By: David Silverberg
Maybe it’s just the voice, that spectacularly rich and powerful tenor with infinite range. Or perhaps it’s his natural charm and grace, his contagious energy and trademark smile that can warm even the coldest hearts. Or, it might simply be his reputation as a genuinely kind and Torah-committed Jew, devoted to his family, his community and the Jewish people.
But most likely, it is the rare combination of all the above that has catapulted Yaakov Shwekey to the top of the Jewish music industry.
Raised in Brooklyn, where he attended Yeshiva of Brooklyn, Yaakov now lives in Deal, NJ with his wife, Jenine, and their three children. He devotes much of his day to intensive Torah learning in the Sephardic Torah Center (Rabbi Shlomo Diamond’s kollel), and also produces and performs Jewish music, to the delight of his audiences and fans across the globe. The release of his new album of Mizrahi-style music provides the Sephardic community with the opportunity to take pride in its musical extraordinaire and learn more about this phenomenal singer – and inspiring personality.
A Family Tradition of Torah Greatness
Yaakov Shwekey is a scion of a distinguished family that has produced great rabbinic leaders of Syrian Jewry. His great-great-grandfather, Hacham Aharon Choueka (d. 1881), was a highly regarded rabbi in Aleppo who composed a work of halachic responsa. Hacham Aharon’s son, Hacham Menahem Choueka (1873-1974), Yaakov’s great-grandfather, was renowned as one of the towering scholars of Aleppo. Yaakov’s great-uncle, the second Hacham Aharon Choueka (1896-1978), was born in Aleppo but later became a well-known rabbinic figure in Egypt. It was he who brought Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shelita, from Jerusalem to serve as the head of Egypt’s rabbinical court in 1950.And Yaakov is a nephew of Rabbi Shmuel Choueka of Congregation Ohel Simha Park Avenue in Elberon, and of Hacham David Shwekey, a prominent Rosh Kollel and halachic authority in Mexico City. Yaakov’s grandmother, Adelle Shwekey of Brooklyn, is renowned for her exceptional piety, and Rav Avigdor Miller, z.t.l., would often send women to her for berachot. (Different family members adopted different English renditions of the family name, thus accounting for the divergent spellings.)
Loyal to his rich family tradition of Torah scholarship, Yaakov devoted several years after high school to intensive Torah study, mainly at Yeshivat Chafetz Chaim in Rochester, NY, under the tutelage of its esteemed Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Menachem Davidowitz, shelita.
Singer of the Decade
When asked about his emergence on the Jewish music scene and success as a singer, Yaakov described it as a clear manifestation of Providence.
“It was incredible siyata dishmaya [Heavenly assistance],” he says.
His debut solo album, Shomati, produced by Yochi Briskman, hit the stores in 2001 and was an instant success. Several of the album’s songs, including Shehechiyanu, Meheira and Racheim, quickly became standard fare at weddings and other events where religious music is sung or played. Nine years later, these and many other “Shwekey songs” continue to enjoy widespread popularity.
Since 2001, the dynamic duo of Yaakov and Yochi has been producing albums at factory speed. Libi Bamizrach (My Heart is in the East), their newest production, is their tenth album in ten years.
A watershed moment in Yaakov’s meteoric rise to stardom was his performance in the outdoor amphitheater of the Israeli coastal city of Caesarea in September, 2008. It was on that night that Yaakov unveiled his hit song Vehi She’amda in a stirring duet with Yonatan Razel – a composer, musician and performer, and a friend of Yaakov’s – who composed the melody and musical arrangement. The words, which are taken from the Passover Haggada, speak of the constant threat posed to the Jewish people by enemy nations, and Gd’s special protection which rescues them in every generation.
The concert was recorded onto what became an exceptionally popular album, and a video recording of Yaakov’s performance with Razel was uploaded onto YouTube. The YouTube clip has since received well over half a million page views. Vehi She’amda, which Yaakov described as a “blockbuster song,” was later recorded as the final track of his 2009 hit album, Ad Beli Dai, and rapidly emerged as one of the most popular Jewish music compositions in recent memory. In October, 2009, listeners of the Bnei Brak-based Kol Chai radio station voted Vehi She’amdaas Jewish music’s Song of the Decade, and, not surprisingly, Yaakov himself was named Singer of the Decade.
From the Shabbat Table to the Studio
When asked to describe the making of his newest album, Yaakov made no attempt to hide his excitement.
