connection to Sholom Mordechai does not end there. Sholom Mordechai used his new opportunity to spread the message of emunah and bitachon to every Yid. From his first moments out of jail, he excitedly shouted, “Aleph is emunah. Beis is bitachon. And Gimmel is geulah! Emunah and bitachon bring geulah!” Anyone who heard Sholom Mordechai talk from that moment on has surely heard of “Alef, Beis, Gimmel.”

Now, just a few short months after that momentous day, Yaakov is releasing a song, spreading Sholom Mordechai’s message, and together with the Rubashkin family, he is hoping that Sholom Mordechai’s ever-flowing fountains of chizuk can spread to every Yid with the power of neginah.

I sat down with Yaakov this week to hear the entire story of his friendship with Sholom Mordechai, and how the koach of neginah will spread emunah to all Yidden.

 

When was the first time you met Reb Sholom Mordechai?

“My relationship with Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin started about six years ago. I occasionally go to jails to sing for Jewish inmates and try to lift their spirits in whatever way possible. My friend, David Hillel, was in touch with Lipa Meisels, who was involved in bringing music to prisoners. I travelled to Otisville with a few friends. We were a lebidige chevrah, a robust group, and we have all done this before. This time, however, we were a little concerned. We weren’t sure how the visit would go. After all, this was not the regular camp. It was the medium security section of the prison, where the inmates wore jumpsuits and shackles. The inmates there generally had longer sentences and, to put it mildly, it is a depressing place. As we walked in, at the entrance, Sholom Mordechai greeted us each with a hug and his trademark ear-to-ear smile. I saw such joy in his face that I was shocked. We were immediately floored. We came in with an energetic group, but he outdid us all!

“Within a few seconds, we connected, even without him saying anything. He told me a vort right away, and I immediately felt like I knew him forever. There is something special and unique about him. We sang. We danced. He was so besimcha that he was making somersaults in the jail! When I was there that first time, there was an added simcha, as there was also a siyum Sefer Torah. We were amazed by the energy and happiness he was exhibiting. He really connected with the whole group. By the time the visit was over, we felt so close to him that we did not want to leave.

“That night, as we pulled out, I was very emotional. It was very hard to part with this place called jail while leaving our newfound friend behind. I got into the car and I was sad. Who knows what was going to be with him and the others? Would they last in jail all through their long and tough sentences? Some of them look depressed. I was really down. Immediately, the words that came into my head were, ‘Keili, Keili, lamah azavtani.’ I started to think about Dovid Hamelech and how he felt when the Shechinah left him. He said this perek of Tehillim, which was also said later on by Esther Hamalka, when she was trapped in the palace of Achashveirosh and the Shechinah left her. I decided that I would write a song, a sad song, to these words, and dedicate it to Sholom Mordechai. The song would describe his situation, being locked away in prison, serving 27 years, and every Yid would be able to understand the feeling of being left alone in the darkness of prison.

“I took these words and I wrote a song. I decided to call Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz and ask him what he thought. I had spoken with him before regarding Sholom Mordechai. I asked him what he thought about this song describing Sholom Mordechai’s plight, with the theme of ‘Keili, Keili, lamah azavtani.’ I could almost hear the thick silence on the phone before he answered me with a resounding, ‘Absolutely not! You are writing the song for him, but this is not him! You may have been depressed when you left the jail, but he is not a depressed person. Didn’t you see the joy that he had? Didn’t you see how much simchas hachaim he has?’ I realized right away that Rabbi Lipschutz was right. ‘Wow! Am I glad I called you,” I exclaimed. I realized that I was taking my own feelings and plugging them into a song about Sholom Mordechai. In actuality, it was a misrepresentation of Sholom Mordechai. I was feeling sadness in his situation. I felt for him and we all felt for him, but these words and this niggun were not who he is.

“I had to rethink the message of the song and develop an upbeat niggun with the theme of hope. I turned to an idea of the neis of his release, which we were all hoping and praying for. Yitzy Waldner composed the song, and Miriam Israeli wrote the lyrics. A hit song was born: ‘Ani ma’amin benissim. Lifamim margishim shehachayim kol kach kashim. Al titya’esh. Ani yodeia sheyeish Elokim. I believe in miracles. Sometimes we feel that life is so hard, but don’t give up! We know that there is Hashem, and I believe in miracles.”

