Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Tammuz 5765 - August 3, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Tunes which Opened Rusty Locks of Hearts — Rav Yom Tov Ehrlich, 5750-5765
Yahrtzeit: 27th of Tammuz 5750

With the musical soul key, Rabbi Yom Tov Ehrlich was able to open numerous closed hearts and strengthen numerous shattered hearts.

Notes on his Character

We met Rabbi Elimelech Ehrlich at his home in Yerushalayim. He lives on Chofetz Chaim Street, beside the shul in Zichron Moshe. The tumult of the shtieblach and the bustle of Geula do not affect him because he is who he is. He is calm, tranquil, with a permanent smile on his face. Many of those who learn in the botei midrashos in the center of the city know him well. He comes to the kollelim in the capacity of his work in the chesed institution called Oneg Yom Tov, which he set up in his father's memory.

Rabbi Elimelech opens their hearts (and purses) with an appropriate rhyme which is sometimes made up in several languages . . .

We forgot for a second that the subject is actually his father, none other than Rabbi Yom Tov Ehrlich. But let's go back to his son for a moment, to Rabbi Elimelech. When he was born, many decades back, there was a medical complication. Both mother and baby were in real danger of their lives.

Rabbi Yom Tov signed his consent to an operation, his heart full of bitochon in Hashem Yisborach. Then he found a dark corner in the hospital, where he poured out his heart to his Creator. During these fateful moments he remembered the words of the Baal Shem Tov that whoever clings to Hashem Yisborach with bitochon will be saved from any trouble.

Right then and there he made up rhymes from the words of the Baal Shem Tov, which he wedded to an ancient Karlin melody. This is the first stanza of the song: `Der Baal Shem Tov hot farshprachen. Az men darf nisht toen kein zach. Men darf leben mit bitochon. Helft dos mehr fon altz — a sach." (The Baal Shem Tov promised that in times of trouble there is no need to do anything. Just live with bitochon, and that works better than anything else).

The words and the niggun captivated Rabbi Yom Tov's heart, and his feet started to lift.

He stood there in the corner and danced by himself. No! He did not dance by himself, he danced with HaKodosh Boruch Hu! During those moments, HaRav Yom Tov became entirely detached from this world and all its tzoros. He became united with Ovinu Shebashomayim, to the refuge and joy of Hashem Yisborach!

It was only when the doctor came to tell him about the medical miracle that had occurred that HaRav Yom Tov woke up from his sweet yearning. Incidentally, his mother and his sisters related that more than once they had tested the level of his consciousness while he was singing, and discovered that he was in a completely different world. Once they put lots of salt into his soup as he was immersed in a niggun . . . HaRav Yom Tov finished the soup just as usual! Actually, this was no surprise. His sweet melody sweetened the soup — just as it sweetened thousands of hearts throughout the Jewish world.

Karlin Fire . . .

Rabbi Yom Tov's neshomoh had its roots deep in Karlin chassidism; he was a seventh generation Karlin chossid. He was born in 5674 (1914), to Rabbi Moshe, a talmid chochom and a great expert in Tanach, and his wife Soroh, in the townlet of Kodznahorodok, next to Stolin, not far from the border of Poland and Russia. When his mother became engaged, the Karliner Rebbe came to the house in honor of the occasion. Many chassidim who came from the neighboring villages squashed into the small dwelling. Then all of a sudden, one of the walls of the house was thrust outward—and there was "light" for the chassidim . . .

He was called `Yom Tov Simcha' after his mother's grandfather, the Rebbe of Lahishin, one of the first to sit beside the Beis Aharon of Stolin Karlin. It later turned out that the name that they had chosen for him was proof of the saying that parents get ruach hakodesh at the time they choose a name for their child.

His grandfather, his mother's father, was HaRav Dovid Meir Litvak who, notwithstanding his name, was a chassid with every fiber of his being. He was nicknamed `Reb Dovid der Shochet.' When R' Yom Tov was a young boy, the Admor Heineker of Stolin ordered his grandfather to serve as shochet in Davidhorodok. Rabbi Yom Tov's family had also moved to the new city.

