10 Jan Exclusive Interview with Legendary Jewish Music Producer Sheya Mendlowitz
The career of Sheya Mendlowitz is one of great magnitude. His name is prominently displayed on hundreds of stereophonic systems, tapes, cassettes, and compact discs. He was the first to combine a fundraising affair with a musical celebration. He is the essence of everything professional. From the start, Camp HASC and Sheya Mendlowitz were hooked together, behaving like partners, soulmates, and steadfast friends. The strongest bonds, of course, were the children. He is the creator of the HASC “A Time for Music” concerts.
This year, the Camp HASC concert producer, Eli Gerstner, decided to honor the legendary Jewish music producer Sheya Mendlowitz for all the great work he has done for Camp HASC. Last week, Ari Hirsch from The Vues had the honor to interview Sheya to discuss the Camp HASC concert, his career, and numerous other topics.
THE VUES: Walk us through the idea of Year 1. How did the Camp HASC concert come to be?
SHEYA MENDLOWITZ: My family’s first encounter with Camp HASC was on the Sunday prior to the beginning of the three weeks in the summer of 1987. My friend, Mordechai Ben David Werdyger (MBD) and his wife Rebbitzen Esther Werdyger called to invite me to come and participate in a mitzvah he did the year before, singing for special children in this special camp. I must admit, at first I was reluctant to go. After spending a short period of time with the children, my mind was made up. There was no reason for any reluctance, just the opposite.
Being in the music business, I have arranged and attended many concerts. None have ever been so unique and special. I was left in total awe and amazement. The response was overwhelming.
When we pulled into the driveway the whole camp was waiting in the parking lot. As Mordechai got out of the car, the children erupted with excitement and eagerness, which words can’t describe. We proceeded to the dining room where the concert was to take place. As the music started and Mordechai began to sing, the room started to shake. The energy which emanated from the room was great. At the end of the evening, I approached Mr. Moishe Kahn, the director of Camp HASC. I told him how much I had enjoyed the experience and asked if I could come to camp for a Shabbos with my family. His response was “Yes, of course, come any time.”
I decided to go the following Shabbos, Parshas Pinchus. It was love at first sight. Shabbos was filled with ruach and excitement. The Shabbos was inspirational from the beginning of Shalom Aleichem to the end of Havdolah. It was a Shabbos I will never forget.
I told Moishe Kahn that he had an incredible camp, and that the work that they do for the kids and the parents is just as incredible. He then told me that this was likely going to be the last summer because the government was taking away their funding. The government felt that this was a luxury and the kids could attend schools at home. I said that he couldn’t close the place down and I had an idea. This is all while I had one foot in the car ready to go home. I proposed something that had never been done before- a gala benefit concert for the HASC Summer Program. Originally, it was supposed to be at the theater in Madison Square Garden but Ding suggested we have it at Lincoln Center.
The rest is musical history…..
The first concert was January 17, 1988. Nearly 3,000 people gathered at Lincoln Center to participate in “A Time for Music.” Never before had such an undertaking been ventured under Jewish auspices. It was the first time that three Jewish superstars Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, and Yoel Sharabi, had performed together on the same stage. Rivie and Leba Schwebel were involved from the beginning. The inspirational evening climaxed with spontaneous dancing on stage by Camp HASC counselors with Camp HASC directors Moishe and Shmuel Kahn together with Principal Rabbi Shlomo Stern. B”H it was a tremendous success!
VUES: How does it make you feel that this show “A Time for Music” is still considered today the premier show in the world and that the funds from this concert still keep this AMAZING camp open?
SM: Hashem makes it that when people are successful it is because he puts the idea in their heads. I was chosen as a shaliach. Hashem put it into my head to give THEM this idea to help keep the camp open. And I wasn’t just producing the show, I was fundraising, too and I didn’t know anything about fundraising. I was flying around the world with Moishe Kahn helping him to make this happen. We went to anyone I knew who I thought could help out. So even though I’m not involved anymore with the production of this show, it’s still benefitting the children and the families so that Camp HASC can stay open. I hope that it’s a zechus upstairs in shamayim for me and everyone involved ad meah v’esrim. I’m very proud of it. I’m glad that the people who have taken over the production of the show and the entire camp are doing good things with their success. Chairman of the Board of Camp HASC, Jeremy Strauss, who now took over the reins, was a young staff member when I was involved. I’m glad we’ve inspired others to do good things. It’s not just about music, it’s about using music as a vehicle to do good and inspire. It’s an outlet for the children and the families of the children to have a well- deserved respite. The Chairman of the Board, Jeremy Strauss, is a person that continues to set an example of chesed and tzedaka without any fanfare. He makes it look easy, even though it’s extremely difficult.
VUES: What do you think about Eli Gerstner as a producer?
SM: First of all, I like Eli Gerstner a lot. He’s a big tzadik. He’s a young man that is very talented and B’H very successful. I’ve worked with him in the past and I’ve enjoyed working with him very much. I wish him continued success. I appreciate very much that he (& Jeremy) disposed on me this honor at this year’s Camp HASC concert.