“I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this album. The entire process – choosing the songs, the arrangements, the work in the studio – was such a joy. The whole thing is new – a new sound, and, actually many different sounds in the Mizrachi style.” Yaakov added that singing Mizrachi-style songs also brought back very fond childhood memories. “It reminded me of the beautiful pizmonimI used to sing with my father at the Shabbat table when I was young,” making for an especially meaningful, and nostalgic, experience.
“For the last 4-5 years, I’ve wanted to do this. It took a lot of work to do it right, and, baruch Hashem, I love the way it came out.”
In preparing the album, Yaakov set for himself the ambitious goal of ensuring that every track would present the listener with a different sound and a different “message.” It offers slow, moving songs, as well as catchy ballads and horahs, all in various beats and styles within the wide range of the distinctive Sephardic sound. The title track, Libi Bamiizrach, takes its lyrics from the timeless words of the famous Spanish poet and sage Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), who lamented, “Libi bamizrach ve’anochi besof ma’arav – My heart is in the east [Israel], but I am in the distant west.” Yaakov believes that these words express the inner feelings of all Diaspora Jewry.
“This is a message that I always want to convey. The words basically speak for themselves. American Jews feel this way – although we are still here, our hearts are there, in Eress Yisrael, longing to return to our homeland.”
The time is ripe for a new, Mizrahi-style sound, Yaakov says, given the growing interest in this kind of music.
“In my second album,” he recalls, “I sang a Sephardic song – Ki Hatov. Since then, virtually every Ashkenazic singer has included a Sephardic song in every album. People like it, and I think they’re ready for a Sephardic album.”
The Sound of Teshuva
One of the highlights of Libi Bamizrachis Hakadosh Baruch Hu,a moving song about teshuva(repentance), a composition which, according to Yaakov, was eight years in the making.
“Composer Eli Laufer wrote the chorus and sang it for me eight years ago. It’s been in my head ever since.”
The concept of the song was conceived by Rabbi Moshe Kuessous, menahel of Shaare Torah, who worked with Yaakov in scripting the image of a father who longingly waits for his son to return home. At every moment, the father’s heart pounds with the eager anticipation of his son’s long-awaited return.
“This is how badly Hashem wants us to return to Him,” Yaakov says. “Actually, He wants us to return even more than a father wants his son to come back.” This song seeks to inspire Jews to teshuvaby reminding them that no matter how far they’ve strayed, Gd longs for their return as a father longs for his child. The moving lyrics were composed by Yaakov’s older brother, Moshe David Shwekey.
“One of the goals of this album is to reach audiences who like Mizrahi music, to provide them with music in the style they prefer with holy words, inspiring lyrics taken from Torah sources.”
Music for the Soul
In truth, reaching out to his fellow Jews is not only a goal of the new album, but also one of Yaakov’s main objectives in his career.
“From the beginning, I said to myself that I can reach people all over the world through music. With assimilation rampant, I knew I could use the gift Hashem gave me to reach Jews everywhere. I want to take part in the effort to reach out to our fellow Jews.”
The results of this endeavor speak for themselves. “I can fill a book with stories of Jews who have drawn closer to Torah through music.”
One especially remarkable incident occurred last year, after Yaakov’s performance in the Israeli city of Ranaana during Hol Ha’mo’ed Sukkot. A man, together with his son, waited for Yaakov backstage after the concert. “He basically grabbed me,” Yaakov relates, “and said he absolutely had to speak with me.”
They found a room, and the man told Yaakov his story. He was born and raised in a secular kibbutz, whose members were not simply non-observant, but hostile to Jewish practice. But it so happened that somebody in the kibbutz, for some reason, brought Shwekey’s 2009 album Ad Beli Daiinto the kibbutz, to the place where this man worked. And so one day, as he tended to his duties as usual, the man heard Yaakov’s song Hashiveinu, whose words – “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close, our King, to Your service” – come from the section of the daily Amidaprayer in which we ask Gd to help us repent. Listening to the song, the man began contemplating his life.
“Surely,” he began telling himself, “there must be a higher purpose to all this, besides just working, making money, and then waking up tomorrow and doing the same thing.” These thoughts gradually led the man to rethink his life. “What will be with me? What will be with my life?” he asked himself.
Soon enough, one small step after another, he embraced a Torah lifestyle. He wanted to bring his son – with his kipa and sissit– to Yaakov, to thank him for changing his life.
“I was literally moved to tears,” Yaakov recalls.
