Song of the Soul
December 19, 2022
“Even with Jewish music going in so many directions simultaneously, we haven’t lost our way. We haven’t lost our hartz”
A Musical Interlude with Shea Berko
Thousands of chasidim crammed bleachers reaching to the ceiling inside the massive Skver bais medrash as they strained to watch their revered rebbe light the Ner Chanukah. A hushed excitement could be felt in the crowd as the rebbe slowly and meaningfully recited the brachos followed by thunderous amens from the crowd and then absolute silence again. Then, with one slight motion, the crowd exploded into song. Music filled the air as the chasidim joined their leader in praising Hashem’s wonders, the sound piercing well beyond the walls of the bais medrash.
Off to the side stood a man indistinguishable from the others but for a microphone in his hands. His responsibility was great, but one that he accepted with confidence and lyrical agility. He led the singing deftly, maneuvering from song to song and one emotion to another, alternatively bringing the crowd to the heights of enthusiasm as they sang yevonim and then guiding them into the depths of hartzige niggun by Chasof.
His name? Shea Berko. His rise to becoming one of the most popular and sought-after singers had been quick; his ascension had taken the world of Jewish music by storm.
Growing up in the heart of Boro Park, Shea Berko never imagined where his life would take him. A self-described average chassidish man, Shea says he had a wholly unremarkable childhood.
“I wasn’t a musical wunderkind, I didn’t sing in choirs; I did little more than sing zemiros with my family at the Shabbos table. The idea of becoming a singer or even playing music wasn’t on my mind.”
But though his childhood was otherwise unexceptional, music and singing always played a prominent role in his life—a fact he only recognized as an adult. As a child, Shea davened at the Vien shul on 50th Street, where his father, R’ Berel, was the renowned chazzan. Listening to his father belt out musically and vocally complex lyrical arrangements was commonplace for Shea, both at home and at shul. But at the time, Shea thought nothing of it and certainly didn’t see it as a part of his identity or even as a talent that had been passed down to him.
The same could be said of his siblings, all of whom are musically attuned, including his brother Avromi, a popular one-man band; his brothers who are ba’alei tefillah; and even a sister who married Yanky Orlansky, the founder of the world-renowned Yedidim Choir.
“If you had told me just a few years ago that people would ask me to sing at their wedding, I’d probably have laughed,” Shea says with a smile.
Shea’s first foray into music was an informal one. As a bachur learning in Chust yeshivah in Boro Park, Shea would participate in the bachurim’s farbrengen of sorts—gatherings ofsong, music, and dancing. In time, Shea and a close friend, Hershy Leichter, began leading those gatherings, eventually taking over the job of leading the zemiros in yeshivah on Shabbos as well as the yeshivah’s Shabbos Nachamu music program.
After getting married and moving to Williamsburg to learn in kollel, Shea took on a counselor job at Tzeilimer Camp in the Catskills, where he led the choir and all other camp singing. His friends in camp quickly noticed his talent, and requests to sing at their weddings soon began rolling in.
In short time, Shea’s musical talents began gaining wider attention, and the name Shea Berko spread as a name to look out for in the world of Jewish music.
“When I first began getting requests to sing at weddings, I was honestly shocked,” Shea recounts. “I knew I could sing decently, but I wasn’t expecting others to want me to be the singer at their wedding. But I caved to the pressure eventually, and so began my career as a singer.
“I never advertised myself as a singer; it sort of just snowballed—one singing job led to another and then another. In other words, it was all siyata d’Shmaya.”
Shea lived in Williamsburg with his family for 13 years, until 2020. After covid-19 shut everything down, he and his wife felt the time was right for a move. They migrated to Lakewood, where they quickly found their place.
“We are very happy here, as we were in Williamsburg,” Shea shares. “There are beautiful kehillos in both the Lakewood region and New York, whether it’s Boro Park or Williamsburg or elsewhere.”
When asked how living in Lakewood is different from life in Williamsburg, he says, “I certainly see a difference from my time as a yungerman in Williamsburg to my time now in Lakewood, specifically in what people call ‘worldliness.’ The Lakewood area is more plugged into the world around it, while Williamsburg is more confined to its own kehillah. I don’t say this as a positive or negative for either kehillah; it’s just different.”
Music: a fountain of emotions
One of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle of Shea’s success is his ability to intuitively analyze a crowd, dig into their collective psyche, and deliver a performance that will amplify the hisragshus they are feeling—or want to feel.
“A lot is made of a singer’s voice or musical talent. But realistically speaking, what matters most is being able to connect with a crowd, to create a sort of rapport with them. When I can do that, my singing infuses the crowd with energy and enthusiasm; when I can’t do that, the difference is appreciable. There’s meaning in music, and without connecting to the crowd, without recognizing what they need to feel at just the right moment, you might swing and miss on the event’s make-or-break moment.”
