Thursday, Aug 5, 2021

L’David Hashem

A Heartfelt Conversation with Yaakov Shwekey

“We’d like you to interview Yaakov Shwekey about his new single, ‘L’David Hashem.’”

Since I haven’t been blessed with an abundance of musical talent (that’s putting it mildly) and know very little about today’s music scene, I wasn’t quite sure how to begin. But Yaakov Shwekey, as I was soon to discover, is not just one of the most famous artists in Jewish music, but a true baal middos with strong hashkafos who spends first and second seder learning in the Deal Kollel.

While we spoke a bit about the catchy lyrics and back story behind “L’David Hashem,” most of the conversation revolved around the important things in life—his wonderful family, the Special Children’s Center founded and run by his wife, Jenine, and the timeless values he seeks to impart to his children and admirers around the world.

Speaking with Shwekey, who has a warm connection with the Yated and counts Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, our esteemed publisher, as a close friend, was a rare treat. There was no trace of the hubris or glamour that seems to surround many music stars, the celebrity status that makes them so difficult to reach. Yaakov was so humble, so genuine and ready to share of himself. I hope this interview will inspire our readers as it inspired me.

I’m grateful that you found the time to speak with us today. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and the hit song everyone is talking about?

The pleasure is mine.

Let’s talk about the song first. As I like to stress, songs are merely messages, insights and stories that are cloaked in the guise of a melody. With neginah, when done right, we can reach people in ways that ordinary stories cannot. And as we all know, when you deliver a message, the timing is everything. The delivery is often more important than the message itself.

For ten years, I’ve had a tune dancing around my mind originally written by Shai Itzhar Weinberg, a melody waiting to be revealed. It was nearly forgotten. But it was really waiting for its moment.
Then, the virus struck and the world turned upside down. Anxiety, worry and fear ran through the streets like rivers. The panic was real.
And then the tune came back to me. My good friends, Mendy Worch and Yitzy Waldner, created a high part for it, transforming it into a beautiful song.

The song is based on the first posuk in L’David Hashem Ori, with a stress on “lo irah libi – my heart shall not fear, ki Atoh imodi, because You, Hashem, are with me.”

This posuk, which we say during Elul, is so poignant and reassuring, especially nowadays, when we are filled with anxiety and stress. This song carries the assurance, the faith and the calm that comes with the knowledge that He loves us and shelters us. In times of uncertainty and confusion, we cling steadfastly to these words, to this reality.
There is only Him. There is no reason to fear. See the light and sing along. Lo ira.

Yaakov sings a few bars of the hauntingly beautiful song. I put the phone on speaker and my children sing along. They are thrilled to be part of this conversation.

Thank you for sharing that. It’s a very exceptional niggun. So, as you mentioned, the song was just released?

Yes, it was actually released today (Sunday, the third of Elul) and I’ve already received feedback from people all over the world – Brazil, London, Eretz Yisroel, even as far as Australia. This song really struck a chord with people.

But I can’t take the credit for it. The low part of the song has been percolating in my mind for ten years, since the talented Shai Weinberg sent it to me to listen to about twelve years ago. I try to listen to all the clips people send me, because hey, you never know when something will “click.” And boy did the low part to this song “click.”

Once a melody affects me, I try not to forget it…but I didn’t particularly like the high part, so I just put it aside. Over the years, I tried to match a high part, but you can’t “force feed” a song. It’s like a shidduch. It has to come naturally.

Last year, after a function for the Special Children’s Center run by my wife, Jenine, we were backstage in Manhattan, and a talented guitar player, Mendy Worch, said he wanted to play a song for me. I didn’t go for the low part, but the high part hit me like a bombshell. I said, “Hey, this is great. I’ve been looking for a match for that niggun I heard so many years ago.”

I sat down with Yitzy Waldner, my producer, and we put together both parts of the niggun. They fit like a glove…or like a shidduch made in Heaven. We combined the first verse from L’David Hashem, matching it with “gam ki eileich,” which has a similar message of bitachon, of being secure in Hashem’s arms.