Many Karlin chassidim lived in this city, and the Karliner Rebbe came there for Shabbos at least once a year. The Ehrlichs lived close by the shul, and R' Yom Tov's mother would prepare the twelve challos that the Rebbe used whenever he came for Shabbos.

Little Yontel grew up in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather. Once, the grandfather caught sight of Yontel's chavrusa swinging lightly on his chair during his learning. His grandfather promptly forbade him to learn with such a chavrusa who did not sit in front of his gemora with awe and fear, trembling and trepidation.

Yontel also basked in the light of the chassidic gedolim who lived in the city. When he grew up, he was fortunate enough to be a close student of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Horodker, who was nicknamed `the Angel.' The Karlin fire captured the child's tender heart. The time would come when Rabbi Yom Tov would kindle that fire in thousands of Jewish hearts throughout the world.

How Did Rabbi Yom Tov Begin to Play Music?

His son, Rabbi Elimelech relates: "My grandfather, Rebbe Moshe (R' Yom Tov's father), was forcibly conscripted to the Russian army. Grandfather was gifted with musical talent, and before his conscription the Rebbe instructed him to acquire a violin.

"During my father's childhood, his father bought him, in turn, a violin. His father told him that the violin had saved him from serving in the battle front since thanks to the violin he had been assigned to the military orchestra. `I am sure,' said Grandfather, `that you too will be saved through it from the troubles of these times in terms of gashmiyus and ruchniyus.' "

The following years proved how right Grandfather was in his evaluation.

During R' Moshe's military service, an amazing story happened: When Rabbi Yom Tov was born, his father was in army service. Although he served in the orchestra, the soldiers had all fallen into captivity to the Hungarian army. At the time, great efforts were being made to locate him and to inform him of the birth of his firstborn son, but to no avail.

Once, an important rabbi had arrived as guest at the home of the scholar, HaRav Dovid of Davidhorodok. They discussed the deteriorating spiritual condition due to the stench of the Haskoloh which was spreading. The guest attempted to calm HaRav Dovid by saying: "There are still many people who have not been swept with the tide, and are still holding on to their faith."

As he was speaking he drew from his lap a silver cigarette box and told him: "Look here, once a troop of soldiers passed through my village and there were a few Jews among them. One of them came up to me and said that he had heard that a firstborn son had been born to him, and he wished him to be properly redeemed according to the law. So he gave me the sole valuable item he had in his possession to redeem his son."

HaRav Dovid stared at the box and a shudder went through him. "But I gave my son-in-law that very cigarette box!"

That is how Yontel had his pidyon haben. And that is how his family found out that the good news had reached the father. Rabbi Moshe did not make it home until eight years later. At age 8, little Yontel saw his father for the first time.

In Davidhorodok there was a Jewish wagon carrier. One bright day, his horse died on him and the poor carrier's livelihood collapsed. The young boy Yontel decided to save the carrier. He organized a play about mechiras Yosef and, with the proceeds from the play, bought the carrier a new, strong horse.

In those days many of his friends had broken away from Torah and mitzvos under the influence of the various movements. Yontel remained bound to Torah and mitzvos. In his spare time he would immerse himself in the world of music—which is known to be the world closest to the world of teshuvoh.

Between Kol Chamira and Kolchoz

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Germany and Russia divided up the state of Poland. Davidhorodok fell to the Russians. Following the Russian invasion, enormous changes took place in the city and R' Yom Tov's father, Rabbi Moshe, was appointed supervisor of the Jewish schools in the city. Rabbi Moshe was later forced to flee the city, since the Russians wanted to force him to open the schools on Shabbos. The Ehrlich family escaped into the depths of Russia, but Yontel was unable to join them since he had already been conscripted to the city guard (he was in his late 20s at the time).

After some time, the Germans began to conquer Poland and come closer to the city. On one of the nights, Yontel hid his gun under the bridge—which he had been appointed to watch—and escaped in the direction of Russia. After many wanderings and difficulties, he found his family in the depths of Russia in the village of Shasteronka.

