“You have to realize that I’m in a bit of a different situation from other performers because I perform for children, which means that I have to set an example,” Moshe Tanenbaum, who is better known by his stage name Uncle Moishy, tells me with a smile. “So many parents have come up to me and said, ‘You really are Uncle Moishy! I’ve seen the way you act. You always say please and thank you.’ I’m watched. But of course, the Eibershter watches the way we all behave.”
“So you feel an extra achrayus,” I say, trying to encapsulate his thought.
“A tremendous achrayus,” he declares emphatically. “But that’s who I am. You can’t do this for over 40 years and consider it only an act. This is me. It’s not an act. This is an important point, because there are some performers who say, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever I want. Don’t worry about me.’ But when you’re in the public eye, you have a certain responsibility. Any performer who doesn’t realize this isn’t acting responsibly.”
Uncle Moishy is seated across from me in Ami’s conference room in the same spot where many other performers and singers have sat before. But speaking to Uncle Moishy is a different experience. It often happens that the popular entertainer I’m interviewing has a completely different persona from the one that others get to see. Not so with Moshe Tanenbaum. Even his gestures would be immediately recognized by his adoring young fans. “I don’t have to imagine you performing,” I tell him, “because you’re performing in front of me right now. And to top it off, you’re even wearing your signature outfit.”
“I’m not performing,” he counters. “But in a sense,” he quickly corrects himself, “we are all performers. A rebbe also performs in front of a class. The chalk and the blackboard are his props as he teaches the children.”
“You’re also teaching kids, and the amazing thing is that they’re enjoying it immensely as you’re doing it.”
“It’s important,” he tells me, “to bring these mitzvos alive through song and actions. Every one of my songs has something for the children to do, whether it’s clapping, jumping in the air or even putting their arms around the kids next to them and swaying from side to side. It’s also about friendship.”
“Is achdus one of your messages?”
“Yes, but that’s what Purim is all about. Purim united us as one because it’s about doing the right thing, which is following the Torah path.”
“I wonder if Uncle Moishy turns into a young kid himself when he gets up on stage to perform for children.”
(Laughs.) “I’ve been told that that’s the greatness of Uncle Moishy—that I’ve never grown up and I’m still childlike.”
“Are you like that offstage as well?”
“Well,” he says, counting on his fingers, “I’m also a husband who helps around the house and takes out the garbage; a father and a grandfather of four grandchildren, baruch Hashem, who brings them to school if they miss the bus; and I’m the ‘zaidy who makes us laugh.’ We have fun.”
“Are your grandchildren fans of your music?”
“They’re very supportive, but I’m their zaidy. It’s very important that I’m a zaidy to them.”
A Serious Undertaking
“Uncle Moishy, despite your playful demeanor, you’re a very serious performer,” I tell him sincerely.
“That’s because I take it very seriously,” he explains. “As I said, every song has something for the children to do. I feed off the energy from the audience, and it takes me to a different place as a performer.”
“What does your Purim look like?” I want to know.
“I become happier,” he answers good naturedly.
“So when you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, you do,” I say, quoting the lyrics of one of his most popular songs.
(Laughs.) “I recently read that people associate happiness with external factors,” he shares. “‘Once I get that thing, whatever it is, I’m going to be happy.’ But I’ve learned that happiness comes only from within. We have to somehow try to be happy with ourselves and what we already have. When we do that, we can take that happiness wherever we go. It doesn’t come from without.”
“I’ve noticed that when children leave one of your performances, they’re different kids,” I say.
“Sometimes it takes time for them to warm up, especially if it’s a small group and the child thinks that everyone is looking at him. In a case like that, I’ll continue to do my thing while not really looking at the child until he warms up and starts to sing along.”