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    Exclusive Q&A With Jewish Music Superstar, Yaakov Shwekey

    Yaakov Shwekey will be busy this Pesach performing both live and virtually! He sat down with Ari Hirsch of the Jewish Vues to discuss what he has been up to, what he has planned, and to tell our readers more about the free virtual concert at which he’ll be performing to benefit the Matzoh Fund.

    Two Shabbosim ago, the chazzan at my shul beautifully sang Birkas Hachodesh to your famous tune of V’hi She’amda. How does it feel to know that people take your nigunim and use them for davening?

    I have to tell you, it’s a huge, huge zchus! I’ll never forget the first year V’hi She’amda came out. I was sitting with my children at a hotel, and though we were in a private room, we were able to hear almost every Seder singing the song with their kids at different times. I turned to my kids, slightly emotionally, and said, “This is a great gift, a great zchus, to hear everybody singing V’hi she’amda with their own children around their own Seder tables.” I was thanking Hashem while simultaneously telling my children what a zchus it is. I needed them to understand that it’s not us; we’re messengers from Hashem. The way in which the song came about through Yonatan Razel’s studio was a nes in its own right. I was listening to a bunch of songs and then before we got up to close the session, he said, “Oh I forgot a song!” I told Yochi to buy it; it was a whole story in its own right. It’s a huge, tremendous zchus to have Klal Yisroel connecting to those words and the music in general.

    I’ll never forget an experience that happened many years ago when I was invited to South Africa. I was invited as a guest and Friday night davening had close to 2,000 people in the shul with a choir and a chazzan. They did every single song of the davening to one of my songs. As I sat there, I became so emotional as they went through Rachem, Vehi sh’amda, and many other songs throughout the davening. I got up and I said, “Wow! Look at what a zchus it is for me to have Klal Yisroel daven to my songs.” It was really special.

    This past year was very difficult for so many people. Music always seems to get people through difficult times. Many people I’ve interviewed said that your music specifically got them through the most difficult times. How do you respond to that?

    I get a sense of tremendous emotion and hakaras hatov to be the shliach, to be the messenger, that connects with people. Music is about emotion and heart. It’s not just about jumping up and down and entertainment. We’re not in the entertainment business. I did a song with someone from Los Angeles who does mostly non-Jewish music and I was trying to explain to him where I was coming from. I said to him, “I don’t call myself an entertainer nor am I in the entertainment business.” He asked me to explain. I said, “Yes, we do have dance songs. Yes, we do have to keep the world and the youth interested. But at the same time there’s a much deeper meaning in music.” I explained that a lot of our songs are the words of King David. The words are from our tefilos, the Torah, and the Talmudic text going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. When we write the music to those words, the spiritual connection to the lyrics comes out through the music. Right before this interview during mincha, someone came over to me told me a story about that. He was listening to one of my songs after somebody he knew passed away. He sang the song with a broken heart as it reached into the depths of the heart and soul. That’s what music is really about. Music is made for emotions; to lift up the heart and the spirit.

    Rabbi YY Jacobson once said these beautiful words and I thanked him for it. He said “What is true love? True love is finding the song in somebody else’s heart and singing it to them when they have forgotten it.” It’s also finding your own nigin. Every person has a song playing in their own heart; everyone has a journey in this world. Sometimes we have different songs playing in our hearts and sometimes you have to sing it to somebody else and revive the song in their heart. Everyone has a song playing and the song can change. Sometimes it’s a somber song; we’ve been singing somber songs lately because of what’s going on in the world. When I did the concert in my own home I got messages from around the world of how many emotions and spirits were lifted. People had different songs and different emotions that touched them. The songs touched me, too! I also need to lift up my heart in times that are challenging. Music is about singing the song in your heart, finding the song in someone else’s heart, and sometimes harmonizing together to make the music even more beautiful.

    You just mentioned the concert you did in your house. Would you consider that the highlight of your Covid year?