In that village, Yontel began to show his musical prowess and he gained the love of the village leader and other important personages there, who helped him to avoid conscription to the army. The Ehrlich family lived in the house of the village head. More than once meetings of the military personnel were held in that house, but the violin, mandolin and Russian songs convinced everyone that Yontel's place was in the village and not on the front lines.

The war became more and more complex. The battle began over Stalingrad, and the Ehrlich family—including the women—were recruited to dig ditches. At this point, the village leader informed Yontel that he must go to the army. Through a string of miracles, the whole family managed to escape under cover of darkness in the direction of eastern Russia. Arriving at the port of Kamishin (on the Black Sea), they found thousands of people crowded together in an attempt to board the last ship leaving in the direction of Samarkand. Bechasdei Shomayim they managed to get on board the ship.

In Eastern Russia, the family at first joined a Kolchoz, one of the huge farming collectives set up by the Communists, where there was a famine due to the war. HaRav Yomtov would relate that the Jews in the Kolchoz would make the joke: "When you say, `Kol Nidrei,' you don't eat bread for one day. When you say `kol chamiro,' you don't eat bread for eight days. When you say `Kolchoz' you don't eat bread for a whole year!"

Some time later the family moved to Samarkand.

Sustainer of Souls

Even before the war ended, Rabbi Yom Tov had already assumed his new trade as `sustainer of souls.' In Samarkand many Jewish refugees congregated and he composed Yiddish niggunim for them, cheering their broken hearts.

Musicians explain why it is that the niggun possesses an undercurrent of sadness. It is because it is aimed to penetrate deep into the sadness and . . . to draw it out. And that is what Rabbi Yom Tov's niggunim were like. A touch of sadness, yearning and longing lead the listener to hope, and to the great triumph that resounds at the end of the niggun!

HaRav Oppen of Yerushalayim is a talmid of the yeshiva of Kletsk which, by the end of the war, had found its way to Samarkand. We asked him if he had known Rabbi Yom Tov in Samarkand. Instead of replying he burst into a long song with a Yiddish rhyme.

"That was the song that Rabbi Yom Tov sang at a wedding in Samarkand," he said.

The entire song is a longing for Israel and Yerushalayim.

"In Samarkand I also got to know Rabbi Yaakov Potash, from the song `Yakob,'" he added.

Rabbi Yom Tov met the famous `Yakob' in Samarkand, after he had fled from the Uzbek village in the Tian Shan mountains. He heard his moving story and, on the day of his wedding which was later held in Paris, he sang the song which has become a symbol:

`Vite fon dei velt . . . Mit valder farshtelt . . . Fort zich a tractor a kleiner in feld. Zitst oyfen tractor a bochur a held. Un firt vie a shiffel dem tractor in feld. Yakob der zinger geheiysen hot er . . . '

In the famous song, Rabbi Yom Tov leads you to a little village in Uzbekistan. You are seated on a tractor behind Yakob and humming together with him, `Omar Roveh . . . Omar Rav Poppeh . . . ' (Rovo says . . . Rav Poppo says), with the sounds of the wedding jingling in your ears.

The smell of wine assails your nostrils. You are seated with Yakob on the ground beside the tshaynik and standing erect with him, declaring, "Ich bin a Yid!" And then both of you are fleeing towards the mountains in the middle of some finstera nacht. At sight of the dangerous chasm which yawns at the sides of the pathway you wonder: "Is this reality—or a song by Rabbi Yom Tov Ehrlich?"

For the Glory of Communism

With the close of the war, the Russian government began to dispatch the Polish refugees back to Poland. This was accomplished by means of trains of around a hundred carriages which were called `ashlonim.' The Jews with Russian nationality looked longingly at the Polish refuges who were allowed to leave Stalinist Russia for Poland.

Rabbi Yom Tov got ready to return to Poland. Then the Communist Information Bureau contacted him with the suggestion that he start up an artistic program to glorify Communism. The idea was to establish a troupe that would travel with the train to Poland and put on shows during the journey both in the ashlon and at the interim stations. Rabbi Yom Tov agreed to the proposal and decided that the troupe would be composed of as many Jews as possible—and specifically of Russian nationality—who would be disguised as professional artists.