Shea is deeply mindful of the power that he wields—and the lines that he cannot cross.
For instance, one of his unwavering rules when singing at a chasunah is that the ba’alei simchah are in charge, not those who were invited to it.
“If the ba’al simchah or a mechutan asks me to only sing certain types of songs, I will do that, no matter how much pressure I get from the attendees,” Shea says. “There are often times when a mechutan will ask for exclusively chassidish songs but the crowd will push me to sing other styles. Guess what happens? They only get to hear and dance to chassidish songs.
“When I’m performing at a simchah, I’m doing a job, and my boss is the ba’al simchah. That’s a responsibility, and it’s not one that I take lightly.”
Shea is happy to work with any of the many other talented musicians that our community is blessed with. But because music is inherently an emotional channel, there’s a special chemistry that he experiences when working with his brother Avromi. Having grown up together, laughed together, cried together, and fought together, there’s a certain bond between them that adds a special flavor to their collaborations.
Songs of the soul
When asked what his personal favorite song is, Shea is thoughtful.
“I have so many favorites, but if I have to boil it down to one, I would have to go with ‘Kah Echsof,’ which is said to have been composed by Rav Aharon Karliner. It’s a stunning, deeply meaningful song that really touches me.”
As far as crowd-pleasing favorites, Shea notes that such things are constantly in a state of flux and change relatively quickly—often within just a few months. That said, right now at weddings that he performs at, the biggest hit is ‘L’Chai Olamim’ by Benny Friedman and Mordechai Shapiro. If Shea is looking to quickly get the crowd excited, that’s the go-to song.
Chuppah songs, on the other hand, are relatively unchanged by trends, as they are more about personal preference. However, some songs seem to be played more often than others, like “V’Zakeini” by Baruch Levine, “Ani Ma’amin” by Moshe Goldman, and “Maskil L’Dovid,” also from Moshe Goldman.
Shea is more than satisfied with singing at events and has no plans of putting out an album, which is extremely expensive to produce. However, he did sing on a single—“Ya’amod” by Leiby Moskowitz—as a complete afterthought. Surprisingly to him, a lot of people told him how much they enjoyed that song.
The state of Jewish music
The contemporary era of Jewish music offers a captivating euphony of sounds, styles, and cultural influences from across the globe. And whereas 20 years ago it would have been highly unlikely to witness a group of chassidim dancing to an unmistakably Sephardimelody, it is now a commonplace occurrence. Shea says a cursory look at recent Jewish history provides insight into this curiosity.
“Jewish life in America, while present already back in the 1700s, really took off after World War II. In the decades that followed, kehillos that originated in foreign countries formed distinctive communities, with little spillover of cultures of influences between them,” he says. “But in more recent decades, we’ve experienced a massive cultural shift. The various kehillos across the United States are more in touch with each other, and they have in many ways begun melding into a larger whole. We see one of the results of this achdus in the music that we play.”
Shea points to the increasing popularity of chassidish music on litvish albums, the creeping in of Sephardiinfluences on otherwise chassidish records, and the sudden flourishing of typically Sephardimusic across the entire music spectrum.
“Music is the language of the neshamah, and as such, what we are witnessing in the joining of various styles is the effect of the growing achdus between us. If you asked me, that is a beautiful thing, and another reason to appreciate and cherish being a part of Klal Yisrael.”
Shea is quick to add, “But even with Jewish music going in so many directions simultaneously, I am sure that we haven’t lost our way. We haven’t lost our hartz. You’ll never see a chazzan whipping out anything but a beautiful, touching song at ‘Mimkomcha’ during Shabbos davening. It would just never happen.”
An unwilling role model
In a casual encounter with Shea, one might be struck by his thoughtful speech, effusive warmth and geniality, and dedication to Yiddishkeit. What you wouldn’t assume is that he is currently one of the most popular Jewish singers.
That’s not by mistake.
“I don’t like being referred to as a star, because I’m not,” Shea says. “Our stars are our Rebbes, rabbanim, roshei yeshivah, madrichim, and mechanchim, not singers.”
In fact, Shea says that the only part of his successful singing career that bothers and confounds him is that it has put a spotlight on him rather than where he says it belongs.
“There is this phenomenon in which singers and musicians have gained a certain celebrity status in the frum community, and I really want no part of it,” he says. “When bachurim come up to me at a simchah and ask for my autograph or to take a picture with me, I want to sink into the ground. I wish I could tell them, without sounding rude or obnoxious, that they should be looking elsewhere for star power. We have so many people in our kehillos to look up to; why waste your attention on a singer?
“My role is to help bring simchah and enthusiasm to the various events that I perform at. That doesn’t make me a leader, it makes me a shaliach.”
Perhaps it is this awareness of his role and unwillingness to be a role model that makes Shea a personality that the average person can indeed look up to.