A Message Cloaked In Melody – The Music Of Abie Rotenberg

By Riva Pomerantz. When the first Journeys album debuted, it was something entirely new: heartfelt music set to original English lyrics, in a language and style that felt current and American but still eminently Jewish to thousands of fans. That secret formula marks just about every melody created by Abie Rotenberg — from kiddie fare to kumzitz classics. In a memorably candid conversation, Abie shares the inspiration that sparked years of compositions. 

There is a panoply of personalities at my doorstep. A jaded yeshivah bochur wary of the dating scene, an anxious woman contemplating her upcoming Pesach cleaning chores, a Sephardic schmaltz-herring eater from Holon, and a baseball bat–toting member of the once-legendary East Side bums all crowd in. Close behind follow a wizened inventor of a marvelous machine, the former owner of a coveted Joe DiMaggio baseball card, and even a little neshamah’leh, flying in together with his very own malach’l. A crazy hallucination? A mixed-up dream? Those of you who are already hearing strains of music know better. My multifaceted visitor is none other than Abie Rotenberg, the man behind the music of Journeys, D’veykus, Aish, HASC, The Marvelous Midos Machine, and more.

He comes bearing gifts — a handful of CDs and the much-coveted Journeys Songbook — and he’s also brought “protection”: longtime producer and close friend Mutty Grunberg of M&M Enterprises, who, in his other life, travels the world as a mashgiach kashrus. Mutty has just returned from Tibet, where, he tells me, he supervised the milking of yaks.

It’s a great way to get us going this morning — probably fodder for another article! I know I’ve wanted to yak with Abie Rotenberg ever since I first listened to his hypnotic music. How, I have marveled time and again, does he do it? How does this New York–born Torontonian use his spare time to create such a wide variety of songs, spinning the words, themes, and tunes so enchantingly that the mind and soul cannot help but be stirred to inspiration and even change?

Abie’s sincere, soft-spoken words shine a spotlight on the art of music-making, the messages behind his songs, and even the future of Jewish music. This is a rare concert, low-key but powerful, and much of it is performed backstage. We begin at the beginning, with the essence of music, and Abie is — well, amazingly Abie. Thoughtful, contemplative, creative, and totally, refreshingly real.


Like a Spice He sets the stage, like any self-respecting musical storyteller would, with a rich metaphor. “Music is like a spice,” Abie says. “Food is bland without seasoning, and life without music would be no different. Music magnifies our sadness and sense of loss when we sing about the Churban, just as it generates intense happiness and the urge to dance when joyously played at a simchah. You can enhance inspiration and emotion with music, and it’s such a wonderful vehicle for enriching our lives. If you’re singing about emunah to the tune of ‘Ani ma’amin,’ the impression it makes on your neshamah is greater, simply because of the music. Or when you sing a song that expresses love for the Ribono shel Olam, like ‘Avinu Malkeinu,’ or for Torah, like ‘Mah ahavti sorasecha,’ the love and feeling reach a completely different level.”

He aptly describes a niggun as “a pasuk cloaked in music,” highlighting how the essence of the words changes with the addition of a beautiful tune. “Would tefillah be the same if we just read the words? By giving words a flavor, it makes them more memorable. If you merely teach children the words ‘Torah tzivah lanu Moshe,’ it doesn’t really make an imprint on them. But teach them to sing the ‘Torah tzivah’ song and they’ll remember it forever.”

It’s easy to look at a seasoned songwriter and musician like Abie and think, “Yeah, he can do it — it’s second nature!” But apparently, it wasn’t always that way.

“Although I come from a musical family, I was absolutely not any kind of child prodigy,” he confides. “I never thought that music would become such a significant part of my life. I could carry a tune … not that much to write home about.”

However, as a young adult, hashgachah arranged for Abie to cross paths with some of the major personalities in Jewish music of that day. Eli Teitelbaum was a neighbor and mentor, and at Camp S’dei Chemed, where Eli gave him a job as a counselor back in 1970, he met Baruch Chait, Yisroel Lamm, Eli Kranzler, and other talented musicians who worked there.

