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Shwekey brings music to enrich SA Jewish souls

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Jewish music superstar Yaakov Shwekey believes in the innate power of music and its ability to create change, and has committed himself to sharing its abilities with audiences the world over.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 16, 2018

South Africa is the next audience on his list. He is heading here at the invitation of Sydenham Shul to perform at Carnival City on Tuesday, 28 August.

“Countless Jewish thinkers have written about the power of music,” says Shwekey. “Historically, the expressions of praise that were sung by the Levi’im in the Beit Hamikdash have been recognised as Jewish music.

“Music is a key part of the Jewish religion, and occupies a central place. The Vilna Gaon himself said that if there were no Torah to learn, man would deal in music all day.”

Born in Jerusalem to an Ashkenazi mother raised in the United States, and a Sephardi father born in Cairo to a family of Syrian background, Shwekey was raised in Polanco, Mexico City. He attended Yeshiva Ateret Yosef in Mexico City, and later the Yeshiva of Brooklyn, before moving to Deal, New Jersey, where he resides today.

His passion for music blossomed in his youth. As a child, he sang in the Ateret Yosef Choir. He and his brother, Yisroel Meir, also sang with the Miami Boys Choir for a short period of time. He launched his professional career as a singer after studying at the yeshiva of Rabbi Menachem Davidowitz in Rochester, and getting married.

Shwekey says the gift of song is a personal privilege: “Our sages knew that music has the power to open the gates of Heaven. For me, singing is a unique opportunity to use the gift of music all over the world to impact it for the good.

“I can see how powerful it is for myself. When I sing, I open my own heart, reach right into my soul, and express what I find inside. The feelings in your heart are yours, and you alone can give them expression.”

For Judaism, says Shwekey, music is a significant tool. “Judaism – its heart and essence – is made more accessible through music. Music allows its beauty to keep shining through. The way I see it, so many people want to come closer to the faith in some way. They thirst for some connection, and music can give it to them.

“Music is not mere entertainment. Others may see it as such, but we make an effort to delve into lyrics like prayers. We use King David‘s own lyrics to convey a message of spirituality, and that’s definitely something special.

“My role is one of the most gratifying in this endeavour, because I am blessed to bring music to others. I’ve had people come up to me after shows to say that their lives have changed because of the music, that they are determined to establish a connection. It’s a big responsibility – to change lives is no small thing.”

Shwekey understands the need to keep his music appealing and relevant, saying it is essential to ensure that it is relatable and interesting.

“You need to feel like you’re reaching out to all, especially the youth. This is done through the right lyrics, English or Hebrew, and the right beat or rhythm. They all need to inspire, and be dance worthy, they must be dance songs with depth. The right message is most important.”

He says that on his many previous visits to South Africa, the warmth of the South African Jewish community never failed to show itself and make him feel welcome, and he shares a special bond with Sydenham’s Rabbi Yossy Goldman and his brother, Colin.

“It is amazing how many good friends I’ve made here,” he says. “It is a testimony to the kind of community it is. The people are unique and special. When you live in it, you don’t realise how beautiful it is it. As an outsider, I always see the true warmth which defines the Jewish community here.”

It is for this reason that the novelty of the country never wears off, and it makes coming back more exciting every time. “The concerts are always great, and it’s wonderful to come back,” he says. “I find myself singing to a crowd eager for Jewish music, which takes something serious from the music to inspire them. South Africans give me energy and lift to continue doing what I do and enable me to affect more people.”

When not performing, Shwekey learns at his local kollel and involves himself in charity work. His wife, Jenine, is the co-founder of the Special Children's Centre in Lakewood, New Jersey, a respite and support programme for special-needs children. Shwekey volunteers much time and energy to this philanthropic endeavour. “We deal with about 400 families, offering therapy and care. Care and music define my life. I’m convinced that the success I’ve experienced in my music career is all because of our work with these special children”

He concludes by saying that by living your beliefs, you can give what’s in your heart to others and inspire them to do the same. This is the goal of his career. “If you feel passionately about your song, it will automatically go into someone else’s heart. What you express with your heart enters through the heart.”

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