Spreading the Message of Hope and Faith

February 17, 2013 8 min read

by Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger reprinted from the YatedNe’eman

(See quotes from MBD, Avraham Fried, Chilu Posen, Yossi Tyberg & Shloime Taussig on the hit song below the article) 

I guess it was the dancing in the dining room on a random afternoon that had my seven-year-old daughter looking on in astonishment as she entered our home after a day of school. She stood there nonplussed, as my five-year-old son and I continued our rekidah impervious to her stares. But then, suddenly, the music drew my daughter in to the circle. The joy of the song was contagious. While the two youngsters holding my hands failed to realize the meaning of the lyrics, they were obviously swept up in the power of the melody.

The power of Yesh Tikvah. It’s a song with a message of hope and a tune that seems to magically wipe away feelings of despair and melancholy. And it’s a song whose popularity was further expanded following the editorial by the Yated publisher last week, prompting some phone calls by this writer to those who brought it to the masses.

As one who was raised on Regesh, Dveykus and the music of the yeshivishe genre, one would think that Yesh Tikvah, with its catchy beat and up-tempo style would be beyond my taste. But one would be wrong. The song seems to transcend style, taste or preference. And singer Benny Friedman, who recorded the song on his recently-released album, strikes the perfect note in his performance. His rendition has bochurim in yeshiva dormitories singing into deodorant bottles, pedestrians outside Mostly Music in Boro Park and Gal Paz in Yerushalayim stopping in their tracks and breaking out into a spontaneous jig, and cars on the Parkway seemingly driving on their own, with the momentum of this catchy composition providing the fuel for the trip. It won’t be long before Suki & Ding adapt an Uncle Moishy version of the tune for children, and you can bet that, come summer, amidst the brisk morning temps, the song will be blaring on loudspeakers, waking up campers across the Catskills.

When was the last time you read a music review in the Yated? I thought so. I can’t remember either. But Yesh Tikvah appears to have evolved into more than just a song.

Some have called it a phenomenon, and that’s what impelled us to explore how this hit came about. In an interview this week with Benny Friedman, I told him that he found a gem of a niggun. He seemed to already know that quite well.

“We have been blown away by the response,” says the 28-year-old Brooklyn resident. Did he identify the power of the song the first time he heard it? “No question,” he says. “We knew there was something unique, something special.” But, he explains, it was a process. “Sometimes, when putting together material for a music album, people send you songs, and you listen to them and choose the ones that stand out. Other times, you call a composer and dictate to him what type of song you are seeking.” In this case, Benny and his producer, Avi Newmark, contacted Ari Goldwag, a singer, songwriter and former Miami Boys Choir member who resides in Ramat Bet Shemesh, and explained what sort of melody they were looking for.

“We conveyed that we wanted an upbeat niggun, specifically in Hebrew, with a very strong message of hope and faith,” explains Benny. Why Hebrew? Did he feel that Hebrew lyrics would connect with a wider audience? “Exactly,” Benny says. “In general, songs of hope and chizuk are embraced by people in Eretz Yisroel for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the primary reason is that, as a whole, the residents of the country live in a state of concern for their security, more so than their counterparts in chutz la’aretz.

They feel an immediate sense of reality in it. Life outside of Israel is in many ways more serene and lacking the stresses of those in the Holy Land. So we felt that the lyrics would have greater meaning to more people in the Israeli vernacular.”

Benny grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and spent the years of his youth in yeshivos and shlichus across the country. His grandfather came from Poland, while his mother lived in the Ukraine, and they maintained connections to Bluzhev and Sanz, and later Bobov. The Friedman family ultimately settled in Crown Heights and was drawn to the Lubavitcher chassidus.

Benny is the eleventh of fourteen children, or “the oldest of four,” he jokes. At the age of twelve, he attended yeshiva two and a half hours away in Postville, Iowa. At the age of fifteen, he went to Tzefas to learn in yeshiva near the home of an uncle and then returned to Minnesota, before heading off to California, then Miami, and then Tucson, Arizona. His musical career commenced at age thirteen when he began performing at small local events. And while his 2009 album Taamu was quite successful and Benny has sung all across the country and beyond, it is Yesh Tikvah that seems to have propelled him into the spotlight in unprecedented fashion. But speaking to Benny, I sense a humble realization on his part of the hatzlochah that the song and his career have experienced. He speaks softly, and thoughtfully, appreciative of the way that the public has embraced his music and particularly Yesh Tikvah, whose creation, he says, was a process.

“We heard the tune and tried to run it through our heads to determine what it would sound like,” he explains. “The song is powerful, yet poshut. We recognized that it possessed that unique combination.” The composer, Ari Goldwag, agrees, stating that he merited siyata diShmaya in formulating the niggun. “They gave me the concept of hope and emunah, and I just took it from there,” said Ari in a phone interview from his home in Israel. “In truth, it just came on its own. The words and the tune…they just seemed to flow as I played and sang.”

The hit Hebrew song Mi Shemaamin, composed by Israeli singer Eyal Golan, resonated with many people – including those outside of the chareidi world – because of the message of its words, and Ari sought to follow that theme. “After coming up with the melody and the basic words, we turned to Miriam Yisraeli, a talented lyricist, who wrote phenomenal lyrics that really pulled together the song.”

