Bergenfield-based musician Binyomin Ginzberg has been fascinated by the chasidish wedding custom known as the Mitsve Tants since childhood, when he attended the weddings of many chasidish relatives with hours-long Mitsve Tantsen. Over the years, he has spent many hours learning the music and playing the Mitsve Tants at the weddings of clients who had this minhag.
Although he found much “received wisdom” about the Mitsve Tants in the chasidish community, there were relatively few written sources to give him insight into the meaning of the tradition, or the ideas behind it. There were no published collections of sheet music documenting the niggunim, or melodies, that would typically be played.
Now, thanks to Ginzberg, there is a book for musicians who want to play the music and learn about the custom. He has just self-published “The Music of the Mitsve Tants in the Courts of the Hasidic Rebbes.” The book includes sheet music he transcribed for 159 dance melodies, with original translation and transliteration of the Hebrew and Yiddish texts, and interesting nuggets of information about the songs. The collection includes a range of niggunim from old standards to newer songs, as well as some that were written for the specific weddings where they were performed. His introductory essay explains the customs of the Mitsve Tants and the meaning behind the ritual.
“Anybody interested in learning great chasidish dance tunes will find something in the book appealing,” he said in a phone interview. His goal was to provide an overview of the repertoire of Mitsve Tants dance tunes used in the courts of the chasidish rebbes, and to make them playable for musicians with easy-to-read scores they can use on the bandstand.
For those unfamiliar with the custom, the Mitsve Tants is a unique dance ritual, rooted in mysticism, that is performed at the end of a chasidish wedding. One for the child or grandchild of a rebbe is quite a pageant, Ginzberg explained. Although men and women are seated separately, sometimes in different rooms or even different buildings, towards the end of the evening, something unusual occurs. During the Mitsve Tants, the bride is invited into the men’s section, and the most honored guests and rebbes in attendance are invited to dance in front of her or “with” her, holding the other end of a long sash. A Mitsve Tants, especially a rebbishe one, can last for many hours, until the early morning. The Mitsve Tants is unusual in that it breaks the rules of the usual gender segregation observed in public chasidic life: It is the only time that a chasidish couple will dance together in public.
When Ginzberg was in yeshiva, his rebbeim would occasionally point out the apparent incongruity of this minhag, considering the typical strict separation of sexes in the chasidish community. In doing his own research for the book, Ginzberg came to a much deeper understanding of the bride and the dancing rebbes. “It isn’t just a dance; it’s seen to be one of the holiest moments at a wedding,” he said. “The whole underpinning of the minhag is that it’s a spiritually symbolic moment, rich in meaning. There’s a belief that the souls of departed relatives are present at the chuppah and the Mitsve Tants. The Mitsve Tants brings down great spiritual blessings to the couple, the family and all Klal Yisrael.”
Ginzberg posted an announcement on his Facebook page when the book was published earlier this month and immediately began getting requests from around the globe. He has already shipped copies to 15 states and several countries, and inquiries are coming in from still more. “Musicians from across the spectrum of the Jewish world, from Reform cantors and secular klezmer performers to chasidish musicians are interested in this music,” he said. “I think people will do different things with the book—play the songs or perhaps write their own arrangements. One woman who bought the book is a composer who writes Jewish music and was looking for inspiration for her own melodies.” He is also seeing local interest in the book. A neighbor saw his Facebook post and requested the book for his son learning to play piano so he could add Jewish music to his studies.
In addition to writing, Ginzberg also records and performs Jewish music. If you watched the Netflix production of “Unorthodox,” you’ve heard his music. He arranged, produced and recorded five tracks for the series in his home studio, including two for the Mitsve Tants scenes. He was brought in by one of the actors, who knew him from a Klezmer retreat they had both taught and performed at, and who reached out to him. “The producers were looking to be as authentic as possible with the details, and they realized that a Satmar wedding and Mitsve Tants would have a one-man-band style keyboard and perhaps a musician or two with him, rather than a klezmer band,” Ginzberg recalled. “I had a saxophone/clarinet player play on the tracks as well.”
While the Mitsve Tants has a special place in his heart, Ginzberg performs, writes, teaches and records Jewish music of many styles. He performs the full range of contemporary Jewish music at simchas, and he is available to perform as a one-man-band or with his own band, as well as with a number of well-known popular performers.
Another love is Breslov niggunim, which he performs and records with a group he put together called the Breslov Bar Band. The band plays original arrangements blending reggae, rock and even punk influences with authentic chasidish music. The group has released two albums, “Have No Fear” and “Happy Hour,” and a third, “Holy Chutzpah,” will be out soon. Breslov music and the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov have wide appeal in the Jewish world. “He talks about core issues that everyone finds relatable,” said Ginzberg. “His teaching resonates with many people looking for answers on how to deal with life. I try to capture the spirit of one of his ideas in each album title.”
Ginzberg also teaches Jewish music locally and at klezmer retreats and other programs for musicians interested in Jewish music. On Friday mornings, he regularly plays at a Shabbat assembly at Yavneh Academy, which he does this year on Zoom. “I do Shabbat songs as well as chasidish niggunim and songs connected to the Jewish calendar,” he said. He also gives music lessons via Zoom. Ginzberg thinks that children who show an interest in learning to play an instrument should be encouraged. “Music is an important part of self-expression and it can be a creative outlet,” he said.
In addition to the transcriptions he did for his book, custom sheet music transcriptions have become a niche specialty for Ginzberg. Wedding bands will engage him when a couple requests a song they aren’t familiar with and he’ll write it out for the band to play. Singers also hire him to write out their songs so their music can be easily played by musicians. Ginzberg became adept at writing transcriptions by studying published music transcriptions and transcribing music from recordings. “The best way for me to learn a song or musical technique is to listen, transcribe and try to duplicate the music I hear,” he explained.
For a copy of “The Music of the Mitsve Tants in the Courts of the Hasidic Rebbes,” to obtain the Breslov Bar Band recordings or to inquire about live music for an event, email [email protected] You can follow Binyomin Ginzberg on Facebook and find more online at www.JewishMusician.com and www.BreslovBarBand.com.