There are few people who have more to say about Jewish music than the legendary chasidic singer and songwriter Mordechai Ben David. Unfortunately, though, he is a very reluctant interviewee, having “gotten burned in the past,” as he tells it, when journalists put words into his mouth that he never uttered. But I believe that there is something else to his media-shyness: Words are not Mordechai Ben David’s medium for meaningful communication. Indeed, he inspires people not through speech, but through music and song. Then there is something even deeper. Music, as one insightful writer once put it, is a language that the soul alone understands but can never translate. So while one can certainly talk about Mordechai Ben David’s music, how can one adequately express in words how “it gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything,” as another great thinker described music in general?
There is something very unique about Mordechai Ben David. When I tell him that I don’t know if there is another singer in the Jewish world who has been able to remain fresh after so many years—in fact, he’s lot fresher than many of the newcomers, both onstage and offstage—he declines to take any credit. “That’s siyata dishamya,” he says simply. “It has nothing to do with me; it’s a gift from Hashem. Some people tell me that I’m talented. Well, talent is a gift from the Eibershter, and it’s a new gift each and every time it finds expression. It’s not like you get it once and that’s that.
“In fact, the Eibershter keeps sending me reminders to make sure that I keep that perspective. For example, I was working on the Shabbos album with Suki and Ding and we needed one more song in English. Hashem gave me the melody while I was flying on a plane to Denver. When I got back I played the song for them and they said, ‘It’s very nice, but we still need lyrics,’ so I sat down and wrote the words to ‘Just One Shabbos.’ The process was fascinating, because the middle and the end came before the beginning. It was like a puzzle, and the pieces just fell into place. When it was done I laughed and said, ‘Hashem wants to make sure that I get the message that it’s all from Him!’”
It is that level of piety and emunah that ultimately defines not only Mordechai Ben David as a person but also as a singer.
“Over the years,” he shares, “I’ve bumped into so many people who told me that my music brought them to Yiddishkeit. There’s a bachur who comes here very often, a geir tzedek from South America. He told me that he was misgayeir because of my music.”
“Was there any particular song that inspired him or was it your music in general?” I want to know.
“There wasn’t anything in particular,” he responds. “I asked him where he found my music. He told me that he found it on YouTube and he started listening to it and got connected with it. Then he went to Eretz Yisrael and eventually he was converted in Rav Nissim Karelitz’s beis din. Today he has a beard and wears a bekeshe on Shabbos with a gartel and sits and learns in yeshivah all day. He comes to us often for Shabbos.”
“So you mamesh feel like his Yiddishkeit is yours.”
“It’s not mine,” he corrects me, “it’s the Eibershter’s. Music is an amazingly powerful thing, but it also carries with it a huge achrayus.”