MILWAUKEE — Rabbi Michel Twerski, the longtime leader of Congregation Beth Jehudah, an anchor for the West Side’s Orthodox community, is also a songwriter.
Twerski, 78, has been writing songs since 1959, close to 100 pieces in all.
His work reaches across a range, from more traditional ballads like “Ilu Phinu,” grounded in the praising liturgy of Shabbos morning, to “T’kah Bi’Shofar,” a peppy tune that leans more towards pop.
Hear his work for yourself, at the links below, or at the Pabst Theater on Sunday, June 25.
“Milwaukee March” from The Philharmonic Experience by R. Michel Twerski. Track 1.
“T’ka B’shofar” from Karev Yom by R. Michel Twerski. Track 5.
“Ein Aroch” from Nigunei Shabbos by R. Michel Twerski. Track 15.
“The Forest” from English Songs by R. Michel Twerski. Track 2.
About 15 of Twerski’s songs will be performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that day, at 7:30 p.m., with tickets priced between $25 and $136. You’re invited – to hear the results of the rabbi’s remarkably long commitment to making music.
In his youth, Twerski was known for having a nice voice.
“I was called upon to sing in synagogue and for various religious functions,” he recalled.
His maternal grandfather was a respected Hassidic rabbi who’d composed hundreds of pieces of religious music before he was killed by the Nazis. He was Rabbi Benzion Halberstam, rebbe of the Bobov dynasty.
Michel Twerski muses that composing must be in the blood. So he started composing.
Thirty-four years before the introduction of iTunes, in 2001, Twerski recorded his first album in 1967. It was called “Voice on High.”
His songs became popular — people were performing them in seminaries and at weddings. He was getting requests from other musicians seeking to do covers.
Meanwhile, much of his songwriting related to trying to get his kids to go to sleep. Five children, all in the same room on the West Side, didn’t always want to go to sleep and would sometimes keep one another awake.
He’d bring in a guitar and sing to them, often improvising. “In very short order they would fall asleep,” he remembered. “The majority of the melodies, certainly, in the first 25 years was putting my kids to sleep.”
About a third of his music has been released on vinyl or CDs and some is available on the Internet. In 1997, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performed some of his work. Now, 20 years later, they’re to do it again, with some songs that have never been performed for a wide audience.
What will you hear? Consider this: Twerski believes in the accessibility of music.
“A lot of contemporary Jewish music is made for extraordinarily gifted voices,” he said. With his music, you don’t actually need a great voice or a great orchestra, he said.
“You just need it to be a great melody.”
About 15 of Twerski’s tunes are being arranged by Yisroel Lamm as orchestra music for the MSO’s June 25 performance. The performance will be with Israeli Yaniv Dinur, assistant conductor for the MSO.
“The intention of the music is to give expression for the spiritual stirrings, that sometimes we’re grateful and we’re joyful,” Twerski said. “The words are almost incidental.”
“The important thing is that the music is an expression of feeling.”
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How to go
What: The Music of Rabbi Michel Twerski, performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Where: Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., Milwaukee
When: Sunday, June 25, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25 – $136, at 414-286-3663 or PabstTheater.org