Yaakov says that around the world, he’s encountered Jews whose souls were ignited through his music. He noted the impact of his song Shema Yisrael, which tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, who traveled to Europe after World War II to search for Jewish children who had been sent to live among Christians during the Holocaust. He came to a monastery where, according to reports, many Jewish children had been hiding, but the priest denied that any of the children there were Jewish. When Rabbi Silver began reciting “Shema Yisrael,” many of the children began crying “Mama!” and ran to him.
“I’ve had elderly people come and tell me, ‘I was one of those children!’” Yaakov says.
With the right lyrics, the right notes, and the right voice, music has a special way of penetrating the heart and awakening the flickering sparks waiting for their chance to erupt into a giant, raging flame of spirituality.
A Special Way to Help Special Children
Yaakov sees music as a powerful medium of hesed.
“People receive tremendous hizuk[encouragement] from music,” Yaakov says, adding that this is what makes his job so special. “Whether it’s an ill patient, the patient’s family members who are having a hard time, or anybody struggling with the daily rigors of life – music can be so uplifting and help them get through their troubles.” In discussing this aspect of his career, Yaakov mentioned a famous story told in the Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) of Rabbi Beroka, who met Eliyahu the Prophet in the marketplace. The prophet pointed to two men and said that they are guaranteed a share in the next world. Rabbi Beroka approached the men, and discovered that they would find people in the market who looked despondent, and lift their spirits through humor. Bringing smiles to people’s faces and joy to their hearts is considered one of the greatest missvot a person can perform, one which guarantees him a share in the world to come.
Over the years, Yaakov has been especially devoted to helping special needs children, a role in which he works hand-in-hand with his wife, Jenine, who founded and runs the Special Children’s Center (SCC) which serves children in Lakewood, Deal and Brooklyn. As a teenager, Jenine worked closely with a family with a special needs child, and saw firsthand the unique challenges faced by the parents. Special needs children require extra care and attention, and are often awake during the night, making it exceedingly difficult for parents to care for their other children and tend to their general responsibilities – let alone have some relaxation time for themselves. At the age of 16, Jenine and two friends rented an apartment, and would care for a small group of special needs children in the afternoons. They would feed them, bathe them, play with them and return them home ready for bed.
The small apartment has now evolved into a new, large facility serving over one hundred special needs children who are transported each day and cared for by a dynamic team of professional staff members, therapists and volunteers. In recognition of her remarkable work, Jenine Shwekey was named one of the L’Oreal Paris’ top ten “Women of Worth” honorees in 2008, from among thousands of nominees around the world. The award received considerable press coverage, and was reported on CNN.
Yaakov does not hide his admiration for his wife’s work. “I have, baruch Hashem, been successful in reaching out to Kelal Yisraelthrough music, and it’s very possible that this success is due in large part to the fact that Hashem sees how my wife wants to help children and give them the best life possible.”
Singing with special needs children, for Yaakov, is a particularly rewarding experience. “When these children hear music, their faces immediately light up. Their souls are from a higher place, and music also stems from a high place. When music is sung in the right way, especially with holy words, their souls connect to it, and you see it on their faces.”
It is no coincidence that Yaakov has joined together with Jenine, who devotes her life to helping special children. “Hashem brought us together to help these children. He sent them into this world for a purpose, and it is our responsibility to take care of them. I definitely see this as one of my roles.”
Each year, on Hanukah, the Center holds a special event for the children and their families. Yaakov performs and invites the children, individually and by name, to come on stage and sing with him – an experience which is a thrill for not only the children, but also for their siblings. One father told Yaakov many months after the event that the experience completely changed the way his other children view their special needs brother.
“They used to resent the extra attention that he received,” the father related, “and they were also embarrassed by him and did not want their friends to see them talking with him.” This all changed after the Hanukah celebration, when they watched Yaakov Shwekey call up their brother, by name, and invite him on stage. The children noticed that Yaakov was not reading from a prepared list, but actually knew the Center’s children by name.
“They were amazed that you personally knew their brother,” the father told Yaakov, “and this has changed the entire atmosphere in our home. I cannot thank you enough.”
A Miracle in Tiberias
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the special power of music more than an incident that occurred in the Israeli city of Tiberias some four years ago. Yaakov was driving through the city, on his way to sing at a bar missva on a boat in Lake Kinneret, when a man called and said he desperately needed to speak to him. This man, a rabbi in Tiberias, related that his wife had recently fallen into a coma as a result of complications from brain surgery. The physicians warned that if she didn’t wake up within a week, the chances of her survival were minimal.
