Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach
Of all the Lubavitcher holidays that we celebrate in Kislev, Rosh Chodesh Kislev is the first “Chassidishe Yom Tov” that pertains to the “seventh generation,” to the Rebbe MH”M. It is the day that we got the Rebbe back and it is celebrated every year. It’s enough for a Chassid to hear the words “Rosh Chodesh Kislev” to make his heart expand with joy. It is the day that the Rebbe left his office and returned home, for the first time since his heart attack during the hakafos on the night of Shemini Atzeres of that year.
There are no words to describe the intense feelings of joy that Chassidim experienced at that time, after over a month of concern and uncertainty about the Rebbe’s health.
One of the bachurim who was there for Tishrei 5738 was Rabbi Shraga Feitel Levin, today a resident of Crown Heights, who had come from his home in France to celebrate Tishrei with the Rebbe.
It was not his first Tishrei with the Rebbe. From a very young age he always tried to make it to the Rebbe and spend the month of holidays in his holy presence. That year however, when he returned to yeshiva in France, he felt a strong sense of loss due to the fact that he was leaving 770 whilst the Rebbe was still ensconced in his room in an uncertain state of health.
When word of the great news of Rosh Chodesh Kislev reached him in yeshiva, he obviously joined in the celebratory dancing and the thanksgiving to Hashem for the great miracles, and for the return of the Rebbe to the Chassidim and to his regular schedule and conduct as in earlier years. Despite the great joy, the unpleasant feeling over the sad conclusion of the Tishrei celebrations, continued to plague him.
Towards the end of the winter session of that year, the young student approached the renowned mashpia in the yeshiva in Brunoy, R’ Nissan Nemenov and asked his permission, as per the instructions of the Rebbe to yeshiva bachurim who wanted to travel to him, to travel to the Rebbe for the Pesach holiday. The young tamim was certain that permission would be granted immediately, since there are no study sessions during that month, and why would the mashpia care if he spent Pesach with his parents in France or flew to the Rebbe. Fully confident that his request would be granted, he presented his wish to the mashpia.
R’ Nemenov’s initial response was far from positive. He began to berate the young bachur over the fact that in the past they would prepare for many months and even years through learning and inner soul work, and “today’s bachurim” fly off to the Rebbe every year and now he even wants to go a second time within half a year.
Shraga Feitel, who was not prepared for a negative response and certainly not for the “shower” that he received, expressed to the mashpia the painful feeling that he carried around with him ever since leaving 770 at the end of Tishrei, with the Rebbe in a precarious state of health, and his desire to travel to the Rebbe in order to have the privilege to see the Rebbe in full health once again. When R’ Nemenov understood that there were no ulterior motives for a trip abroad, but that it came from a deep place of hiskashrus he said, “If so, then you are obligated to go.”
R’ Levin shared this story with me at the beginning of the interview that I conducted with him in honor of the Kinus Ha’Shluchim last year, and in honor of Rosh Chodesh Kislev. He is the man who composed the famous niggin that is sung by the thousands of shluchim every year at the Kinus (as well as by Chassidim and even those who don’t identify as such, around the world). It seemed like a most fitting date to meet him and hear about the composing of the niggun, how it was received by the Rebbe and the Chassidm, and when it turned into the anthem of the yearly Kinus Ha’Shluchim.
In order to appreciate the source of the inspiration to compose niggunim and to set words of verses to tunes that have become staples of the repertoire of Chabad Chassidim, R’ Levin took me back to the origins of the family back in Russia.
His parents came from the famous town of Nevel, which had evolved over time to become the symbol and model of a Chassidic place, home to many G-d fearing Chabad Chassidim, infused with mesiras nefesh and total hiskashrus to the Rebbes of Chabad. The Mitteler Rebbe once said regarding the Chassidim of the town, “Halleluhu b’neivel – (praise Him with psaltery) – Halleluhu b’Nevel,” or as the Rebbe Rayatz once expressed it, “A butcher from Nevel is more dear to me than a maskil from Kremenchug.”
