Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Guest Posting From Yoni Lipshutz Of Simply Tsfat - A Return To The Violin

I started playing the violin when I was seven after begging my parents for a whole year - 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 17 years, what my parents wouldn't do for me! We lived in a brown stone, single family attached house in Queens. I was in the backyard playing in the mud when I heard some music from the courtyard of the 10 story apartment building behind our house. I could not see anyone, so I washed down and went around the block into the courtyard to find an itinerate violinist with people throwing nickels and dimes from 10 stories up. His music was enchanting.

In my second year at music school, I met my soon-to-be wife. Growing up I do not recall knowing the difference between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah aside from that the family got together for meals. After graduating music school and getting married, we decided to "do" the Shabbos and kosher thing. At first only eating vegetarian at our favorite treif restaurants, and driving to shul on Shabbos. Eventually, we realized that Shabbos was an all or nothing venture, so I stopped answering the phone on Shabbos and declined Friday night gigs and Saturday matinees. As soon as I stopped performing on Shabbos, lo and behold, I stopped receiving offers for the rest of the week and I quickly took a computer vocational course. We sold my expensive violin and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where with the proceeds from the violin sale, we put a down payment on a house. I must say, I did not miss all the Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. As I started reconnecting with my Jewish past, I actually started thinking, no, feeling, how all that musical culture stood by, as a supportive witness, while we walked to the gas chambers.

I was busy working and raising a family in the "American" way, well almost, we had three daughters and three cars. Although something was missing. I recall my wife buying a new book on the market, "Rabbi Nachman's Tikun" with a picture of a hand on the cover, and of course being Americans, we DID judge a book by it's cover…. A friend, Reb Chaim (with a Chassidish background but now with a short cropped beard, no peyos and a short jacket) shouted at us, "What are you doing with that! Do you know what it can do to you? Don't read it, you'll go crazy!" With that introduction, and without reading it, it was quickly given to a local used book store, little did Reb Chayim and us know …

Five years after moving to Minneapolis, two weeks before the Gulf War, we moved to Israel. I recall our first meeting with the Israeli Shaliach when we were first married, we enquired about the "program" called aliyah. The Shaliach literally shouted at us "It's not a 'program' like in college". Yes, our first introduction to Israeli sabra culture…. What a turn off.

We arrived in Israel, modern Orthodox, black hat, with a bit of a Zionist tilt. At the absorption center, we met people from all over the world. Why they call it an "absorption" center I don't know. We arrived January 1, 1991 with 50,000 Russians and a large number of Chassidim from France with wild unkempt peyos. Yes we were very lost indeed. To add to our bewilderment, I went through about five jobs the first year. Call it a culture clash, like I had some and "they" didn't. We only had nine months on the absorption center before we needed to move off.

Our main concern was schooling for our three daughters, now aged six, three and one-and-a-half. Where to send them? In the USA it was very easy, there was one school, no choice. Here in Israel there is a multitude of choices and everything is a political statement. After much searching and feeling extremely forlorn, my wife called Rabbi Chaim Menachem Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute for advice on schools, the man's name is in all the books! She had learned much from our French Chassidic neighbors, much to my chagrin, but I was not buying into it. What? Go to UMAN!!?? We just got here to Israel! NO! Absolutely not, in no uncertain terms NO NO! NO! Yes, we almost got a divorce several times over the issue. Eretz Yisroel has that unique quality to test a person to the hilt. Back in Minneapolis, I thought my best character trait was patience, I was now learning quite differently. I met Rabbi Kramer to discuss schools and of course Uman in his "world wide head quarters", really a large walk in closet. What a breadth of fresh air, he was not at all like the French Chassidim or other Israelis for that matter. All of a sudden Uman was on the plate. He and I struck up an immediate friendship, and don't ask me, but nine months after doing the "aliyah" program, on Rosh Hashanah I was in Uman. I have not been in "medinat" Yisrael (as opposed to Eretz Yisrael) for Rosh Hashanah since. I should have known better when saying NO so vehemently….

After our second year in the Jerusalem environs, after another five jobs (UGH) we decided to "check-out" of Israeli society and move up to Tsfat, Zfat, Safed or however you spell it. Now with long peyos and after 15 years of starting the t'shuva process and not playing the violin, let alone having one, all of a sudden I started yearning to play again. Those haunting Breslover nigunim plagued me day and night. I said to myself, "self, if you had a violin you could play all those holy nigunim and maybe bring a smile to someone's face. After all, for what were all those hours of practicing four, five and six hours a day seven days a week, month after month for 17 years?"

One of Rebbe Nachman's main teachings is about hisbodedus. Well might as well try it, right…? After seven years of going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah and seeing the tremendous market that gathers to meet all the foreigners, I decided to go to Uman with a small group of 25 people after Pesach, not 5,000 people not 10,000 and not 20,000, just 25 people. Year after year I had seen people walk off with clarinets, flutes, accordions and so much more at ridiculous prices. But when this small group arrived, lo and behold, there was no market, no peddlers trying to sell chachkalas or trinkets, no pushing, no shoving. How wonderful it was to spend a week without all the noise and confusion that accompanies such a trip, the quiet solitude was deafening.