On the seventh day, the rabbi happened to hear Yaakov’s hit Racheim, a plea for divine mercy taken from the text of birkat hamazon(grace after meals). The song aroused the rabbi’s deepest emotions and prayers, and he immediately ran into the store and purchased the album and a portable CD player. He then rushed to the hospital, went to his wife’s bed, and put the headphones around her head, with Racheimplaying. Astonishingly, the woman awoke from her coma. The doctors who had treated the patient were stunned – and they all requested a copy of the album.
Yaakov heard the rabbi’s story, and immediately told him that he and his wife must join him on the boat and relate their experience to the family and guests of the bar missva. The man obliged, and everyone on the boat was moved to tears upon hearing this mind-blowing story.
But the wife’s sudden recovery was not the only miracle that Yaakov encountered in Tiberias that night. At one point toward the end of the celebration, after the boat had already docked, two secular Israeli men were seen singing and dancing together with the bar missva participants. Yaakov later learned that these men heard the music as they walked nearby, and recognized Yaakov’s voice. They boarded the ship, and were awe-struck by the emotions and festivities. It turned out that these two men had studied in yeshiva but then abandoned Jewish practice, one becoming a high-ranking government official, the other becoming a successful radio show host who often ridiculed religious beliefs and lifestyle. The radio host told Rabbi Diamond, who was present at the bar missva, that his experience on the boat in Tiberias changed his life and his entire attitude toward Torah observance.
“It’s amazing,” Yaakov observed, “how you can affect people without even realizing it. Here I was, singing at a bar missva, and these two people’s lives were changed forever.”
On the Big Stage
Yaakov’s popularity has landed him on some of the world’s biggest stages. He has delighted audiences in places like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Beacon Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera House – all in front of capacity crowds. The performance in Beacon Theatre, which was called “From Caesarea to Manhattan” and took place last December, was the first Jewish music event ever held in the historic New York landmark. A friend informed Yaakov that when he called Ticketmaster to reserve tickets for the performance, the operator mentioned that seats were selling like hotcakes. The operator noted that the Shwekey tickets were going faster than those for the major winter holidayshow that the theater was hosting later that week.
In a somewhat bizarre and humorous turn of events, the popularity of the Beacon Theatre performance brought Yaakov’s name to untold numbers of New Yorkers. Major billboards scattered around Manhattan to publicize the most sought-after performances carried his name and announced the upcoming concert. Strange as it may seem, “From Caesaria to Manhattan” was ranked one of the most popular events in New York City for that week.
This was not the only instance where the name Yaakov Shwekey reached the general public. Last summer, a New York tabloid ran an article about him, calling him “the Jewish Johnny Cash.” Another unusual news report said that an American pop-star visiting a London restaurant had the establishment repeatedly play Racheimin the background.
Yaakov was also the subject of a special news report by Israel’s Channel 2 News before the Caesarea concert in 2008.
Despite his fame, Yaakov does not consider himself a celebrity. “The notion of a ‘celebrity’ is an American concept. I am not a celebrity. I am just trying to use what Hashem gave me for the right purpose.”
The Secret of His Success
Throughout the interview, Yaakov repeatedly pointed to siyata dishmaya as the source of his success. But his manager, Yochi Briskman, noted that much of the credit goes to Yaakov himself.
“It’s great working with him,” Yochi attested. “He is a perfectionist, and always wants to be sure that the music is on the highest possible level.” Yochi also expressed his admiration for Yaakov’s commitment to Torah and family. “The kollel always comes first. As much as possible, he arranges his work around his scheduled learning in the kollel. Yaakov also turns down a lot of work in order not to be away from home for Shabbat. I really respect that.”
This remarkable commitment to Torah and family accords with the close relationships Yaakov enjoys with several renowned Torah figures. He receives his halachic guidance from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, with whom he frequently consults for advice and instruction. He also enjoys close relationships with his uncle, Rabbi Choueka, and his Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond.
Additionally, Yaakov has had the unique privilege of forging a bond with Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shelita, and he has sung at several weddings of members of the gadol hador’sfamily. When Yaakov meets with Hacham Ovadia, the sage blesses him and urges him to “continue doing the right thing, learning Torah and bringing joy to people.” Hacham Ovadia often cites to Yaakov the prophecy of Yeshayahu (44:2), “Al tira avdi Yaakov – Do not fear, My servant, Yaakov” – encouraging him to continue with his work without hesitation or fear.
“I thank Hashem every day for what He’s given me,” Yaakov says. “To be able to learn in a kollel right near my home, and reach Jews all over the world with music – this is all an amazing gift, and I am so grateful for the unique opportunities I have been granted.”