During the famous escape of 1947, his parents managed to leave Russia and after many travels (including a stint on shlichus in Morocco, from where they were forced to leave by the authorities), they arrived in Paris. Despite the travels and travails, they maintained their authentic Chassidic mode of life which they brought with them from the “old country.” It was this home, that was saturated with Torah, Chassidic fear of Heaven and hiskashrus to the Rebbe, that Shraga Feitel was born into.
From a very early age, R’ Levin displayed his talents in the realm of musical composition. Although in those years, the idea of studying a musical instrument was considered out of the question, he turned his gifts to composing songs and tunes. Starting from about the age of twelve, he would entertain and astound the family on occasions with a new niggun that he composed, or with a nice tune set to verses of tefilla or Tehillim. These songs remained within the confines of the immediate family and did not reach a wider audience.
Did you have the opportunity to see the Rebbe in the early years, before you went to learn in 770?
“Yes. As part of hiskashrus to the Rebbe, my parents, R’ Tzvi Leib and my mother a’h, would bring me to the Rebbe. My first visit was was when I was three and a half.”
R’ Levin said he had yechidus several times. One time, he wrote his name on the p’n he submitted but forgot to add “halevi” before his last name. The Rebbe looked at the note and commented about this. The Rebbe also took a pencil and added “halevi” to his name. Then the Rebbe said, “So that you know for next time.”
R’ Levin had his last private yechidus in Tishrei 5740. In the note, he mentioned that he was on shlichus in the yeshiva in Brunoy (after learning there, he returned to the yeshiva as a shliach) and he asked for a bracha for success in the shlichus. In a manner that was definitely not the norm, the Rebbe responded in detail to the request for a bracha and to the shlichus in general. He responded, “Regarding that which you ask, may it be with success and mainly in the field of chinuch, to educate youth and children and be mekarev them.”
After returning to yeshiva, he told the mashpia, R’ Nissan Nemenov a’h about this unusual answer and together, they thought about how to implement it.
As a result, every Sunday afternoon, R’ Levin would travel to Paris and organize activities for children for the purpose of learning Torah and becoming familiar with mitzvos (with the encouragement of the shliach, Rabbi Shmuel Azimov a’h). The extra-curricular program expanded over the years and was very successful. That year, he also published a newspaper for youth in French which was distributed in schools. The paper included historical milestones and facts about the origins of the Jewish people, stories of tzaddikim, etc.
This yechidus, and what the Rebbe said about shlichus in the field of chinuch, have continued to serve as a foundation throughout his life. After he married and settled in Crown Heights, he became a rebbi and principal in Oholei Torah. He was always fully cognizant of the fact that this wasn’t parnassa or ordinary work but a fulfillment of the Rebbe’s shlichus. Indeed, over the years, he helped improve chinuch in Crown Heights and arranged many educational projects for his students.
When did you start publicizing the niggunim you composed?
“When I finished my shlichus in Brunoy and went to learn in 770, I shared a thought that had gnawed at me since my early youth with mashpiim and friends. Most of the Chabad niggunim that are familiar to us are niggunim composed by Chassidim which were accepted by the public. There are even niggunim that are referred to by the names of the Chassidim who composed them like niggunim of R’ Hillel of Paritch, R’ Moshe Vilenker, the Charitonov family, etc. My thought was, how come, in our generation, there aren’t any new compositions? Why do we stick to the niggunim of previous generations?”
What was the answer that you got?
“The usual answer was, ‘Who are we to try and be like the earlier Chassidim?’ And how did I dare to compare ourselves to the Chassidim I mentioned before? However, I did not accept these answers because the Rebbe taught us about the unique qualities of the ‘seventh generation.’ If the Rebbe see our generation as one that is worthy of praise, then in negina too, there did not need to be a weakening and decline.
“I made this claim in a farbrengen with the chozer, Rabbi Yoel Kahn and his reaction surprised me. He did not attack me for my line of reasoning and did not negate the desire to include new niggunim. He said with the utmost simplicity, ‘If you have a good idea, do it, without analyzing and asking; just do it.’