The Russians put a special carriage at the disposal of members of the troupe. The carriage was decorated both inside and out with the appropriate slogans. At the corner of the carriage there was a large picture of Comrade Stalin.

Rabbi Elimelech Ehrlich relates: "When they hung the picture of Stalin my father shrieked in Yiddish: `It is not hung up properly. It is crooked. Make it straight!' Everyone understood that he did not mean the picture, he meant the man . . . When in concert he would sing in Yiddish, and once in a while he put in a good word for the Russians."

The musical carriage continued on its journey, packed with numerous Chassidim who did not know the first thing about music. They could sing Schamiel by heart, but were totally unfamiliar with musical instruments . . . Rabbi Yom Tov took upon himself a tremendous personal risk with this. But that is how he was able to rescue Jews from Communist Russia.

At that time Rabbi Yom Tov was unaware that through this good deed he was actually also saving himself. And this is how it happened:

During the journey, the group of chassidim began to plan an escape from Russia and Poland. It turned out that the chassidim had sewn money and jewelry into their clothing. After workers on the train had been duly bribed, the artistic carriage became detached, and a day later it became attached to a train traveling to Cracow. From there they went on to Prague, and then on to Paris.

Novardok Fire

In Paris, Rabbi Yom Tov discovered a new brand of fire which began to kindle in his heart: Novardok. He enthusiastically attached himself to a Novardok group which was concentrated in Paris. Heading the yeshiva were HaRav Avrohom Eliyahu Meises (the mechutan of HaRav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner) and HaRav Mordechai Programansky.

His son Rabbi Elimelech relates: "HaRav Eli Meises knew that my father was gifted in music. At the time, the refugees roamed around, broken and exhausted, the influence of the Haskoloh played havoc in the streets of Paris, and many fell to its temptations. HaRav Eli approached my father and instructed him, "Yontel! Indroisin brent a fire! Men darf farleshen dem fire!" (Yontel! There is a fire burning outside. We have to put it out!)

"Abba then wrote songs inspired with emunah and bitochon, negating any belief in foreign cultures. Many gatherings were organized where he would sing with great passion, while seated beside him were the rosh yeshivas HaRav Avrohom Eliyahu Meises and HaRav Mordechai Programansky.

"During that period numerous orphaned boys and girls, widows and widowers were assembled in Paris. Many shidduchim were made, and my father would entertain at the weddings. He would take advantage of the opportunity to speak about Yiddishkeit and the sweetness of the Torah. Sometimes he would entertain at weddings until the crack of dawn!"

HaRav Avrohom Eliyahu Meises recognized Rabbi Yom Tov's phenomenal strengths and even asked him to go with him to Eretz Yisroel. The following story attests to the affection which HaRav Avrohom Eli had for R' Yom Tov.

Once, many years later, in the middle of the wedding of one of the daughters of HaRav Avrohom Eli, a rumor went around that someone had brought one of R' Yom Tov's records from America. HaRav Avrohom Eli exited the hall and requested that a record player be brought so that he could hear Rabbi Yom Tov's voice right away.

The survivors in Paris began dispersing. In 5708 (1947), Rabbi Yom Tov followed his mother and sisters to New York (his father had passed away in Russia).

Before he left for America he took upon himself several kabbolos: Not to eat meat outside his home, not to learn English and not to take up American citizenship. He maintained that, with Moshiach being so close, it was inappropriate for him to be struggling to gain citizenship from a goyishe government, or to learn its language.

And so he lived in America for twenty years without American citizenship. Later on, when he wished to pay a visit to Eretz Yisroel, he discovered that America was devising various bureaucratic problems for citizens of Communist Poland. At that point, he was forced to nullify his kabboloh and take up American citizenship.

Despite his prodigious talents, he did not become a big success in the land of golden opportunity, as all the other immigrants desired and strived to be. He chose to stay the same Yontel from the city of Kodznahorodok next to Stolin.

