Brooklyn, NY - Mishpacha This Week: Chasidic Badchen Yonasan Schwartz
Brooklyn, NY - For Reb Yonason Schwartz, being a badchan is not about fun and games.
Loosely translated as a “jester,” a chassid knows that it’s anything but. At a chassidic wedding, the badchan is the link between heaven and earth, weaving his lyrical verse as he summons the honored relatives to the mitzvah tantz — a dance that, according to tradition, joins the souls of the generations together.
“A good badchan is really a family therapist,” Reb Yonason says. “He has to be highly intuitive and chap the nuances of the family dynamics. He has the capacity to make shalom between relatives, or fan the flames of controversy. I don’t even know most of the families I do weddings for, but after doing this for more than two decades, an hour of getting family details is enough for me to know what to say and what not to say.
“Sometimes one word can destroy a family,” he continues. “Let’s say there are several brothers; one is a rosh yeshivah, one is a rav, one is a mesivta rebbi, and one is a plumber. So if I call them up as the dayan, the rosh yeshivah, and the baal chesed, I’ve slaughtered him. You have to be so careful not to trample people’s kavod.”
Also an Orphan Reb Yonason Schwartz’s unusual gift of lyric (“the rhymes just come spontaneously when I hold the microphone”), together with his silky, penetrating voice, puts him in a class by himself. His popular series of recordings, most of which are in Yiddish and whose titles begin with “A Gutte” (e.g. A Gutten Shabbos, A Gutte Voch, A Gutter Yid, A Gutte Niggun, A Gutte Neshamah, A Gutte Besureh), contain chilling songs that can bring a person to tears and intense feelings of spiritual longing, and others that extract a giggle at some of the foibles of modern society.
But every song has its twist: in one, called U nteren Chuppah (from A Gutte Besureh) he tells the story of a boy about to be married, whose father is deathly ill. As his wedding day approaches, the chassan begs his father to promise that he will escort him to the chuppah.
“I promise that your father will walk you to the chuppah,” his father responds. Shortly before the wedding, the song continues, the father passes away. The chassan falls on his father’s fresh grave and cries, “You told me that you would walk me to the chuppah!”
His father appears to him and says, “I promised that your Father would walk you to the chuppah, and He will. Hashem is the Avi yesomim, Father of the orphans, and He will escort you to the chuppah.”
The song, like so many in his repertoire, isn’t so far off from his own life experience. He says the personal challenges he’s gone through are his biggest inspiration, and have given him the ability to connect to the pain and struggles of his listeners.
Reb Yonason’s mother passed away at age thirty-one, when he was just ten years old. At age twenty, as a chassan newly arrived to the US, he too went to the chuppah without a parent. Those painful, unstable years of his youth left a mark on his heart that makes him a profound empathizer.
Young Yonason and his sisters were looked after by the Belzer Rebbetzin, a childhood friend of their mother’s who promised the dying Mrs. Schwartz that she would care for the children. “She’s kept her promise to this day,” he says.
Schwartz didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in New York (hard to believe after listening to his articulate, energetic English diction). With no support forthcoming, he took on a menial job that kept him busy from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Yet he loved to sing, and occasionally performed at weddings after hours — until his boss said to him, “What are you doing here? You belong in a studio. Go sing!” And so, six months later, Yonason Schwartz the badchan emerged.
But his big break came three years later, at the wedding of the Belzer Rebbe’s only son. Top badchanim were appointed to entertain the crowds at the mitzvah tantz and the week of sheva brachos. When Yonason, who flew back to Israel for the wedding, filed past the Rebbe for a brachah, the Rebbe said, “Nu, and when are you going on stage?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t invited up,” he told the Rebbe. On the spot, the Rebbe appointed his former ben bayis to the Motzaei Shabbos sheva brachos.
“As I began to sing about the Rebbe, a little boy, whose father had been killed in a car accident, hopped onto the Rebbe’s lap,” Reb Yonason recalls, describing how he began to weave one rhyming couplet after another. “I faced the Rebbe and sang, ‘this is not only about zchus avos, but about the zchus of young boys you’ve merited to raise.’ I meant to say, when I was a young boy you held me on your lap, and here is another little boy. But it was really me.”