“I think I was the only one there who couldn’t play an instrument!” Abie laughs. “So I felt a sort of kinas sofrim take over me, and I worked hard that summer to learn guitar and keyboard. When I returned to Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim after the summer, the mashgiach set me up to be a chavrusa with, of all people, Label Sharfman of the Rabbis’ Sons! It was Label’s encouragement and his endorsement of my compositions (after seder hours, of course) that led to the first D’veykus recording back in 1973.”


An Evolving Art Songwriting is undoubtedly an art, and each craftsman approaches it from his own angle and muse. For many, the process is so intuitive that it’s hard to describe. For Abie Rotenberg, music-making is a variegated experience, and he is candid about the amount of effort it involves.

“Any composer will tell you that at times a melody can hit you like a brainstorm, and a song — even a good one — can be finished in minutes. From my own compositions, ‘Acheinu’ is a song that created itself really quickly. Other times, you have to work on the tune, molding and shaping it like a sculpture. The high part of ‘HaMalach’ went through at least three or four versions until I was happy.” He cracks a smile. “Regardless, writing original lyrics, as opposed to just creating a tune for existing words, is a much more strenuous undertaking. With rare exception, those kinds of songs come from 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration and — ignore the math — 100 percent siyata d’Shmaya!”

There have been some songs, however, that came into being exceptionally smoothly. “Who Am I,” the ballad about special children written for one of HASC’s first concerts, was created in a burst of inspiration and deep emotion. Abie remembers how producer Sheya Mendlowitz sent him a video depicting life at Camp HASC, his very first glimpse of the organization.

“I first started watching this compelling and extremely moving video at 10 p.m. on a Motzaei Shabbos, and I had the entire song — words and music — completed by two in the morning,” says Abie. “‘Memories,’ on the other hand, took over five years to write. I had the line about the numbers on the arm playing around in my head for a long time, but how do you write a song about the Holocaust? How do you write about the unthinkable? Although it was difficult, I very much wanted to express this theme, and after many years, I finally was happy with the result.”

What will become of all the memories

Are they to scatter with the dust in the breeze

Yet one thought gives me comfort

It’s all that I have left

I know that G-d in heaven

Won’t forget

He gives more insight into the bricks and mortar of creating Jewish music by reflecting on the importance of properly pairing the words with the tunes.

“In response to those who claimed that modern Hebrew would ensure the survival of the Jewish People, someone wrote, ‘Bilaam’s donkey also spoke Hebrew!’ Lashon hakodesh doesn’t necessarily infuse something with spirituality and just because someone sings words from the siddur or Tanach, those words don’t automatically make the tune spiritual or kosher. And nothing is more important for a song with words than for the melody to facilitate the meaning of those words, or what is called peirush hamilim.” He shrugs. “Actually, I recognize that music evolves and changes. The music of a hundred years ago is very different from today’s music. My children enjoy songs that I may not be particularly fond of and much of my music and the music I grew up listening to was foreign to my father’s ear.”

He nimbly picks up his opening theme. “We talked about spices. A person growing up in New York will have a different palate than does someone growing up in Europe or China or India. Today, our young people are attuned to certain rhythms, and if our music doesn’t have some connection to those rhythms then they won’t relate to it.

“Music has never been and never will be stagnant. I may not like or understand a certain composer’s interpretation, but he may have a different background in music. He may find inspiration in a contemporary rhythm and to him, the words are perfectly in sync with the tune he’s written. So who am I to say he’s wrong? I guess what I mean is — and I know I sound like a lawyer now — the most important thing is intent. If someone knowingly squeezes words of kedushah into a song simply because they fit, that’s a travesty. If the songwriter sincerely feels the words are enhanced and explained by his melody, then it is a legitimate form of expression.”