“It was an instant hit, and it was sung all over the world. Reb Yisroel Besser, a good friend of mine, called me and told me that Sholom Mordechai’s son, who is autistic, loves this song and he can’t stop listening to it. He went to bed every night listening to ‘his’ song. ‘Ani maamin benissim’ gave the Rubashkins a real spirit and a chiyus. At the time, when they did not have their father, they had this song to hold on to. It became their song, the world’s song, and, best of all, it was a song that defined Sholom Mordechai.”

 

Whose idea was your new song, “Aleph, Beis, Gimmel,” and how does this song also define who Reb Sholom Mordechai is? And how does it convey his message of emunah?

“One of the times I was in jail visiting Sholom Mordechai, I told him, ‘When you get out, I will come visit you in your house. We will make a big party and we will celebrate with you.’ Sure enough, the night of his release, he called me and said, ‘Yaakov, I am ready!’ A week later, we went to his house with a few friends, and Rabbi Lipschutz was there as well. This was after he spoke to the world about ‘Aleph, Beis, Gimmel – Emunah and bitachon bring geulah.’ At his house, he spoke to Yitzy Waldner on the phone and said, ‘Yitzy and Yaakov, you did a great job. Now we have to further the celebration. You both have to write a song about ‘Alef, Beis, Gimmel,’ how emunah and bitachon bring geulah.’ He said later, ‘Emunah and bitachon are inborn. We can reveal them and assure ourselves geulah.’

“After accepting this new task assigned to us, over the next few months, Yitzy and I sat together working on the new song. Sholom Mordechai wasn’t happy with just a song. He wanted to come to the studio himself for the recording, and he wanted to give over his message during the recording of the song. When you are listening, you hear these words from Sholom Mordechai himself, saying the words that carried him through the darkest of times, and spreading his message of chizuk to Klal Yisroel. His voice gives the song a unique koach. You hear the true belief in his voice, as he exclaims, ‘Aleph is emunah…!’ Besides the actual niggun, which is an amazing mix of an upbeat chassidishe tantz niggun and a contemporary horah, you get a real feel of the message contained within from Sholom Mordechai himself. Yitzy added the words, ‘Brengt di geulah’ and ‘Geit men shoin aheim’ to give it some flavor, and to bring the message to life, applying it to every Jew. ‘It’s a minute to learn, a lifetime to internalize,’ Sholom Mordechai said, and we hope that this song will be a catalyst for everyone to internalize this message.

“At the studio, I said to him, ‘Tell me, you claim to be a regular person, even though we all realize that you are not. But it’s easy for anyone to pick up this song and ‘talk the talk’ of emunah. But you don’t only talk the talk. You ‘walked the walk.’ How did you do it? How did you overcome the terrible situation in jail?’ Sholom Mordechai looked at me with seriousness and said, ‘I focused only on my neshamah. I was there in prison, with my neshamah and my guf. What could I have possibly done for my physicality? Nothing! I did not bother with anything physical. What could I have done already? Put some more salt and pepper on the prison food? Took another pillow to sleep on in my prison bed? There was nothing for me to give my guf. So, instead, I focused only on my neshamah. When you focus on your neshamah, you can raise your neshamah and everything else will come with it.

“On the cover for this song, we wrote, ‘Aleph, Beis, Gimmel carries me through.’ Sholom Mordechai embodies this message, and he wants to spread it to the entire Klal Yisroel. ‘The song is both happy and thoughtful, moving and contemplative. It brings the message of Alef Beis Gimmel into ourselves with simcha!’ Sholom Mordechai remarked in the studio after he heard it.

“A Yid can be in the darkest places, but a real botei’ach will be able to overcome. Sholom Mordechai was able to overcome. Many people would not be able to do that. This is what he means by saying, ‘Aleph, Beis, Gimmel carries me through.’ He resolved to learn Shaar Habitachon by heart and whisper the words under his breath the entire day, because he knew that this is what carries him through.