Then we worked on getting the lyrics right as we waited for the perfect opportunity to release it.

This Elul, post-corona, when people are so bogged down with worries, seems to be custom-made for such a song.

Absolutely! We’ve been through so much during the past few months. We’ve lost the best of the best, too many Yidden have no livelihoods, and people are stressed out about their health, locked up at home, unable to go to simchos. There are so many worries and fears, and they haven’t disappeared.

During these challenging times, I feel that Hashem is showing us that we need to appreciate even the small things, which aren’t small things at all. I’m sure no one takes for granted the zechus of going to shul to hear Kaddish b’tzibbur or giving someone mazel tov at a wedding. These are things we have done all our lives without a second thought…but now they are a privilege.

I’ve met so many people who are walking around filled with pain and anxiety, not knowing where their next dollar will come from. So many industries were wiped out, especially the simcha industry. There are no concerts right now, and the weddings are very scaled down, so many singers are out of work. I try not to look at it as a source of stress, but as an opportunity to reboot and recalibrate, to focus on what’s really important. It’s a great time to think deeply about where we are headed and reset our lives.

And that is why we made the decision to release this song now, as a single, because the message is so powerful for this moment. We are looking for that salvation, for that chizuk, for the knowledge that yes, Hashem is with us during this difficult time.

What does releasing a single like this one involve? And why a single?

It’s more complicated than you might think. Nowadays, it’s not enough to release a song. In order to make a lasting impact, it’s important to produce a professional music video, with graphics, lights, action…the whole nine yards. The project took a couple of months of planning and obtaining permits. (My crew, based in the Old City, filmed the words of the song on the walls outside Shaar Yaffo.) I wasn’t able to travel overseas due to Covid-19, but since my crew lives there, they took care of the permits and the logistics.

The reason we went with a single is because I felt the message was so powerful, it couldn’t wait until I’d assembled an entire album of songs. I wanted it to be released davka now, in time for Chodesh Elul, so that people will internalize the words and the message. Hashem is with me. He’s running the show. It’s amazing to see what an impact these pesukim of Tehillim can make.

The result is very powerful, I think, but don’t take my word for it—I’ll send you a link and you can let me know afterwards.

Have you always wanted to be a singer?

No, not at all. Yet I always enjoyed singing.

I was born in Eretz Yisroel, and we later moved to Lakewood and Brooklyn, where I sang professionally. Yet, at that point it was still a hobby. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sing professionally as an adult.

When I was only eighteen years old, and wasn’t sure in which direction I wanted to take my musical gifts, my rebbi at Rochester Yeshiva, Rabbi Menachem Davidowitz, who is very musical, taught me a powerful lesson. The rosh yeshiva told me that no matter which gift I receive, my task is to take it further, to use it to become closer to Hashem and inspire others. A gift isn’t just a present that we keep for ourselves; it’s something we are obligated to share with others.

Rabbi Benzion Shafer of The Shmuz, another of my rabbeim, constantly encourages me to use my musical gifts to bring people closer. And I see, firsthand, how music affects people’s neshamos. They come to me after my concerts to share their stories and let me know what a difference it has made in their lives.

The power of neginah has been around since brias ha’olam, but today, I think, people are very thirsty for inspiration, especially through song.

How true. It is well-known that the Chasam Sofer once said he was willing to give up a third of his Olam Haba in exchange for the koach of neginah. When asked why it was so important to him, the Chasam Sofer explained that it’s a vehicle that can get you closer to your destination.

This message is especially powerful today, when we realize how much people want to connect, to draw closer to the Borei Olam through this spiritual pipeline.

