Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker, a composer and singer of Chasidic niggunim, or melodies, died on Nov. 20 in Brooklyn, the New York Times reported.
Mordechai Wincorn wrote in Hamodia: “Thousands of Jewish families welcome Shabbos with his ‘Eishes Chayil’ and sing his ‘Mizmor l’Dovid’ shortly before they bid it farewell. Few chasunos go by without dancing to his ‘Yassis Alayich.’”
Niggunim are Jewish tunes or melodies sung by groups and often feature repetitive sounds like “ai” or “bim.”
Born in 1925 in Brooklyn, Shenker was the son of Polish immigrants Mordechai and Miriam Shenker. He fell in love with music at an early age, and at 12 joined a synagogue choir led by Joshua Samuel Weisser [Pilderwasser], who helped found and lead the Cantors-Ministers Cultural Organization.
Weisser later featured Shenker as a soloist on a Yiddish-language radio program.
Shenker became passionate about niggunim after meeting Rabbi Saul Taub, the rebbe of the Polish Modzitzer chasidic dynasty, and a group of Chasidim who had survived the Holocaust.
In a YouTube video produced by the Yiddish Book Center, Shenker recalled, as a teenager, surprising Taub with his ability to read musical notes.
“He was flabbergasted, a kid that young knew how to read music,” he said in the video.
Shenker became the rebbe’s musical secretary.
“Anything he composed, I used to notate,” Shenker said in an interview on NPR in 2013, the New York Times reported. “And he used to sing for me things that he had in mind.”
In 1956, Shenker recorded niggunim on his record label, Neginah.
“In their separate ways, Shenker and [Shlomo] Carlebach were the two most important conduits for preserving and spreading a nearly-lost European musical tradition, and served as models for countless performers and composers of Hasidic music,” Cantor Sam Weiss wrote on Klezmer Shack.
Shenker eventually produced and recorded more than 10 collections of niggunim.
Shenker’s wife, Dina Lustig, died three years ago. He is survived by his daughters Esther Reifman, Adele Newmark and Broche Weinberger; a brother, Rabbi Chaim Boruch Shenker; a sister Rose Glasner, 23 grandchildren; and more than 90 great-grandchildren, the New York Times reported.