Tribute: Velvel Pasternak – his musical gifts to the world are alive and well

In addition to his music, Pasternak was a teacher at local Jewish day schools. In 1969, he took a sabbatical and came to Israel, where two of his five children are living.

June 15, 2019 22:18
3 minute read.



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Today, hassidic music fans who attend a concert in this genre will see that the musicians, for the most part, have sheet music in front of them. Chances are that the music and its arrangement were originally committed to paper by musicologist and publisher Velvel Pasternak.

The name Pasternak immediately evokes an association with Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, who in 1958 was named a Nobel Prize laureate in literature; or for Romanians living in Israel, former ambassador Andreea Pastarnac, who returned to her country to become a government minister.

As far as is known, Canadian-born Velvel Pasternak, who died Tuesday in New York City and was buried on Wednesday at Eretz HaChayim Cemetery in the Jerusalem Hills near Beit Shemesh, was related to neither, although Boris Pasternak came from a prominent Jewish family in Moscow. Andreea Pastarnac, though a fluent Hebrew speaker whose command of the language was better than that of many native-born Israelis, is not Jewish and to the best of her knowledge, has no Jewish roots.

Pasternak was born in Toronto, to Polish immigrant parents, and made a sufficiently important contribution to Jewish music to receive an obituary in the editorial sections of several American newspapers. The one in The New York Times noted that Pasternak had done for hassidic music what Alan Lomax did for folk music, traveling across America to record traditional melodies that had been passed down from generation to generation, but always relying on the musical ears of those who preserved the melodies, not having the musical training or ability to write down the notes.

In the US, primarily New York, Pasternak would visit hassidic residential enclaves with a tape recorder in his hand to capture the melodies of the Modzitz, Lubavitch, Vizhnitz, Breslov and Ger dynasties for posterity. His mission was to ensure that they would not become extinct.

But he did not limit himself to hassidic music. All Jewish music – Yiddish, Ladino, cantorial, choral, klezmer and the traditional songs sung by North African and Asian Jews – found its way into the many anthologies and essays he published. He even managed to find, record and arrange Jewish music that had been composed in the ghettos and the camps during the Holocaust.

In fact, prior to his death at age 85, he published more than 150 volumes of Jewish music.

In addition to his music, Pasternak was a teacher at local Jewish day schools. In 1969, he took a sabbatical and came to Israel, where two of his five children are living.

But it was hardly a vacation. He ran around to all the places in which there were relatively large hassidic communities and recorded their songs as well. Many of the songs were the same as those sung in America, but there were others that had been composed in Israel, which had become another chapter in the musical history of each of the hassidic sects.

Many hassidic melodies have become universal in the Jewish world, but not all. Pasternak succeeded in recording some of the most obscure compositions, thereby ensuring that they would not disappear from musical memory.

Through his Tara Publications, which he founded in 1971, he became the largest publisher of Jewish music around the globe, but commented wryly to an interviewer that there wasn’t much competition in his field.

Pasternak also produced and conducted hassidic concerts, thus exposing both the exhilarating joy and the poignant pathos of hassidic music to audiences that were far removed from the religious movement, or who may have had hassidic grandparents whose singing at the Shabbat table had been nothing more than a nostalgic memory without the hassidic concerts, whose advent made the melodies available to all.

Music is supposed to be the voice of the soul – certainly in hassidic circles – and what Pasternak did through his recordings, musical annotations and arrangements, concerts and lectures was to make the Jewish soul accessible.

Thanks to modern technology, Pasternak’s gifts to the world did not die with him. There are numerous videos of him on YouTube, with a vast choice of lectures, interviews and concerts, including explanations of how to tell one hassidic group and its music from another.

In May of this year, Pasternak suffered cardiac arrest and was hospitalized in serious condition from which he did not recover.

He is survived by his wife, Goldie, children Shira, Mayer, Naava, Atara and Gedalia, and numerous grandchildren.

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