VUES: How is the Camp HASC concert #30 going to be remembered?
SM: I’m in the dark about most of it, so I’m not sure! The nature of being in the entertainment business is that you have to be somewhat in the public eye, but that’s something I don’t like. One of my first productions that I did was an Avraham Fried concert. I didn’t put my name on the front cover. My mother a”h said to me, “If this is what you want to do for your parnasa, you NEED to put your name on the cover so that people know who was responsible for this product.” I’m telling you this because of course you want Hakaras Hatov for the things you’ve done, and you want to be recognized for what you’ve done, but the whole honor thing is really not my thing. It’s nice of them to do and I’m sure it will be a success because it’s in capable hands. Just as we said at the first concert, it’s going to be a special evening for special people.
VUES: How many Camp HASC concerts have you actually produced?
SM: I think 15. I took a break and did the first two Ohel Shows and then Ding continued, but after a few years I went back and did more. The last camp HASC Concert I produced was A Time for Music- 18.
VUES: Did you ever do what Eli [Gerstner] is doing now and not announce the entertainers in advance?
SM: Yes, numerous times. If you’ve earned the reputation of doing the right thing, then it adds to the hype and makes the show more exciting.
VUES: What inspired you to go into the Jewish Music industry?
SM: As far back as I can remember I loved music. In Yeshiva, my second grade Rebbe was Rabbi Eli Teitlebaum a”h, who headed the original Pirchei Choir. I tried out, made it, and appeared on the fourth Pirchei Choir LP. I also sang on the Sdei Chemed albums. I was in touch with my Rebbe all the time, even until right before he passed away. Avraham Fried also sang for him, but he never wanted to become a superstar. But R’ Eli told him to send me a demo and I convinced him to give it a try. So that’s how that part of my career started. I come from a musical family; no one ever did it professionally but that’s what Hashem had in mind for me.
VUES: Was Jewish music always your full time parnasa?
SM: I always did music as a main thing. I tried to leave it in the late 90’s when it became overwhelming to me, but I came back to it.
VUES: Who was your favorite musician to work with?
SM: Most of the time I worked with the same group of musicians. Yisroel Lamm is one of my dearest friends. He was part of the original production team of the Camp HASC concert series.
VUES: How has the Jewish music industry changed in the last 30 years?
SM: Like anything, with technology everything has changed. One thing I have tried to do is to preserve Jewish music. Everything is influenced by its surroundings and people try to take the rhythms of secular music and put Jewish words to it, but I wonder if that’s really Jewish music. So what I’ve tried to do is preserve the Jewish identity of the music. The stuff that’s lasted through time are the real old, old songs- the chasideshe stuff and the Carlebach stuff and the Modzitzer stuff, because if you take all the arrangements and extras out of it, you’re left with a beautiful, pure melody.
VUES: What are you doing now?
SM: I’ve been working on something for a while. It’s been a dream of mine and I hope to get it to the market soon.
VUES: Is there anything else you would like to tell readers of the VUES?
SM: People say that they have a GUT feeling about something. But I would say I had a “טאג” feeling, a feeling from Hashem. I was zoche with Yisroel Lamm to put the first Jewish symphony orchestra on stage. Hashem let me realize all my dreams, and I still have some more, and I hope they become a reality. I hope that I have many more years left in Jewish music and that Hashem gives me the strength and the opportunity to contribute more to a field that I love so much!
SHEYA MENDLOWITZ FUN FACTS:
Born: Brooklyn, NY
Age at the first HASC concert: 25
Camp HASC concerts produced: 15
Sheya himself composed one of the most famous “Siman Tov U’mazel Tov” niggunim of all time (still sung at all simchas all over the world).
In 1979, Sheya co-produced the Amudei Sheish Boys choir LP, then solo-produced the Amudei Sheish Wedding Album which followed in 1980 and was distributed by Menorah. Sheya credits the owner of Menorah distribution, Sol Tischler z”l, as being one of the reasons he succeeded, especially at his start. Sheya produced the first Avraham Fried album “No Jew Will be Left Behind” in 1981.
In 1981, Sheya produced his first concert at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden, also with Mordechai Ben David.
Largest venue Sheya ever produced a show: Radio City Music Hall and Metroplitan Opera are the two most prestigious places in the world to produce music. He was zoche to produce in both. He’s also produced quite a few on his own in Israel but he’s worked on a lot of shows in Israel.
Favorite Shlomo Carlebach a’h song: Almost every one! Both Sheya and his father were good friends with Shlomo and they worked together on numerous projects.
Favorite MBD song: Very hard to answer but probably Kah Ribon.
Favorite Avraham Fried song: He loves all the songs from the first 7 albums (because he produced them!)
Favorite Abie Rotenberg song: He loves all his D’veikus songs & Lev V’nefesh songs, especially Acheinu.
Favorite Ben Zion Schenker a”h song- He was a master musician- we were all inspired by him- Mizmor L’David.