Rising to the Challenge
Yonason Schwartz cringes at the mention that he is a singer. “I’ve never called myself a singer. I’m not a social network guy. I’m not looking for publicity and I don’t need people to analyze how chassidishe or how modern I am, or if I’m a good influence. I’m a badchan. I want to be someone who instills people with emunah and encouragement.”
His listeners are obviously thirsty for his unique genre — taking familiar tunes and adapting intricate lyrics about the complexities of life’s bumpy ride. His first recording, released in 1993, sold over 10,000 copies in the first month.
“Today the world of technology has completely destroyed the business,” he says, “and there is little point in putting in the effort to produce a new disc. But I’m constantly getting calls and e-mails from people telling me how encouraged they are by the songs and that I shouldn’t stop, so I’m still at it. But profits? Forget about it.”
Reb Yonason isn’t shy about discussing the challenges he’s faced, which he says have attuned him to the subtleties of people’s emotions and inner turbulence. Fifteen years ago he went through a messy, painful divorce, and wound up with custody of three small children. He was a single father for three years, until he remarried and built another family.
Three years ago a sister passed away after battling cancer for a decade — she held on against medical odds to stay alive for her son’s bar mitzvah. And just three months later, while the family was still reeling, another sister died, leaving eight orphans.
“Believe me when I say that whatever I write, I went through.”
Not a Dry Eye Every night means another mitzvah tantz, another encounter with the complexities of a family unit he may never have met before. But even after twenty-three years, Reb Yonason hasn’t lost the emotional charge he gets every time he calls up the mechutan.
“You can’t take this work and turn it into a regular profession and still be successful,” he says. “I still get emotional by every single mechutan I call up. It’s a huge responsibility, because it really is the most dramatic part of the wedding — all the previous generations are there joining in. It could be the most cold-blooded family, but come the mitzvah tantz, their hearts melt.”
Drama notwithstanding, Reb Yonason emphasizes the tightrope he must walk in order not to cause any kind of offense to people he doesn’t really know.
“I was once at a chasunah where the badchan praised the family of the kallah — ‘such a wonderful family and they merited such a special bochur.’ But the chassan’s family was incensed — they took it to mean that only their son was special, who this other ‘wonderful’ family merited. Weren’t they, as a family, also ‘wonderful’?
“So you see how every single word has to be measured. Reb Chaim Mendel Mermelstein was a famous badchan who quipped that keitzad merakdin lifnei hakallah (“how does one dance before the bride”) can also mean, ‘how does one sift out or select [meraked — sifting — is one of the thirty-nine melachos of Shabbos] what to say and what not to say in front of the kallah?’”
His most dramatic mitzvah tantz? No contest. It was two years ago at the wedding of his own stepson — the boy he raised from age seven.
“I called up his father, my wife’s ex-husband, to the mitzvah tantz — I’m not exaggerating when I say there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall. I want to share this because it’s so important for people to know that you don’t have to be in a fight forever. You don’t have to hate each other. When I called him up, I said that there are three partners in raising a child — two parents and Hashem. But sometimes there needs to be a fourth partner, and that’s okay.
“I gave the example of a sofer who was commissioned to complete a Sefer Torah by a certain date. In order to make the schedule, he brought in another sofer. ‘Your son is the Sefer Torah,’ I announced, and praised this man. You see, divorced people still have an opportunity to raise a beautiful Sefer Torah.
“In fact, the morning of the wedding, my stepson called me in and said, ‘Tatty, thank you for everything, but most of all, thank you for being such a good father and yet never making my own father feel like less of a father.’”
Some people who want to tune in to Reb Yonason’s unique entertainment style are precluded by one condition: it’s all in Yiddish. Does that diminish his popularity?
“I’ll answer that with a story about the Chofetz Chaim,” he says. “The Chofetz Chaim once came before the Polish prime minister, screaming in anguish — in Yiddish — about an impending decree on the Jews. His talmidim wanted to bring a translator so that the prime minister would better understand, but the Polish leader said it wasn’t necessary. ‘I feel exactly what he’s saying,’ explained the king. ‘A language that speaks from the heart doesn’t need translation.’
“I’ve seen the same thing. People from all over the world contact me. Someone from Los Angeles called me recently and said, ‘My wife and I listen to your tapes and although we don’t understand any of the words, we understand everything.’”