Motzei Shabbos I found myself at Rebbe Nachman's gravesite, Shabbos was the highest, the learning, the singing, the davening, the nigunim, oh the nigunim. Tatty, if I had a violin I could play all those nigunim I could put to use all those 17 years, what was it all for. For 20 minutes or so, midnight, pitch black and freezing cold, I stood there talking to HaShem saying, "What was it all for? How can I serve You? What am I supposed to do with my life? HELP! HELP! HELP! HELP!" As I walked out of the plaza, yes folks, there was a Ukrainian selling a violin. And after 15 years of being "frum" that's when I started to do T'shuva!

Yoni Lipshutz with his violin at Swan Lake, New York
(Photo courtesy of Simply


At March 22, 2006 at 6:35:00 AM EST, Blogger Tamara said...

What a great post.

My family and I saw Simply Tsfat in concert this past January. They rocked the shul! We can't wait until they play here again.

At March 22, 2006 at 8:54:00 AM EST, Blogger torontopearl said...

What a moving story...lyrical, hitting all the right notes...a song in the key of life.

Thank you for posting it.

At March 22, 2006 at 9:00:00 AM EST, Blogger Mottel said...

Music is the pen of the soul . . .
and this man's music must have given his pen a soul as well.

At March 22, 2006 at 9:54:00 AM EST, Blogger Alice said...

Great writing.

At March 22, 2006 at 10:34:00 AM EST, Blogger Miss S. said...

Amazing read. I've heard about the group "Simply Tsfat", but this post sparked my interest yet again. I'm a non-Jewish woman who is working towards an Orthodox gerus. I find that the vast majority of my free time is engulfed by shirium on halacha and Chumash as well as saving to buy the copious amounts of Judaica and seforim that you need for a Torah-observant life. While I did not major in music in college, I've played woodwinds from age 8 and in high school to my early 20s, I was always involved in ensembles and music groups for fun (playing flute mainly but also saxophone). I have since sold my saxophone and 2 piccolos, but I still have my Armstrong Heritage flute (can't part with that thing!) I used in college. 6 months ago I was in a music store, window shopping some nice Yamaha piccolos (you know how it goes, play it, examine it, appreciate it - but wrestle with the notion of shelling out $1,000 for something that isn't related to your profession or your immediate needs!). I took a gander over to the strings. I was shocked that the student violins were around $200. 2 years ago, some viola teacher said that I had great fingers for violin playing. I thought why not. I brought it; not hardly knowing a thing about what I got myself into. Now 6 months later, I sometimes wonder if I was crazy. 26 years old, hardly time to do my laundry (I am VERY grateful there is a 24hour landry about a block away - I've been there at 2am a few times!), and here I am taking violin lessons. But it's such an amazing sound (well, sometimes - I still "scratch" way more than I would like to at this point!) and you use your mind in a way no other task can (that note should be sharper, is my wrist relaxed? Bow faster - that part should really sing! My back hurts - what's going on with my posture?) and it gives a wonderful outlet for a frum person. Sorry for the long comment - again thanks for sharing!

At March 22, 2006 at 5:02:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Story reflects the warmth he feels for a fellow Jew.

Shmuel Shoshan

At March 22, 2006 at 7:24:00 PM EST, Blogger Mottel said...

R' Volf Greenglass of Montreal once told a friend of mine who plays the Violin that the playing music is a good preparation to davvening (R' Volf also played the Violin -I the Clarinet)

At March 22, 2006 at 11:29:00 PM EST, Blogger PsychoToddler said...

Hashem gives us gifts for us to use in His service. He would not have given you the gift to play violin if he had not meant for you to use it.

I've had similar discussions with Mendel, my guitarist, and I can tell you that there is no question in my mind that the music that eminates from his guitar comes straight from shamayim.

BTW I saw Simply Tzfat a few weeks ago in Milwaukee and they were great.

At March 28, 2006 at 2:06:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yoni, you rock harder than Bach! But really, all you guys have got to stop forgetting to write zt''l after the late, great Breslever Rebbe's name...

-A musical friend

At April 17, 2006 at 9:12:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys are great .We had a kumzitz with you on top of a hill in sfat about 7 years ago.Still a big fan.

At June 28, 2006 at 2:40:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sunday, July 2nd @ 7pm
Long Beach, Long Island
***FREE*** concert
on the boardwalk & beach
2500 people showed up last year
Independence Day celebration
(independence from our yetzer hara and bad midot that is...)
remember to bring sweaters it can get chilly

as one of the 2500 people who attended last year...I HIGHLY recommend this!!!!!!!!!!!!

-Zerach Mendel

At October 4, 2006 at 5:39:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only if you have interest in learning more about simple should you read this article. It provides all you want to know about simple.

At January 27, 2007 at 10:34:00 AM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful story and well touched my heart because I also held and played a violin as a child and heard it's sound echo the one in my soul. The sound is still there in my heart.

May Hashem bless and keep you!


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