February 20, 2023

Ah Shtarker Bistu

By Chana Raskin with Josh Fleet

RAZA circle, photograph by Shmulie Lowenstein

My first nigun memory. I’m roused from sleep by a noise in the middle of the night. A soft light glows in the long hallway of our tiny fourth-floor apartment on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Empire Boulevard, in the heart of Crown Heights. Leaving my bedroom to investigate—the light shouldn’t be on, and what was that noise?—I look up and see a bochur,1 tall and massive as a tree, who scoops me up, carries me to the dining room, and places me on my father’s lap. The room is brimming with bochurim, students from the Hasidic high school where my father teaches, sitting and standing and shukeling2 around the table.

Yiddish is my mother tongue, the language we spoke at home, which is perhaps one reason I still remember this particular song filling the room that night when I was only three or four years old. Nigunim were sung to me from the time I was born. “Ah Shtarker Bistu” was the first to be emblazoned upon my blossoming consciousness. It’s not quite a lullaby, but there’s something incredibly intimate about the tune. Its elemental feeling “expresses the oneness of the Creator,” according to the Sefer Hanigunim, the official songbook of Chabad. This is not an abstraction. The song begins in Hebrew in the third person, with somewhat distant, honorific praise of God: “Adir hu (He is mighty).” The verse is then transposed into a personalized, informal Yiddish translation, “Ah shtarker bistu (You are tremendous),” transforming the nigun into a veritable love song. To sing it is to stand eye-to-eye with the Divine and speak with Her as if with a friend.

RAZA recording session with Chana Raskin & Joey Weisenberg, photograph by Ali Cherkis

There are many greatest hits that did not make it onto this album—well-known, “important” Chabad nigunim whose fame extends far beyond the streets of Crown Heights and the walls of your local Chabad house. “Ah Shtarker Bistu” is not one of them. It is, in the context of my community’s musical canon, relatively obscure—though it does have moments that strongly allude to more well-known nigunim like “Arba Bavos” and “Avinu Malkeinu,” with which it shares a few identical notes and phrases.

Yiddish was a fundamental and organic presence in my life, as well as in the life and history and Torah and music of my community. And so it felt essential to me to include a Yiddish track in this collection of melodies. “Ah Shtarker Bistu” was the last (and easiest!) song we arranged for the album; we placed it as a precious little interlude before the closing track. Just my voice trading licks with Joey Weisenberg’s mandolin. Singing this one felt like spending time with an old friend after being apart for many years. I sit with her, I know her, and yet I am struck by her still unfolding beauty. Her face is familiar and new at the same time. I know our journey together is long and ever-changing. I rest in that knowing, and expanses open before us.

Footnotes

  1. In Yiddish, a young unmarried man, often a yeshiva student.
  2. In Yiddish, prayerful swaying, most often during traditional Jewish prayer.

Chana Raskin, the founder and main facilitator of RAZA, is an untrained vocalist who grew up entrenched in the world of Chabad Hasidut and its profoundly simple and complex melodies. These nigunim have carried her at every point of her journey through life. In her music and singing circles, as well as in her day-to-day experience, Chana strives to hold a space with others recovering from illness or traumatic injury through the healing powers of quiet, laughter, humming, singing, and movement.

Josh Fleet is communications and operations manager at Hadar’s Rising Song Institute.