I see that you speak English very well. Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Boro Park and settled in Staten Island, although I now live in Monsey. I went to Satmar cheder in Boro Park, but I love words, so I picked it up. I’ve written a couple of songs in English, and I perform in English as well. Occasionally, I’ll throw an English word into a Yiddish song.
For my song “Durechgang,” which I produced together with Dovy Meisels six years ago, I used an English word for the first time, because there’s no Yiddish word for enjoy. “Ein chacham k’baal hanisayon, nur a mentch vos vaist vos maint bizayon, ken der hatzluchah enjoyen—there is no one as wise as he who has experience; only one who knows what shame is can truly enjoy his later success.” I guess I could have used the word fargenigen, but it just didn’t feel the same.
There have been other times when I played around a little with English, like when I wrote a song about a girl who feels embarrassed when her blind mother takes her to school. I used the word “PTA.” People complained that it was “foreign,” but I said, “It’s called PTA, and even Satmar calls it that in their schools. It’s okay.” It’s very important to me that girls who don’t know lashon kodesh or a boy who isn’t such a big lamdan should be able to understand what I’m saying. English is such a rich language, and there are people who are better at it than I am.
Yiddish is also a very rich language, but not our Yiddish.
Exactly, but I think I know how to use it well, because I’m quite fluent in the language. I know that Yiddish is a dying language, and that if I would write songs in lashon kodesh, people in Eretz Yisrael and France would be able to sing them. I’m very limited by writing in Yiddish. Even people who know Yiddish can’t remember my lyrics. Even I don’t remember all of them. So why do I still do it? Because for me, Yiddish is real.
Do you ever try to convey a message without lyrics, or is that not your thing?
I can try, but I have to make a real effort in order to do that. Meaning, I feel that since the Bashefer gave me a talent for writing lyrics, I have a responsibility to do that. I try to take a subject and develop it. Composing tunes for “Mah Tovu” or “Shifchi Kamayim” can be beautiful, but the Eibershter gave me the talent to take concepts and develop them into full songs. To take Yosef Hatzaddik and develop his life story into a song, or to delve into the idea of what a Yiddishe taavah really is. I want every one of my songs to be something from which people can take inspiration and chizzuk.
I want to show you something I got in the mail. I cried like a baby when I read it. A woman who is going through some difficult struggles wrote that she doesn’t understand Yiddish, but she read an article in which Motty Steinmetz said that his favorite singer is Motty Ilowitz. She had never heard of me before, so she went to YouTube and started searching, and she found my song about Moshe Rabbeinu—Lo Ish Devarim Anochi. The song is about how everyone has struggles, and we have to continue fighting our way through, just like Moshe Rabbeinu did. Some people were upset at me for that, so I said that I’m sorry that the Torah tells us this about Moshe Rabbeinu… Then she found my song “Durechgang.” Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone about it.
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