He worked in diamond polishing for a living. During his work he would repeat chapters of mishnayos which he knew by heart.

In New York he continued to learn in the yeshiva of Novardok which was newly established in Borough Park. By the time Rabbi Yom Tov arrived in America, the Admor of Karlin Stolin, HaRav Yochonon Perlow, was already there. Rabbi Yom Tov, who was a seventh generation Karlin chossid, attached himself to the Rebbe and eventually became the shofar blower and cantor at the Rebbe's court.

Rabbi Yom Tov set up his home in America, together with his wife Talyata. At the wedding, the shoshbinim on the side of the chosson were HaRav Avrohom Yoffen, rosh yeshiva of Novardok, and his Rebbetzin.


In America, an enormous amount of work of a new type awaited him: instilling yiras Shomayim into the Golus. He began recording songs on a record player, and later on a large and clumsy tape recorder. He composed a special tape which ridiculed the materialistic culture of Ameritchka. Distribution to the stores he accomplished on foot. He also sang at the Yiddish Jewish station WEVD. Once, when he wanted to stop broadcasting on the radio, the Rebbe refused to allow him.

Once, on erev Yom Kippur, he wanted to avoid singing there. But the Rebbe would not permit him to cancel even then. Having no choice he went there as usual, and sang his classic work about a captain who returned to Judaism after hearing Kol Nidrei.

When he finished singing Rabbi Yom Tov opened his eyes and was astounded to see the workers at the station, who were Yiddush-speaking secular Jews, shedding tears. "Their eyes were not just a little wet," his son Rabbi Elimelech explains: "Zei hoben gegisset treren!" (The tears were gushing down!)

Notwithstanding his position and trade, he was a shy person by nature, as the following story attests:

In Karlin there was a custom that once a year they would compose a special new tune. This tune was sung first on Rosh Hashonoh in Hayom haras olom and then later on, during the course of the year, in Koh echsof.

The Rebbe asked R' Yom Tov on many occasions to compose the new tune. He had indeed composed two songs but due to his shyness—and awe of his Rebbe—refrained from singing them. He also never publicized the two songs among the chassidim.

In America he founded a group of klezmerim who would entertain at the court of the Rebbe on certain regular dates, when it was customary in Karlin for music to be played. These were: Simchas beis Hashoeva, motzei Yom Kippur, the fifth night of Chanukah, Purim and Lag BaOmer.

As time went on, a few go-getters began inviting Rabbi Yom Tov to play at their simchas, since they were uncomfortable with the idea that, at such sanctified moments as when a new Jewish home was about to be built, goyim or Shabbos desecraters were there playing the music.

Rabbi Yom Tov put a shailoh to the Rebbe, who initially permitted him only to play at certain specific weddings, but later supported the establishment of a permanent band which was called Der Stoliner Orchestra (The Stolin Band). It was the first chareidi band in America.

He could play a variety of different instruments. Even in Europe he had used the guitar a great deal, even more than the violin. But when the guitar turned into a folk symbol in America, he abandoned the guitar and would not use it.

The most characteristic feature of his songs is their nekiyus haloshon (clean language). For example, when he speaks about reward and punishment he does not specify the word punishment but rather hints, `and if not, then choliloh lo . . . '

Caution in speech is a definite Karlin emphasis. A Karlin chossid never "goes down" to his destination, he only "comes, goes or arrives." He never turns to the "left" but only arrives via the right side . . . there are many more examples of this derech, including great zehirus even in casual expressions.

The Mashgiach of Lakewood, HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel, would daven at the Karlin shul in New York. Rabbi Yom Tov, together with the Mashgiach, would interpret, explore and engage in matters of Geula and the Ten Tribes on a regular basis. As far as the Geula was concerned, Rabbi Yom Tov lived and breathed it constantly, and would relate every idea or material to the issue of Geula.