“There are so many stories that a lot of people have heard already. There were times when he got beaten up because he wore a yarmulke. He refused to remove it, no matter what. He knew that he had emunah carrying him through, and he would not waver for anything, not anything from the prison and not anything from within. He is a real inspiration.

“I think that people all over the world are ready to connect with this message. Sholom Mordechai united Klal Yisroel. On Zos Chanukah, I was in Boca Raton about to start a concert and I got a phone call from Yisroel Besser. He was crying. He almost could not get the words out of his mouth. He told me the great news about Sholom Mordechai. I was so emotional. I announced to the crowd that Sholom Mordechai will be released from jail and they just exploded with applause! These are people who did not even know Sholom Mordechai. They are not affiliated with the Jewish community in New York and many of them were not religious. Yet, they all felt for Sholom Mordechai and they all had such a big simcha. Sholom Mordechai has a way of connecting all Jews. He wants to take this connection further and use it to connect Jews to emunah in Hashem.

 

I understand that this song has a message for someone who is experiencing a tough situation and needs a boost of chizuk. Is there more to the song than this? Is there another message?

“Absolutely. The truth is that we all need chizuk. We have to understand that the real geulah did not come yet. We all we need to bring the real geulah. The very day before Sholom Mordechai was released, on Tuesday, Aleph Teves, he was informed that his final appeal was denied. [He was released on Bais Teves, and he actually came out Wednesday night, which was Gimmel Teves.] He said a few times that he was so happy when he heard about the court’s denial. When I was in his house, I asked him, ‘How is it possible that you were happy when you heard that?’ He answered, ‘I’m telling you, Yaakov, I knew then that I can only rely on Hashem. That itself brought me simcha!’ If we realize this as a community, if every Yid internalizes this message that Hashem is the only One we can rely on, then we will surely be closer to the geulah.

“Dovid Hamelech says, ‘Lehagid baboker chasdecha ve’emunascha baleilos – To talk about Your goodness in the morning and Your emunah at night.’ People go through times in their life that are good, or boker, and we go through dark times as well. If life is good, praise Hashem. Talk about it. Talk to your children about Hashem’s chesed. Thank Hashem that you are healthy, that you have a beautiful family, that you have parnassah. Thank Hashem! This is also part of emunah and bitachon, and this is also the message.

“Unfortunately, there is so much darkness in people’s lives today, and most of the time, we don’t know about it. A regular person walking down the street can be dealing with so much darkness. We have no idea what some people are going through. There are unfortunately so many cholim, so many people who need yeshuos. You don’t need me to tell you. We all know about them. We have to learn how to act and how to think during a time of laylah. If we take this message of Aleph, Beis, Gimmel, anyone can pull through.

“Sholom Mordechai wants to get this message out to Klal Yisroel. He and his son-in-law, Yehuda Zaltzman, who is always with him, made it very clear that they are on a mission. I am humbled and honored that Sholom Mordechai gave me this zechus to further this mission. There are many people out there who can sing, but I realize that this song carries a great responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. I appreciate this opportunity greatly.

 

There were many ways that Sholom Mordechai spread his message, through talking, and letters, and many other mediums. There is a koach haneginah that you have. Can you explain what you can achieve with the Aleph, Bais, Gimmel song?

“Let me say something about the koach of music. When I started singing 20 years ago, I knew that there is a strong koach of song, but I had no idea how strong that koach is. Over the years, I have seen hundreds, or even thousands, of stories of people who were touched and moved by music. I appreciate the koach that Hashem gave me, and I always thank Hashem for this zechus.

