- By Tal Rotem - Try this for a riddle: Name one song that you can hear synagogue youth groups singing in Canada and the USA, Israeli soldiers singing in border outposts, and Kabbala scholars humming while immersed in their learning. Here’s your answer – Yosef Karduner’s Shir Hama’alot.
- Shir LaMa’alot
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev is more than explicit about the qualities that a Breslever should have: he should be extremely humble, live his life with innocence and simplicity, devote his waking hours to prayer and learning Torah as much as possible with special care to spend at least an hour a day in hitbodedut (personal prayer), and he should look for the good in others...
Yosef Karduner, Breslev’s sweet singer who’s a household word on both sides of the Atlantic, fits the above description to the letter. One would imagine that a world-famous singer and composer would have his nose high in the air. Not Yosef; his manner is calm and quiet. He doesn’t say much, but each word that he speaks in his soft but firm voice is certainly worth hearing. Yosef Karduner’s mind doesn’t leave the realm of holiness; when he’s not learning Torah or speaking to Hashem in prayer and hitbodedut, he’s working on his latest music project or engaged in helping his wife Vered raise their six lovely children, ages 5 months to 10 years.
"On stage, Yosef doesn’t make an effort to “put on a show” for the audience. He does what he knows how to do best, namely, he sings in order to cling to Hashem. His catchy, honey-sweet, and soul-piercing melodies uplift everyone that hears them. The enchanted listeners laugh, cry, dance, and flow with the Karduner melody stream. They’re with him in body and soul."
In stark contrast to publicity-thirsty performing artists, Yosef shies away from headlines. He turns down interviews and shuns the limelight. But, when I offered to take him to a beautiful stretch of beach for a sunset session of personal prayer, he jumped at the opportunity. After we finished our hour of hitbodedut, I interviewed Yosef while strolling together on the wet sand during the low tide of early evening:
* BreslevIsrael: Yosef, you’re a born singer, aren’t you?
- Yosef Karduner: Not really. Believe it or not, I was one of the best soccer players on the Po’el Petach Tikva youth team. Everyone said that I was destined to be a star footballer. Hashem had other plans. The first time I played in a Shabbat game, I sprained my ankle in the first minute of play. My soccer career ended then and there.
* BreslevIsrael: Then what happened?
Yosef Karduner: I channeled my energies into learning music, singing, and playing the guitar. When I was inducted into the Israeli Army in 1987 at age 18, I auditioned for one of the IDF musical troupes, and was accepted by the Northern Command. This was a prestigious troupe, what we call in Hebrew Lahakat Pikud HaTzafon, and a springboard for civilian music careers. Most of Israel’s popular singers came up from the ranks of the IDF troupes.
* BreslevIsrael: What did you do after the army?
Yosef Karduner: I had my own rock group and I also played backup guitar for Uzzi Hitman z"l.
* BreslevIsrael: Didn’t you become a Baal Teshuva shortly after you were discharged from the army? How did that mix with rock & roll?
Yosef Karduner: We used to rehearse at Uzzi’s house. Uzzi’s father was from an old-time Lubavitcher family. He lost his Chassidic appearance when he came to Israel from Europe, but he retained his fervent faith in Hashem. During breaks in rehearsal – which he loved to listen to – he’d talk to me about the purpose of life, about a Creator, and about the importance of living our lives like Jews. His words affected me a lot more than they affected his own son. I started reading about Judaism…
* BreslevIsrael: What was the first thing you read?
Yosef Karduner: Outpouring of the Soul. The notion that I could have my own personal relationship with Hashem enchanted me. I wanted to learn more. I started learning in a Breslever yeshiva for Baalei Teshuva. Rabbi Yizhar Machpoud, one of yeshiva’s teachers that really helped me on my way in the beginning, introduced me to Rav Wiedenfeld of Jerusalem. Rav Wiedenfeld soon became my teacher and spiritual guide.
* BreslevIsrael: What happened to your music during your first steps as a Baal Teshuva?
"Yosef Karduner: One afternoon, I was rehearsing with my rock band. Half way through the rehearsal, I was disgusted with the emptiness of the heavy metal – lots of noise with no message. Tears started streaming down my face. I wanted to be somewhere else – I couldn’t go on as a rock & roller for another minute. The band thought that I was out of my mind."
* BreslevIsrael: So you put your guitar in the closet?
Yosef Karduner: Yes – it collected dust for nearly five months. I was immersed in Torah learning and personal prayer. Then, all of a sudden, I was doing hitbodedut in a citrus grove not far from Pardess Katz, and while I was taking to Hashem, this wonderful melody came into my mind. I was so inspired and excited that I ran home, grabbed my guitar, and started playing. I then wrote down the music. I made a beeline to Jerusalem, and I told Rav Wiedenfeld about what happened. He not only agreed that I should start playing again, he commanded me to start singing Jewish music in my own style, and blessed me with success. In rapid-fire succession, I then came out with four of my best songs and my first album, Road Marks.
* BreslevIsrael: What was that first special melody that you received during hitbodedut?
Yosef Karduner: Shir Lamaalot, Psalm 121.
* BreslevIsrael: From that song, everything else is history…
Yosef Karduner: There’s no question that Shir LaMaalot brought me into the public eye, but something even more special happened to me because of that song.
* BreslevIsrael: What was that?
Yosef Karduner: Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schechter summoned me to come see him. Not only is he a leading Breslever, he’s one of the leading Ashkenazi Kabbalists of this generation. It’s virtually impossible to gain an audience with him. He asked me to sing Shir LaMaalot for him. I sand and strummed on my guitar, and he sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and rocked his head gently from side to side. He was “riding” on the melody like a surfer rides on a wave. I wish I knew where the melody took him.
* BreslevIsrael: Are you still in contact with Rav Wiedenfeld?
Yosef Karduner: Not so much. I believe firmly in the importance of listening to Rebbe Nachman’s directive to go to Uman for Rosh HaShanna. Rabbi Wiedenfeld is against going to Uman on Rosh Hashanna.
- Ilu Haya Li
* BreslevIsrael: Who are your major influences with Breslev today?
Yosef Karduner: Rabbi Shalom Arush – I’ve read all of his books and have derived tremendous benefit from them. Also, Rabbi Lazer Brody’s lessons – especially on shalom bayit – have been wonderfully valuable in my everyday life.
* BreslevIsrael: You and Rabbi Lazer have made several appearances together lately. What’s behind that?
- Yosef Karduner: Rav Lazer and I have been doing quite a bit of outreach together. We mix ten to fifteen minute talk segments with songs. We end the evening with a medley and dancing. When we’re together, I really feel like one of Rabbenu Nachman’s soldiers. The response has been very enthusiastic. We look forward to doing much more together.
* BreslevIsrael: Can we look forward to a new Yosef Karduner album soon?
Yosef Karduner: With siata d’shmaya, with Hashem’s help, yes, soon I hope.
* BreslevIsrael: Yosef, we wish you success with the new album and with everything else you do. Thank you so much for your time.
Yosef Karduner: It has been my privilege. Blessings to you and your readers of all the very best, amen!