    Definitely! Also, we’re putting out a new Hamalach Hagoel that I’m dedicating to all the Bar Mitzvah boys that didn’t have their Bar Mitzvahs the way it was planned to be. My friend Yaakov Klugman from Accurate Builders is sponsoring it. He did a brand new song for his son Yehuda in a beautiful Bar Mitzvah setting so we decided afterwards that we were going to dedicate this song to all the Bar Mitzvah boys. The highlight of this year was being able to give chizuk to a Bar Mitzvah boy or a Chosson and Kallah at a wedding or really- anybody- and being able to do it from my own home. I could not believe how powerful technology can be in sending messages of hope and joy to lift up people’s spirits. My wife had suggested to me at the beginning of Covid that I should go into a studio and make a concert. I couldn’t imagine that people would be interested in listening to me sing from my home, but my wife insisted! She told me that this is why we have music and that she would be my engineer on the board. It was unbelievable. She had to hold the mixer down and the sound because we couldn’t get people in the house to help and I’ll tell you, it was one of the most powerful moments of the Covid year. We kept the picture of me and my daughter for the HaMalach cover picture because everyone remembers me singing it to my daughter.

    Yaakov, are you of Ashkenaz or Sephardic descent?

    I’m “Sfashkanaz.” My mother is Ashkenaz and my father is Sephardic. For music purposes, this is really telling. I do a lot of different types of music. One of my missions was for my music to become part of the Ashkenaz world, which I think was very successful. I think everyone is doing it now. I put Mizrachi, Middle- Eastern sounds into my music. It’s good for the unity of Am Yisrael. I take pride in doing it all. Separdic, Ashkenaz, Yiddish. Whatever I do, I try to do it in an authentic way. My mother is Ashkenaz with some Chassidish background and my father is from the Syrian community, so this has really helped me out in terms of widening my customer base. It also gave me a taste of all worlds. It makes me really happy that Chassidim can be seen dancing to Sephardic, Israeli sounds.

    What do you prefer, concerts or simchas?

    The truth is, I look at a concert as a simcha too. There are many people who have told me that a concert, the music, has changed their lives, so there is obvious simcha in that. I love both, though I think they are very different. A simcha is when you are part of a person’s most important day of his or her life.

    How has the music industry changed in the last twenty-five years?

    It’s changed a lot. A lot of people now do things digitally. CD sales are not the same. Then again, the live shows have expanded because of the internet. A lot has changed, some for the good, some for the bad. At the end of the day, I don’t do it for the CD sales. You have to have music in your veins and in your blood; you have to love it dearly. It might look easy, but a lot of it is hard- the travel, being away from your family… so you have to love it -and I do. Things have changed a lot, but BH I can’t complain. I have the great zechus to be m’sameach a lot of Am Yisrael. I look at it that way and I thank Hashem for that. I always want to go further and to create new things.

    How do concerts around the world differ? Every place is different. Going back to Eretz Yisrael and to historic Caesarea is very special. Performing in Europe, especially during a time of tremendous anti-semitism, is very meaningful. In Paris, the crowd is electric! In America, Jewish music is more readily available, but is also very special and exciting.

    In which language do you prefer to sing? Hebrew and English suit me much better. Yiddish is harder for me.

    Give me the highlights of this year’s special HASC concert.

    This year the HASC concert was a little different; it was at the American Dream Mall in the ice-skating rink. I felt a certain elevation in emotion this year when singing the slower songs, both the ones I sang with Avraham Fried and on my own. A lot of people who watched it virtually told me that it was something that hit them this year that didn’t hit them in past years. I’d also like to give tribute to my friend Eli Gerstner who worked extra hard this year to make it happen; there are so many different elements to bring to the table when you do it in a venue like the American Dream Mall. We want to thank the Ghermezian Family for being really truly there for Eli Gerstner and HASC; it was really very special this year.

    Speaking of Eli Gerstner, I know that you’ve worked with Eli many times on different projects and concerts. What can you tell me, specifically on the character of Eli? What makes Eli so special to work with?

    Eli and I have developed a great relationship over the years. When he produces a show, I know that it’ll be on the highest level. There are a lot of elements in music that people don’t realize and everything that goes into it. In particular, there were many challenges this year in producing this year’s HASC concert. Even under the most difficult of situations, Eli is extremely calm & positive. We have a great rapport and a great relationship; I can say two words and Eli will understand exactly what I’m saying.