Ari’s been singing since age 9, as a member of Miami Boys Choir and then on his own. Born in West Hempstead, NY, he learned at Yeshiva Mir Yerushalayim, then got married and settled in Eretz Yisroel. He’s been there ever since. When he’s not composing and producing – his tenth album is in production as we speak – Ari is spreading Torah through his website, which features dozens of written and recorded vertlach, divrei Torah and hashkafah lessons. His weekly parsha podcasts are downloaded by hundreds of people.

Ari, who has performances scheduled in the United States, South Africa and elsewhere over the next few months, has tried to use his music in a similar vein, with his compositions impacting people positively. “In truth, my music has evolved,” he says, “from being somewhat reserved to being more tailored to what people want to hear. I tried to adapt in order to incorporate a message and sound that people can connect to. When writing Yesh Tikvah, with Benny recording it, I knew so many people would be hearing it, so I felt an extra burst of inspiration.”

Did he know at the time he composed it that Yesh Tikvah would be so popular? Ari laughs modestly. “I thought it was really good, but to know that it would be such a hit? There was no way for us to know that,” he says. His wife, though, recognized that this song was unique. “She actually told me not to give the song away,” says Ari. “My wife said, ‘Record it yourself.’ But I told her that I had been asked to write the song and I composed it for someone else. I couldn’t possibly keep it for myself unless they didn’t want it. But want it they did.”

Ari is thrilled with Benny’s performance and the wide audience the song has reached. “He did a spectacular job,” says Ari, “and I am not sure that I could have reached all of the people he has. Boruch Hashem, his music is very popular and Yesh Tikvah has been heard by so many.”

It has indeed, and it has since been performed by many others, well-known singers and choirs, whose renditions have appeared in videos seen by thousands. The reason for its popularity, says R’Mendy Werdyger, renowned singer, chazzan, composer and owner of Aderet Music and Mostly Music, is obvious.

“I find that people like to hear positive messages, and when they hear it with a very catchy chorus, it resonates,” explained R’ Mendy, who co-produced the album. I asked R’ Mendy if he knew when he first heard the song that they were “talking tachlis.” “Yes, I felt that this would be a hit,” he said. “It is a very catchy tune and has all the ingredients of a hit.”

I asked Benny as well if he knew right away that this song was something special. “When I first listened to it, I knew it. I really did,” says Benny. “In fact, after I heard the arrangement, I said that if this song doesn’t do it, I don’t know what will. But, admittedly, I didn’t expect it to be as popular among so many Yidden as it has been. “ Listeners span the continents, with Benny just having performed Yesh Tikvah for an audience in Paris, France.

Benny related that while he was in Eretz Yisroel recently, he was asked to visit a woman who was hospitalized. A young mother, she was very sick and in need of tremendous rachamei Shomayim. “I was told that she sits day and night with her phone playing Yesh Tikvah,” said Benny. “I was asked to visit her, and I did, singing for her and trying to lift her spirits. She said that the words are so perfect and so penetrating, and the tune so happy and joyful. When she listens to it, she said, she feels no pain. She feels faith and hope and she thinks of the future.”

At the recent Bein Ish Ubein Achiv Shabbaton, mothers with children battling illness told Benny that the song keeps them alive and positive-minded in the face of daunting nisyonos. Another story involved an unemployed man in Israel who heard the song. He walked around with a smile pasted to his face, prompting a friend to ask him why he’s so jolly. In the ensuing conversation, it emerged that the man had no job and was up the creek, but he was hopeful and optimistic, motivated by a song he had heard called “Yesh Tikvah.” “The friend responded that he knows of a company looking to hire,” said Benny, “and within a short time the man had a job.”

Thinking for moment, Benny recalls another, somewhat humorous, story. “I did a job for a chassidishe olam at a Satmar wedding in Williamsburg and the chasunah was running very late. They had had a different singer and I was supposed to perform just a few songs before bentching. At 10:30 p.m., I arrived. Yanky Briskman was playing the keyboard. At about 1 a.m., I began singing, first a different song and then Yesh Tikvah. Suddenly, a guy ran out of the hall. I didn’t know why, until I was told that he thought I was singing Hatikvah! In any case, the ruach was unbelievable, with everyone dancing with simcha. Yanky said that he was so tired at that point as the night wore on, but suddenly he was infused by the joy of the atmosphere that gave him a second wind, with the wedding hall appearing to be bouncing. It was surreal. We’ve done many weddings, but this was something special.”

From Lawrence to Lakewood, from Brooklyn to Baton Rouge, and from Johannesburg to Jerusalem, people have been infused with this message of hope, a reminder that tomorrow will be a better day than today, and next week will bring the salvation that we hoped for a week ago. It is a message that resounds with one and all. So when you pass my home on that random afternoon and spot some people dancing in the dining room without apparent rhyme or reason, don’t call for help. We’ve been smitten by the Yesh Tikvah bug. Besotted with this song, we feel compelled to dance. Don’t bother knocking. Just come inside and join. See what Yesh Tikvah can do for you.