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Avinu Malkeinu singing sensation has SA roots

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A six-year-old boy singing an English and Hebrew version of Avinu Malkeinu with passion and gusto has gone viral around the world. This story, however, begins in Durban and Cape Town, where his mother, Nina Shapiro, grew up and raised her adopted sons before emigrating to Perth, Australia.

The video shows Benjamin “Bibi” Shapiro singing, “I’m sorry for all I did wrong … I’ll try to be better forever and ever … I’ll try to be, the best that I can be … I’ll try to do what’s right and be the best I can be,” before switching to the Hebrew words ofAvinu Malkeinu with aspirit far beyond his years.

Even though his mother tries to keep her children off social media, the clip unintentionally went viral, and she has been interviewed internationally.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after Rosh Hashanah, Shapiro admitted “Interviews don’t fill me with joy, but South Africa will always be the home of our heart, and I can’t agree to speak to American and Australian publications and not ‘my own’.”

She adopted her sons as a single mom, and they attended Chabad of the West Coast’s Sinai Academy for three years before they emigrated. “I feel a close connection, it’s an amazing school, and we were all very happy there,” she said. She credits Sinai Academy and the school her son attends in Perth – Carmel School – with developing his love for Judaism.

It was never her intention for Bibi’s clip to be in the public eye. “It was a massive shock. I sent it to family and the boys’ Jewish Studies teacher at school. She taught him the song, so I thought it would give her a lot of nachas. She asked if she could share it with other teachers. Soon after, a friend said she saw it on another friend’s Facebook page, and asked if she should request that they take it down. I said, ‘yes please’, and thought that would be that.

“Then I got a message from a friend in Boston and another in Cape Town – it just got bigger and bigger. By the end of the day, I realised asking people to take it down wouldn’t make a difference. I was really upset. But after speaking to people I trust, I got greater clarity. I realised this was obviously Hashem’s plan – he wants the message to reach the world in this way, and I had no choice.”

Although Perth isn’t under lockdown, Shapiro believes that a video of a Jewish boy singing with devotion and joy will give people a lot of comfort at this time. Another factor in its popularity could be that people are looking for connection while they celebrate the high holidays alone. Bibi being a person of colour could also be a factor in people wanting to know more.

“When I adopted the boys, we adopted each other. I always imagined my own biological genetically Jewish children, so what has been amazing has been to discover that their neshomas [souls] are Jewish – they just came to me in a different way,” Shapiro said.

In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has dominated headlines and many have championed the rights of black Jews, Shapiro said, “If I had to have a message for the world, it’s that Jews don’t come in a box, they do look different, and everything isn’t always as it seems.”

She hasn’t experienced any objection to her family and her children’s race. “I’ve only ever received support. I’ll never forget, I was in Durban, going to shul for the first time with Bibi, and I was terrified how people would respond. I had spoken to Rabbi Pinchas Zekry, who said I had his full support, but I was still worried. As I was walking in, another rabbi, Rabbi Mark Friedman, came up to me and said a brocha over Bibi and kissed his forehead. I cried. It was profoundly supportive. It’s carried on like that.”

Shapiro always imagined she would have girls, “so when I learned that the adoption agency had matched me with a boy, I thought, ‘well he will be able to sing in shul on the bimah’. My mother was very musical, and I wanted to pass that on. It’s always been a dream of mine, and Bibi is musical in talent and in his neshoma. He’s always been connected to Jewish music. From when he was a baby, he responded to it.” In the video, one can see he’s not just reciting words, he puts his whole soul into the song.

Since the clip went viral, South African Jewish singing sensation Choni G (Choni Goldman), the brother of Sinai Academy Principal Zeesy Deren, has offered to work with Bibi in creating more music, and Shapiro has agreed.

“It’s like being invited to the queen for tea! It’s the highest compliment in the Jewish musical world. He created an acapella backing track, and when Bibi heard it, his eyes shone. The next day, they did a video call. Although Bibi is very shy, Choni was great with him, and made a video using clips of their interaction.” This has also been shared widely.

Says Goldman, “When I first saw the video, I thought ‘he’s adorable and can keep a key’. He has a huge personality, and is very talented without realising it. He sings with meaning and passion. I’m willing to nurture this if he wants to explore it further.” They may do more collaborations in the near future.

Although Bibi doesn’t understand social media and doesn’t know about the video, he knows “something is up”. People come up to him, although I tell them he doesn’t know about the video. “He knows that his singing makes me really happy, and has made a lot of other people happy. He knows that Hashem has given him this gift, and he mustn’t be shy to share it.”

Shapiro says it’s important that parents understand that any content they share of their children can go viral, even if intentions are good.

So, what’s next for the young singing sensation? “Both my boys and our rabbi’s son sang Avinu Malkeinu on the bimah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It was exactly what I envisioned when I heard I was getting a boy,” says Shapiro. “It’s like coming full circle. The whole congregation was crying. It was so beautiful. I would like that to continue.”

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