“For 11 Nissan 5742, I composed a niggun for chapter 81 of Tehillim, the Rebbe’s new chapter. Although in earlier years, they chose verses from the Rebbe’s chapter and sang them, they used familiar tunes; nobody had composed anything new. I did that, for the first time, with the words, ‘Harninu L’Eilokim Uzeinu.’
“The niggun was nicely received. When the Rebbe entered 770, they sang the niggun and the Rebbe encouraged the singing. That is how, after many years, a new niggun entered the Chabad repertoire.”
Now we come to the reason for this interview, the niggun of Rosh Chodesh Kislev.
“Around Chof Cheshvan 5743, encouraged by the success of the niggun for the Rebbe’s chapter, I began thinking, why isn’t there a powerful niggun that expresses our feelings in regards to Rosh Chodesh Kislev? I had no doubt that a special niggun for this day would give the Chassidim a tremendous chayus and a special feeling of rejuvenation.
“Before the Chof Cheshvan farbrengen, part of the niggun was being formulated in my mind. After the farbrengen, I continued working on the composition with the help of friends, especially R’ Avrohom Charitonov who helped me tremendously.
“Ten days later, at the Rosh Chodesh Kislev farbrengen, we brought the original recording of the niggun (after it went through some production tweaks) that was recorded in the dormitory at 1414 President Street with a choir of tmimim, my friends. We brought it to Rabbi Meir Harlig who ran the grand ‘seudas hodaya’ in honor of the big day. That is how we taught the crowd the new song which was enthusiastically received.
“Before the farbrengen, we had made copies and we gave the tapes out to the bachurim. That’s how many in the crowd knew the niggun and pulled everyone else along in the singing.”
When was the niggun sung for the first time for the Rebbe?
“The first time that the Rebbe encouraged the niggun, which meant he accepted it, was at kos shel bracha on the night following one of the holidays (I don’t remember whether it was Pesach or Shavuos) 5743. After that, it was sung at many farbrengens.”
How did this niggun become the anthem of the Kinus Ha’Shluchim?
“The first Kinus was in 5748. At a farbrengen full of giluyim, the Rebbe spoke strongly about the Kinus and the shluchim and shlichus. The Rebbe promised every shliach that he would participate in the expenses of the shlichus after he submitted an expense report from an accountant or attorney. In general, the atmosphere was uplifting and very joyous. We were marking ten years since Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5738 and during the farbrengen, the niggun was sung and the Rebbe strongly encouraged the singing.
“When the farbrengen was over, shluchim and Chassidim remained in the big zal and for a long time, they stood on the benches and danced to the Rosh Chodesh Kislev niggun. There is a video of that farbrengen and I heard many say that this video is the closest thing to the dancing and simcha of Simchas Torah with the Rebbe.
“Naturally, the niggun made a powerful impact on the shluchim and people who were at the farbrengen and became associated for them to the sicha of the Rebbe said earlier, about shlichus. The niggun itself is a niggun that expresses the drive to action from joy and since then, it is the niggun of the Kinus Ha’Shluchim.”
The Rosh Chodesh Kislev niggun was not the only niggun composed by R’ Levin to be accepted by the Chassidim.
“In 5743, I composed another niggun in honor of 11 Nissan to the words, ‘Ani Omarti Elokim Atem’ (chapter 82). It was warmly received by the Chassidim and encouraged by the Rebbe.
“The song for the Rebbe’s chapter that was most popular is the one composed for chapter 90, ‘Shuva Hashem Ad Mosai.’ It was apparent that the Rebbe held this niggun very dear and he encouraged it most energetically throughout that year. It should be mentioned that on a number of occasions, the Rebbe encouraged the final part of the niggun (the part without words) ten times in a row, an honor usually reserved just for the niggun ‘L’Chatchile Ariber’ of the Rebbe Maharash and the ‘Hakafos Niggun’ of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok.”
Did you get personal responses from the Rebbe about the niggunim?