I gave several annual concerts in Caesarea, a beautiful port city in Eretz Yisroel. After one such concert, a man, who didn’t appear to be religious, approached me with tears in his eyes. He said to me, “This is the third concert of yours that I attended. Each one of them touched me so much that I promised I would change my life and take something upon myself as a result. After the first concert, I decided to put on tefillin, and I continue to do so every day. This time, I made the decision to wear tzitzit every day.”

This special man has changed his life completely, and is a shomer Torah umitzvos today. He and I are very close, and today he is a member of my team, who gives me ideas for songs. To think that it all started with a concert that touched his heart!

Wow. What a story!  I’m very impressed that, despite your busy schedule, you have the focus to actually listen and take suggestions seriously.

But of course. Singing is just something I do, a talent I was blessed with. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. In fact, I don’t really subscribe to the whole celebrity culture. I try not to let it get to my head.

As I’m sure you know, it’s not enough to speak about your values. The children see if we are just paying lip service or if we really mean it. For example, naturally, my children enjoy coming to my concerts, but I try to take them with me when I go to the hospital or to the house of a bedridden patient to sing for them. That’s what I hope will stay with them.

When people stop me when I’m with my family, I can be annoyed or I can choose to turn it into a chinuch opportunity. I love it when my children hear that my songs gave people chizuk during challenging times. I want them to remember that singing is a gift we can use to help others.

Do any of your children share your talent?

Some of my children sing beautifully, but I don’t encourage them to sing professionally. It has to be something they really want to do, with all the sacrifices it entails. It’s not always so simple and there are many challenges along the way.

Nowadays, it’s easy to get your few minutes of fame, but if it’s not accompanied by core values, it fades away just as quickly. I try to sing songs that have enduring value.

As an aside, I recently sang a song dedicated to President Donald Trump, based on my song “We Are a Miracle.” The lyrics, written by my good friend Yisroel Besser, praise our president for his support of Israel and his love for the Jewish people.

What else do you do besides for singing?

My day job is learning in the Deal Kollel, where I can usually be found when I’m not busy singing or spending time with my family. And of course, there is the Special Children’s Center, which was founded by my wife, when she was a young girl. Jenine has always had a soft spot for children with special needs, and she began caring for them when she was just fourteen years old.

The school was an outgrowth of her love for these children, whom she wanted to take care of with the same warmth that she pours into our own children.

Today, the Special Children’s Center, which Jenine founded twenty years ago with her friend Mrs. Chaya Bender, provides a home away from home for over 400 children and their families. It has a budget of ten million dollars a year, most of which needs to be raised. Many of my concerts and other appearances are dedicated to the Special Children’s Center. It isn’t just a cause that’s dear to my heart. It’s part of our family.

Thank you for sharing some of that inspiration with us. Do you have a parting message for our readers?

Yes. I’d like to thank Reb Pinny, my dear friend, for everything he has done and continues to do for Klal Yisroel, and especially for Reb Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin. I have known Reb Pinny for a long time, and he has a heart of gold. I remember when hardly anyone heard of Reb Shalom Mordechai and Reb Pinny was touched by his story. He went to Postville, Iowa, to meet him, and the rest is history.

Reb Pinny taught us that if we really care about another Yid, it doesn’t matter where he comes from. We are all brothers.

During Reb Shalom Mordechai’s incarceration, I considered writing a song based on the words “Keili, Keili lamah azavtani.” But Rabbi Lipschutz said I got it all wrong—that’s not Shalom Mordechai’s posuk. Instead, I wrote the song “Ma’amin B’nissim,” which was more apropos of his enduring optimism. Because even in his darkest moments, this tzaddik never felt abandoned or alone.

After Shalom Mordechai’s release, Reb Pinny asked me to write a song to celebrate the miracle, and the now-famous “Alef Bais Gimmel,” based on the key words emunah, bitachon and geulah, was born. I feel honored to be part of this kiddush Hashem and to consider Reb Shalom Mordechai one of my close friends. I am also grateful and honored to be featured in the Yated, my favorite paper due to its high standards and wonderful content. I wish you all a year of continued inspiration and growth.

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