Last week, one of the most heavily-anticipated albums in Jewish music history was released to the public. The fourth installation of Abie Rotenberg’s all-English songs came out in 2003, and 19 years later, we have an album that many of us thought we’d never hear: Journeys 5. Many of the classic messages and themes are present throughout the playlist. You have the Shabbos song (“Baruch Hashem – It’s Shabbos!”), the widow’s lament song (“The Ring”), and of course, the story about the hapless individual (“Lucky Fingers Max”), each sung by an appropriately selected guest star of Jewish music. There are also two tracks dedicated to the memory of legendary musician Moshe Yess, and an updated version of “We’ve Got the Music.”
However, one need not listen through more than once to hear the Holocaust-heavy tone of the album. There are no fewer than three songs that are about the events of World War II. Shulem Lemmer guest-stars in “My Little Town,” a song about a shtetl in pre-war Europe. Avraham Fried sings “Al Hatzadikim,” a story about the first Pesach after The War, and The Maccabeats join Abie to sing what I consider the best song on the album, “From the Ashes.” It is in this song that Rotenberg shows his depth and understanding of the current view of the Holocaust by so many.
This album is not the first to feature songs about the Holocaust. On the first Journeys album (1984), we heard “The Place Where I Belong,” a song about the true story of a Torah scroll that had survived the War and was on display in a museum. The song captured the feeling at the time that a museum was not the place for such a sacred item, especially when we were only about 40 years removed from the War. The focus was on getting people to realize the tragedy and not to use the suffering of the six million kedoshim as a museum piece.
Five years later, Journeys 2 (1989) produced “Memories,” a story about an old survivor lamenting, “What will become of all the memories?” of the Holocaust once the last survivor passes on. The message was that as we entered our fifth decade after the atrocities in Europe, there were going to be fewer and fewer survivors around to testify about what happened, and the world may forget or even deny it took place.
While Journeys 3 (1992) did not have any Holocaust-related songs, Journeys 4 (2003) had two. “The Man from Vilna” told the story about one man’s journey after the War was over. Another song based on a true story, this one ends on Simchas Torah night, and if you know the ending, you may have a tear in your eye now. If you don’t, I won’t spoil it for you. But it’s been almost 20 years. You need to listen to it as soon as you can. The main takeaway is that this is not just a story from the past; it was a man at the present time telling over a story of the past to a fellow airplane passenger. “The Cat Ate the Canary” is a song about the Swiss banking system, and how it kept hold of money belonging to those who perished in the Holocaust without any recourse for relatives to access the funds.
The point of all four of these songs is that they accurately reflect some of the major issues facing the world and its view of the Holocaust at the time they were written. They were “now” songs about how “then” affects us. And it’s why “From the Ashes” is so poignant. Don’t get me wrong: “My Little Town” and “Al Hatzadikim” are fantastic songs and are certainly worth the listen, and the lessons taken from them are moving in their own right. But they don’t quite match the history of Journeys songs reflecting the modern-day impact of the Holocaust.
“From the Ashes” does that perhaps better than any song - not only from Abie Rotenberg, but from any artist before it. The song plays tribute to those survivors who were able to go on to build families and shuls and communities even after all they were through and how much we owe to that generation today. It reflects how everything we take for granted in today’s society would not exist but for the actions of survivors. Our lives as we know them would not be possible without these men and women, and that is the message clearly conveyed in the song.
However, the sadder underlying truth is that now that we are almost 80 years after the end of the Shoah, there is an ever-diminishing number of survivors left. Songs from 1989 and 2003 feature the voices of people who went through it all. But now, in 2022, there aren’t many around anymore. That is to be expected; as time goes on, people pass away. But the message that is not as clearly visible in this song - but certainly still strong in its presence - is that these days, we do not have the ability to be influenced by survivors; however, we cannot forget what they did for us when they were able to quite literally lift themselves up from the ashes.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.