“When a niggun reached the final stage, I would record it and submit the recordings to the secretary along with a letter. Several times, for these niggunim, I received answers from the Rebbe of ‘received, many thanks,’ and ‘received, many thanks, and it is timely.’”
With such a warm response to your niggunim, why did you stop composing new ones?
“I never stopped composing niggunim. Every year, I compose a niggun for the Rebbe’s chapter. Likewise, every so often, a new niggun in the wordless Chabad style comes to me, lively or slow, or one with words from the tefilla, Tehillim etc. sometimes in a somewhat different style.
“I don’t put out these niggunim for the public and don’t publicize them because the prevalent style today is a bit foreign to me and my style but they are sung among friends and family and are well received.”
R’ Levin has musical roots that trace back to his many-branched family tree. The Levin family in general was known for its musical talent. R’ Levin’s talent for singing and expertise in the proper tunes for the davening he learned from his father’s tefillos. His father was an extraordinary “ba’al menagen” and bearer of the musical tradition of the town he grew up in. R’ Shraga also grew up on the many niggunim that were sung at the Shabbos table.
He also learned nice niggunim from his uncle, Rabbi Berel Levin of England and from his cousin, the renowned ba’al menagen, R’ Zalman Levin a’h of Kfar Chabad.
R’ Zalman Levin was known among Chassidim as an expert in the niggunim of Nevel and he produced recordings of these niggunim, thanks to which they became public fare. R’ Shraga Feitel recalls from one of his visits to Eretz Yisrael:
“I arrived in Kfar Chabad and was his guest for Shabbos. I asked him to be the chazan in shul and daven in the nusach of Nevel since I greatly enjoyed his nusach ha’tefilla. At first, he declined but after I begged him repeatedly, he acceded to my request on condition that we do so in a separate minyan.
“I arranged another minyan in the side room, where R’ Levin served as the shliach tzibbur and really went all out with his singing. The memory of that tefilla has stayed with me for so many years.”
Was musical talent passed on to the next generation?
“Definitely. My children have demonstrated that the musical gene has not skipped them and they all sing nicely and compose nice niggunim of their own. The atmosphere at home is one of lots of music and niggunim. For the bar mitzva of each of my five sons, we produced a recording with new songs that were composed for the occasion. B’ezras Hashem, we are continuing now with the weddings and try to compose a new song in honor of each simcha.”
In conclusion, do you have any special moment or memory related to a niggun that you composed?
“I can share a unique experience that I had in the 1980s. During that period, I was one of the ‘reviewers’ of the sichos of the Rebbe said on Shabbos. The order was that after the farbrengen, we would go to eat the Shabbos meal in the home of the ‘chozer’ Reb Yoel Kahan on Montgomery Street. During the meal that would go on for quite some time, we would review the entire farbrengen together with him a few times, until it was all resolved and cohesive for being put into writing on Motzoei Shabbos.
“Naturally, during the winter Shabbosos there was not much time left, so immediately after the conclusion of the review and the meal, we would return to 770 for the davening. However, there would be time left on the long summer Shabbosos, even after a number of reviews, when we would farbreng with R’ Yoel and speak about various topics.
“On one such Shabbos, R’ Yoel turned to me and asked me, ‘Nu, you probably composed something new recently, sing it.’ In fact, just at that time, I had composed for myself a deep, slow, wordless niggun. Since R’ Yoel is a big expert and amazingly exacting in niggunim, I thought to present this niggun to him and hear his response. After I finished singing, he asked to hear it again and again, and even began to hum it to himself. At some point, he turned to me and said, ‘Not a bad niggun, and actually it is a very nice niggun,’ and he began to ask me what I was thinking when I composed it and the idea behind each section etc.
“I felt that here is a person that does not just sing a niggun, but he literally learns it, and in his deep intellectual way he thinks deeply into each ‘kvetch’ and note. It was a very pleasant feeling that a wise Jew like R’ Yoel devoted thought and effort to understanding a niggun that I composed.”
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