Reb Yonason says he has songs in his head 24/7 — “when I’m davening, when I’m flying.” But whereas his lyrical grammen is spontaneous (“I have no idea what words I’m going to use, but this is a special koach Hashem gave me, and it’s important for me to share it”), writing songs is a work of precision and much diligence.
Yet even spontaneous badchanus is not only about jokes and fun. Reb Yonason is fond of telling stories like this one, reinforcing how a person can spend his entire journey in This World exchanging material goods back and forth, and arriving “home” with absolutely nothing for his eternal reward:
Berel and Shmerel were two good friends who decided to join together to try to earn a decent living.
One time, Berel told Shmerel that he had heard of a village where they sold excellent whiskey by the barrel for very cheap. The village was very far away, and travel in those days was exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, the two decided to travel there and buy a barrel, which they hoped to sell, shot by shot, expecting big returns.
When they finally arrived at the village, they were overjoyed to learn that the rumor was true. They purchased one barrel for several dozen rubles, planning to sell the whiskey for five rubles a shot, and become rich.
As they traveled home, Berel said to Shmerel, “Listen, my friend. Our journey is so long and it’s freezing. Why don’t we fortify ourselves with a little drink every so often?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” agreed Shmerel. “But we must safeguard our investment and not come home with an empty barrel. I’ll tell you what: whoever takes a drink will have to pay the other five rubles.”
Berel was happy to oblige. They traveled along, and every few hours, one or the other would take a drink to wet his throat and warm his bones. Five rubles was duly exchanged from one hand to the other each time. When they finally reached their town, the barrel was empty, with no profit to show for their joint venture.
“Is this what your world looks like?” asks Reb Yonason. “Are you busy chasing profits, only to run in circles, with nothing emesdig to show for it in the end?”
Making People Happy Reb Yonason, a baal tefillah at Rav Moshe Wolfson’s Emunas Yisroel congregation, says he just wants to bring joy and inspiration to others, whether it’s through a wedding, a CD, or through the toy store he owns in Boro Park (“whatever it takes to make Yidden happy”).
And his greatest inspirations come from contact with real-life events that touch him.
“I was once invited to a wedding in Lakewood, assuming that I was going to be the badchan. As soon as I entered the wedding hall, I realized that the family was litvish. Why had they called up a chassidishe badchan, who specializes in inviting the family members to partake in a mitzvah tantz? I was nervous, too, because my ideas and stories are primarily suited for those who grew up in a chassidishe environment. I checked and double-checked the address and the name of the family, but everything seemed to be in order.
“Then I noticed that the atmosphere at that wedding was even more exuberant than usual. I approached the chassan and introduced myself, which turned out to be superfluous.
“He shook my hand warmly and asked if I remembered him, but I just couldn’t place him. Then he reminded me that three years earlier, a young man had been mortally ill, the doctors certain he would die shortly. I had gone to visit him with my friend, singer Reb Michael Schnitzler. As I was leaving, I blessed him that I should be invited to attend his wedding. ‘Not in this lifetime,’ he replied. He realized that he didn’t have long to live.
“But several days later, a specialist suggested a different course of treatment, which saved his life. And now he had invited me to his wedding so that I could fulfill my blessing.”
Soon this story will be set to a fitting tune and will be playing in Jewish homes throughout the world, stirring people to higher levels of emunah.
Listeners are drawn to Reb Yonason because he speaks their language, because he knows what is in everyone’s painful heart — he’s been there too.
“There is a famous vort from the Kotzker,” he explains. “The Gemara tells us that Nevuchadnetzar was about to write beautiful songs of shirah to Hashem, but as not to embarrass David HaMelech’s Tehillim, an angel came and smacked him in the face so he could no longer offer up song. But doesn’t beautiful praise to Hashem supersede the perceived ego of David HaMelech? The truth, the Rebbe says, is much deeper. David had an exceedingly hard life. He went through every possible heartache — his father abandoned him, his father-in-law wanted to kill him, his sons rebelled against him and fought against each other… and through all this, he continued to sing shirah. The malach said, ‘Nevuchadnetzar, you’ve had a graced life, everything always went your way. Now, after one zetz, let’s see if you can still sing!’
“You see,” says the badchan who refuses to call himself a singer, “You need to be able to sing shirah even when you’re smacked.” —
The above article appears in this weeks Mishpacha magazine. Reprinted with permission.
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