Endnote: Down a Muddy Slope in Uman

September 19, 2017 5 min read

ENDNOTE: Down a Muddy Slope in Uman


“We all held on together and made incremental jumps slowly down the hill, as mud splashed all over our shoes and socks. And as we jumped, we sang ‘Tatte Tatte helf unz shoin’ — if you listen carefully, you can even hear the little staccato jumps in the music.”




“Tatte Helf Unz Shoin” 

Down a Muddy Slope in Uman 

It was composer David Kaufman who first sent Beri Weber a song with the words “Tatte helf unz shoin.” He didn’t connect to the tune, but the words took root in Beri’s mind and he set out on a mission to find the tune. He credits Kaufman with the seed of inspiration for his own song. The following Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Beri was part of a group making their way down the hill to Tashlich, trekking through a heavy downpour. The muddy path became slick with rain and the group proceeded to jump their way down in order to avoid slipping. “We all held on together and made incremental jumps slowly down the hill, as mud splashed all over our shoes and socks. And as we jumped, we sang ‘Tatte Tatte helf unz shoin’ — if you listen carefully, you can even hear the little staccato jumps in the music.” On Motzaei Yom Tov, the crowd, 20 000 strong, joined Beri for a kumzitz to the new song. 

Baruch Levine Finally Clarifies the Words 
“Ribbon Haolamim Yodati, Yodati, Yodati…”—it seems like everyone was singing Rabbi Pinchas Breyer’s song last year. In fact, many contemporary songs like this one continue the tradition of adopting the words of powerful pesukim or midrashim, emotional descriptions and passionate pleas, but not all today’s listeners and fans understand what they’re singing or can relate the concepts to parallels in their own lives. 

And that’s what motivated Baruch Levine to work with Torah Umesorah on a new project called “Know your Niggun” — popular songs presented together with English translations and visualizations. The first release will be an audio-visual “Ribbon Haolamim,” sung by Levine and a children’s choir. The lyrical, flowing translations created by celebrated lyricist Ruchie Torgow fit into Rabbi Breyer’s soaring melody and are accompanied by footage of such dramatic scenes as soldiers planning war tactics, the Titanic sailing forth in splendor and prowess, the ruins of ancient towers and strongholds. Seeing it brings the timely message home — despite the bluster and glory, despite the precise planning, technological know-how, and even the laws of nature, ultimately every earthly being is kachomer beyad hayotzer — like clay in the hands of the potter. 

What song TUNES YOU INTO Elul mode?

“For me, it’s the Alter Rebbe’s ‘Avinu Malkeinu Ein Lanu Melech Elah Atah.’ It’s one of ten special niggunim which we have from the Alter Rebbe [Rebbe Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad chassidus]. There is such awe and anticipation in that niggun. When you’re singing it, you can clearly sense that without Hashem there is nothing and I am nothing. 

Singer, composer, and guitarist SHLOMO KATZ 

“El Harina V’el Hatefillah” 

“Incline Your ear from On High, You who is enthroned upon praise” 

In the midnight and predawn hours on the first day of Selichos, figures move through the dark streets. But the outside soon fades away into the brightness of the shul, as the chazzan begins Ashrei and the Jewish soul awakens and unfurls — as the journey to Tishrei intensifies. 

Until Yom Kippur, Yidden will gather in these hours to plead and pray, but somehow the first moments of Selichos have a special power to open hearts. While Sephardic communities have been rising early for Selichos and knocking at Heaven’s gates since Rosh Chodesh Elul, this year Ashkenazim have only the minimum four days before Rosh Hashanah. 

Chazzan Benzion Miller of Young Israel Beth El in Boro Park will be using the traditional nusach all the way. He knows it’s that powerful Ashrei and the majestic tune of the first Kaddish which bring his packed shul into the Yamim Noraim state of awe. The elaborate first night Selichos service led by Chazzan Miller with full choir usually takes about two hours — “about as long as I can stand on my feet,” he says. An enthusiastic crowd comes in from Waterbury and Riverdale, Lakewood, Five Towns, the Bronx, Manhattan, and other venues in the Tristate area in order to hear a davening which has changed little over the past few decades. 

“Of course, we add new compositions and change it up a little — for example, for Lechu Neranenah I’ll sometimes sing Samuel Malavsky’s composition and sometimes Isaac Kaminsky’s. I use an occasional Carlebach tune too. But the main nusach and style remains constant.” That’s because Miller is following a family cantorial tradition. His father, Chazzan Aaron Doniel Miller (1911-2000) was a chazzan, shochet and mohel too. 

“Our family connection to chazzanus goes back several generations. My grandfather was the chazzan in the town of Oswiecim, and my great grandfather was the chazzan in Wadowice, in Galicia. My father served as chazzan for the Bobover Rebbe before the war, as well as afterward in New York.” 

Having lost his first wife and family in Hitler’s concentration camps, Chazzan Aaron Miller remarried and came to America, where he became the chazzan in the Biyalistoker shul on the Lower East Side “My father was my role model and my major inspiration. I sang in his choir as a child, and grew up under his influence — that is how I learned to daven,” Miller says. 

Today, the tradition continues. Miller’s oldest son, Chazzan Eli Miller, conducts the Beth El choir, and his second, Chazzan Shimmy Miller of Lakewood, serves as chazzan in Congregation Bais Naftoli in California for the Yamim Noraim. Grandson Mechi Miller was a child soloist at Beth El, and now is a full-fledged shul choir member, as well as a member of the Mezamrim Choir. 

Beth-El has a choir of six or seven adults every Shabbos Mevarechim, but Selichos will be sung by a fuller retinue. “Past members who have moved away often come back for Selichos,” Chazzan Miller explains. 

The Miller chazzanim have their special tunes. Chazzan Aaron Miller had his own compositions, and he brought to America a range of prewar tunes heard from the chazzanim Chaim Dovid Blum, Yosef Helfman, and the chazzan of Kshanov, as well as implementing the better known liturgical music of Rosenblatt, Koussevitzsky, and Yossele Mandelbaum, chazzan in Cracow. 

With such an arsenal at his disposal, Chazzan Benzion Miller is known to spontaneously select his niggunim. “My personal preference is to choose the tunes while I daven. This is how I have always done it. The major compositions like ‘Keil Melech Yosheiv,’ ‘Bemotzaei Menucha’ and ‘Retzei Asirasam,’ do have to be chosen and rehearsed with the choir in advance, but other than that, I improvise and the choir supports me spontaneously.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 677)