    Let’s talk about Pesach. Where are you and your family going to be?

    I am going to be away at the Chevrah program with the Kamenetzky family in Arizona, so I’m looking forward to that. I knew Chaim Kamenetzky, A’H for a long time; when he passed away, his kids took over. They have this group called “The Chevrah” and I’m going to be there with my friends Rabbi Eli Mansour, Charlie Harary, and Joey Newcomb; so many beautiful faces and I look forward to it. I have had a great connection to the Kamenetzky family for many years and we’re looking forward to doing a tribute to their father on stage.

    What do you have planned for Chol Hamoed?

    On Monday night we have the Orlando concert with Joey Newcomb; we’re looking very much forward to it and we have a great kesher with him. Also, people have to tune in live Thursday, April 1st at 7 o’clock when we do our free benefit concert for the Matzoh Fund. We understand what Pesach is all about, we understand how expensive food can be. Many of our brothers and sisters don’t have what we have. Even the smallest donation to feedourbrothers.org is a huge help. This concert will be with my dear friend Avraham Fried and the Yeshiva Boys Choir; it’s going to be something special. It’s all virtual, they could look at feedourbrothers.org for information. My last concert will be in Arizona where my family is staying for Yom Tov. It’s about time that people can actually show up and enjoy concerts.

    Are you excited to perform in front of a live audience again?

    Very much so! It’s a different energy with people around, that’s for sure. I miss the energy; I miss the people. And people have been calling to tell me that they miss it as well, so slowly but surely, we’re getting there.

    Can you please tell everyone a little more about The Matzoh Fund?

    I am honored and privileged to work again to help this worthy cause. The Matzoh Fund is a non-profit project spearheaded by Alan Hirsch to help provide all that is needed for Pesach, including food and money, for people in Eretz Yisrael. It really goes out to the most far-out places! These families could not make Pesach without all of the Matzoh Fund’s assistance. Every penny that is collected goes directly toward the families in these areas. This is a particularly important year with so many people struggling because of Corona. The goal is to collect at least $800,000 and they still have a long way to go. All the merchandise is purchased in Israel through Israeli merchants and they provide it before Pesach in good faith, hoping to be paid by the end of Pesach.

    Is there anything else that you would like to share with Jewish Vues readers? What are you working on now? Are you putting out a new song, album, or video in the near future?

    Yes, we’re putting out the brand new Hamalach song with a video. We have the Hamalach project going on now; many boys sent in their pictures and videos from their Bar Mitzvahs during Covid. This brand new Hamalach Hagoel will be coming out in a few days. We’re also working on a brand-new album; my goal is for it to be out after Shavuos during the summer months. We have the Life Park Project that came out a few months ago that people are enjoying, which you can download online. I’m also doing a song for a project in Israel called M’Mitzrayim which is an old Chabad song. Music, more than ever, plays a vital role in people’s lives today. Although it’s not so much on CDs and tapes anymore, it’s out there on social media and can be downloaded on their phones. It plays a vital role today and the challenging times we are in to lift up the spirits and to find the song in our hearts and sing it out loud; this is what music is all about. My Rosh Kollel told me that now more than ever we have the obligation to sing, make new songs, and create beautiful music that everybody can enjoy because this is what it’s all about. Hashem wants us to be happy; He wants us to be joyful.

    I want to wish everybody a Chag Kasher V’Sameach! When you lift up that cup of V’hi Sh’amda think about us and think about everybody in Klal Yisroel. “L’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu.” Every single generation faces challenges, but we all know when we lift up that cup “Hakadosh Baruch Hu matzileinu otanu m’yadam.” Hakadosh Baruch Hu will always be there, “ein od milvado.” He’ll always be there and matzileinu m’yadam and Yatzileinu m’yadam. We’ll have the Geula Sheleima b’mheira B’yameinu, Amen!



    FILL IN THE BLANK: When Moshiach Comes, ________

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    When my kids are hitting the  high notes on V’hi sh’amda


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    Combination of wine and grape juice. Kedem Matuk Rouge and  grape juice combined.