“I’ll tell you one story. I had the zechus of having a shaychus with Chacham Ovadiah Yosef zt”l and his family, and I used to visit him in Eretz Yisroel and sing for him. A number of years ago, Chacham Ovadiah called me up and asked me to sing at a concert in Marsais, France, in a few weeks’ time. I hesitated, because I had a few events that I committed to, but when Rav Ovadiah tells you to go, you go. He sensed my hesitation and told me, ‘If you go, you will see something extra special.’ It wasn’t easy to get away on short notice, but I went. It was a beautiful concert, with thousands of people in attendance, many of them not religious. I sang ‘Racheim,’ which was a big song then, and the crowd was really into it. After the concert, a man comes over to me. I still remember that he was a frum Yid, wearing a long rekel, and he came to me with tears in his eyes. ‘Yaakov,’ he said, ‘you have no idea what you just did.’ He explained, ‘I work with girls from non-religious backgrounds and I try to bring them closer to Hashem. I teach them here in France and then I send them to Israel to seminary. There is one girl in particular who was not absorbing the learning. She was just disinterested. As much as I tried to teach her, she refused to accept. Then I found out that she befriended a goy and was planning on marrying him. I spoke to her and begged her not to give up her future, but she refused to listen. I spent so much time with her and I neglected my family just to save this girl, but I was not being successful. Finally, as a last hope, I asked her to come to this concert. She agreed. Yaakov, during your singing of Racheim, she turned to me and said, ‘Okay, now I understand! I am giving up my planned marriage. I can’t marry a non-Jew.’ I was so moved by this story. I now understand a little bit of the koach of neginah.

“So getting back to your question, of course, bumper stickers, news articles and speeches will all get the message of Aleph, Beis, Gimmel across. But there’s something special about a song. Music pulls people into it. That’s what we need to do today. We need to pull people, especially the youth, into this message of emunah and bitachon. There is so much out there in the world today that is sending wrong messages to our youth. We need to pull them closer to Hashem and we need to pull them closer to us. Music does that. Songs can send a message, and people internalize that message. Whether it’s a message of ‘Vehi she’amdah la’avoseinu,’ that Hashem is always there to save us, which so many people are now singing, holding their kosos of wine at the Seder, or the message of “Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim” and “Cry no more, Yerushalayim,’ that Yerushalayim is always ours and our real home, we want to bring these messages to our children. Sing with them on Shabbos at the seudah. Get your children involved, and then they will be happy to be part of it. They will feel connected and want to do more by themselves.

“There’s nothing like music. I’ve seen it all over. I’ve seen it in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and other communities all over the world. People are pulled by music. The truth is that music humbles me. When I see how people can be moved by music, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to Hashem for giving me these talents, and I am humbled by the responsibility.

“But let me tell you something else about Sholom Mordechai. Last week, he came to the Special Children’s Center in Lakewood twice, two days in a row. The first time, he came to visit. He came with his wife to see the amazing work that they do there. They take these special children, feed them and bathe them. It’s really something amazing. I wasn’t able to make it when they came, as I had to sing somewhere. The next day, I called him up and I told him that there is a bar mitzvah in the Center and he must come back. There’s an autistic boy in the Center who lost both parents. He was never able to speak. The staff of the Center were working with him for four years to be able to say Shema when he puts on tefillin. We asked Sholom Mordechai if he can please come back the next day to be there. He had a packed schedule that day, but he could not refuse. With much effort, he came to celebrate the bar mitzvah with all of us in the Center. The boy’s family came together from far and wide to celebrate, and it was a beautiful bar mitzvah. It was so moving. I sang ‘A Mother’s Promise,’ a new song that I put out before Pesach together with a video. It talks about a mother’s endless love for her child, no matter what the situation is. The song was written by two mothers of special needs children, from their own perspective. It is a powerful and moving song.

“At the bar mitzvah, the boy’s uncle got up and took the microphone. He said that the mother of the boy had a wish before she passed away. She told him that her dream is that he would be able to talk, to say ‘Good Shabbos’ and ‘Shema.’ She passed away and never heard her son speak. Then his father passed away. This boy moved in to live in the Center, still never having uttered a word. Now, at his bar mitzvah, he proudly made the brocha on his tefillin and said Shema. It was unreal. We were there when a mother’s dream was fulfilled, and Sholom Mordechai was zoche to be a part of it.

“This is who Sholom Mordechai is, and this is what he is about. He feels a responsibility to get his message out, and to pull all of Klal Yisroel together to believe with a full and unconditional belief that emunah and bitachon bring geulah.”