Every year, on chol hamoed Succos, Rabbi Yom Tov used to be invited to the yeshiva of HaRav Moshe Eisemann in Vineland, New Jersey. There he was always asked to sing his song on Shir Hashirim (Ich hob gevart und gevart) while the tears streamed profusely from the eyes of HaRav Moshe . . .

The Steipler's family attest that the Steipler would urge them to listen to Rabbi Yom Tov's songs.

The Satmar Rebbe expressed it as follows: "When he comes, this Yom Tov, wherever he goes turns into simcha — and whatever he does is ehrlich."

Indeed, whenever Rabbi Yom Tov went into the Rebbe, the Rebbe would say to him gut Yom Tov. Before he put out a new tape the Satmar Rebbe would hand him large sums of money towards expenses.

In Eretz Yisroel

When Rabbi Yom Tov visited Eretz Yisroel in 1970 (5731), he went with a group of people to Zefania Street in Yerushalayim on Shabbos. Suddenly HaRav Chaim Brim came running up to greet him, both his hands outstretched with enormous affection. He exclaimed: "Every erev Shabbos I come into Shabbos listening to your Shabbos songs. That is my preparation for Shabbos."

During that visit, he sang at the hall of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Geula. Many people, among them many notables, came to see him and pushed forward to greet him. As one of the elder and learned rabbis of Yerushalayim, HaRav Yehoshua Zeinwirth expressed it lucidly: "I was always amazed at the term "Chazon Yeshayohu" (Vision of Yeshayohu). What is a chazon? Does it come from the word chazzonus? But now I understand the matter. When they advertise that "a mochiach is coming to the city" everyone ignores it and is not interested in meeting him, because who wants to hear reproof? But if they advertise that "a chazzon is coming to the city, everyone comes. And then the chazzon manages to intersperse some words of mussar that he wanted to get in."

His longing for Eretz Yisroel became more and more acute until he finally moved there. He settled in the neighborhood of Ezras Torah in Yerushalayim, and became one of the regular learners at the Shaarei Shomayim yeshiva in Yerushalayim where, among other matters, he pursued his interest in anticipating the Geula.

His Music

Did Rabbi Yom Tov ever speak about his musical direction? According to Rabbi Elimelech Ehrlich, "He never spoke about himself at all. Everything was for the sake of Hashem Yisborach."

But did he never speak about his songs?

Using hand movements and facial expressions Rabbi Elimelech conveys the lack of logic in the question: "Er hat gezungen farren Aibeshter! Es iz clor azoy! (He sang for HaKodosh Boruch Hu. That's obvious!) Was not his entire goal only to bring chizuk to Jewish homes with his music?"

Rabbi Yom Tov made 36 tapes during his lifetime, some of which have been translated into Hebrew by singers. `Yom Tov Ehrlich fans' obviously maintain that there is no comparison between the translation and the original. Even during his lifetime, he asked his son to translate some of his songs into Hebrew in a tape called, `Halo zos Yerushalayim.'

How does it compare to the original?

Rabbi Elimelech chooses his words carefully: "You see, it is not the same because father had his own kind of heilige chen — a holy grace. Yet many Middle Eastern Jews whom I met, and who had heard the songs in Hebrew, told me, `You have no idea what it did to me . . . tears streamed from my eyes . . . ,' and other such comments. A book was published with the words of the songs."

In the winter of 1989 (5750), Rabbi Yom Tov's heart was struck. The heart which had set thousands of hearts beating, now had difficulty beating itself. He was hospitalized at Hadassah Hospital in Yerushalayim.

Among the maze of medical tubes that dangled from his body, there was a small `tube' dangling from his ears. His family were amazed to see that even in this condition he was working on correcting his thirty-sixth tape. It was the tape on bitochon. When they tried to prevent him from exerting himself Rabbi Yom Tov uttered a sentence which was an encapsulation of his whole life: "If the General positioned me here, then I must shoot my arrows from here."

On erev Shabbos, 27th of Tammuz 5750, towards midday, the violin went silent. Thousands accompanied him on foot to Har Hazeisim in Yerushalayim.

The violin went silent, but the echo of its notes will continue to reverberate until the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.


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