Velvel Pasternak, legendary Yiddish musicologist, passes….

by Arlene Stolnitz
Earlier this summer, the world lost an icon of Eastern European Jewish music. Velvel Pasternak, ethnomusicologist and musician, who collected Jewish music from the world over with selections from Yemen, India, the Balkans, the United States, and more. Known mainly for his interest in Hasidic music, he is credited for having written, transcribed, and recorded hundreds of niggunim (traditional wordless melodies). At one time he even had a stint with Hollywood moguls who consulted him about Hasidic dress for a movie.  According to his daughter, Shira, he was the one who dressed Gene Wilder as a Hasidic Rabbi in the movie The Frisco Kid.

Pasternak was born in 1933 in Toronto to an Orthodox family. His parents had emigrated separately from small Polish towns. They, of course, wanted him to be a rabbi; but his interests led him toward his passion for music. He was a musical prodigy and taught himself to play piano on an instrument his mother bought for him. Later, he studied at Julliard and received a master’s degree in music education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

 I met up with him several years ago when I attended the North American Jewish Choral Festival, formerly held every summer in the Catskills.  Organized by the renowned choral conductor, Matthew Lazar of Zamir fame, the prestigious festival is basically a “music camp” where singers, composers, conductors come for 5 days of intensive immersion in music workshops and singing of Jewish music.  Jewish music publishers display and sell their music, and that is where I met Velvel Pasternak, a legend in his own right.

He and his wife, Goldie, ran their company, Tara, out of their Cedarhurst, NY basement. The music publishing company was named after their daughter Atara, having dropped the initial “a”.  It was a family affair with members of the family sorting, shrink wrapping, packing, shipping …whatever was necessary to run the business.

And successful it has been, with over 150 volumes in print to date and distributed through the Hal Leonard Publishing Co.   Understanding the changing technology “Vel”, as he was known, went digital with the company and has a Website dedicated to the music he has preserved. Volumes with titles such as The Best of Jewish Folksongs, The Great Jewish Sing-along, Melodies of Modzitz, Songs of Chassidim, Shabbat Songs, Passover Anthology; these are just a sampling of the hundreds of songs he has transcribed and put into print and digital form.

The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has a fascinating interview with Pasternak conducted in 2011 by Hankus Netsky in which Pasternak talks about his interest in the preservation of Jewish music  and its importance.  He recalls the difficulties of recording nigunim as sung by Hasidim as well as his reasons for writing and recording these songs. He describes his particular interest in the nigunim of the Modzitz Hasidic dynasty.  The interview also includes details of how he began his career of recording, transcribing, and then publishing original Jewish melodies. According to him, it began with the request for one song for a traditional wedding which he wrote in musical notation and sent to the family. It’s a fascinating narration by Pasternak himself and the video shows the simple surroundings he worked in, right out of his Cedarhurst basement.