Yes, we’ve got the music

Songs both new and old

There’s nothing like a niggun

It’s music for your soul

But one thing we must keep in mind

A Jewish song of any kind

Is only precious if and when

It brings us closer to Hashem


Theme Song Arranger Yisroel Lamm tells the story of a chassidic rebbe who was walking down the street when he heard a song being played exuberantly from a local pub.

“That song is full of simchah!” the rebbe remarked, whereupon he instructed his gabbai to go inside and find out the background to the song. The gabbai returned with a full report: the joyous song was a result of its non-Jewish composer having just won a court case against his Jewish opponent.

“That’s real simchah!” the rebbe enthused. “I’m going to take this niggun and be mekadesh it!”

It’s a great story, and a thought-provoking message, but I’m curious about the context. When Journeys first appeared on the music landscape, it was a new kid on the block. Fresh, fun, and a bit radical, it was a new product for the mainstream Jewish world, which had never before experienced Jewish-themed music sung to English words. Was it shocking? Was there a backlash?

“I really was not the new kid on the block,” Abie corrects the record. “The music of Megama, the Moshe Yess and Shalom Levine duo, came out a few years before Journeys. They were baalei teshuvah whose songs were all in English. I marveled at what they had done and I am indebted to them to this day, because their albums inspired me to try my hand at this genre. True, my background was different, coming from mainstream Jewish music, but I never doubted that there was room for an all-English album. There are hundreds of wonderful Yiddish songs reflecting Jewish life in Europe. The contemporary American experience is now growing long in the tooth as well. It’s inevitable that we chronicle it in song, in the language most spoken by all of us and offering a window into frum Jewish life.” [Read more in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine].

This content, and any other content on TLS, may not be republished or reproduced without prior permission from TLS. Copying or reproducing our content is both against the law and against Halacha. To inquire about using our content, including videos or photos, email us at [email protected].

Stay up to date with our news alerts by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

**Click here to join over 15,000 receiving our Whatsapp Status updates!**

**Click here to join the official TLS WhatsApp Community!**

Got a news tip? Email us at [email protected], Text 415-857-2667, or WhatsApp 609-661-8668.


  1. Is this a new novel by Riva Pomerantz ? Sorry, but I just cannot read such a long post off my computer, eventhough Reb Abie Rotenberg is one of my favorite singers..

  2. When my kids told me the neighbors had a new Midos Machine CD, I ran out to buy it. But I had no idea I was actually buying myself a gift! The CD is a throwback to a simpler time with a lot of humor adults can appreciate. Hearing the next generation of Rotenberg children perform, as well as the inimitable Elchonon Schwartz is an added bonus! Thank you Abie Rotenberg!

  3. Thanks for this wonderful article!

    I am from the “old school” as far a music goes. Abie Rottenberg’s song and music has been a favorate of mine since the beginning. (I’m dating myselft!) My children and grandchildren (ok, young bubby…) love the full gamut of his music and sing stanzas and lines to punctuate various everyday situations and scenarios I think my teenagers (at the time) were the first to purchase the all-song album of the Marvelous Midos Machine, and my 19 year yeshiva bochur proudly contributed the new MMM CD to the family this Chanuka, much to the enjoyment of all!

    My personal favorate is Neshama’le played by AB and sung together with MBD on a concert CDa number (?!) of years ago.

    Keep up the beautiful work, Mr. Rottenberg – Jewish music for all generations.

    A Lakewood Fan

  4. Abie Rottenberg has proven to everyone out there that REAL Jewish music is extremely beautiful and moving. Unfortunately, most of the stuff being released today is lots of noise with very little substance. Oh yes, you might rock the house for a couple of weeks but then the songs fade into oblivion. Abie’s songs are timeless. They make you smile and they make you cry. Most of all, they touch your neshama. That is what music has the capability of doing when done right. let us hope that we hear lots more of Abies marvelous work.

Comments are closed.