You never know what to expect when you punch in Fishel and Elianna's number. Drawling cowboys, squeaking doors, crazy monologues greet you from their answering machine. Don't hang up, you've reached the right number! As one message cheerfully assures you, "It's the Bresler's – House of Everything!"

Showmanship liberally spiced with shtick comes naturally to Fishel Bresler. After all, his hometown spawned another famous entertainer, P.T. Barnum, who served as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and developed the "greatest show on earth." As a musician, comedian and therapeutic music practitioner, Fishel strives to build bridges between heaven and earth, to infuse Jewish joy and spirituality into his audiences.

The classic life of a struggling musician beganGrowing up in the fifties, Hebrew school education culminated at Bar Mitzvah. He attended Shabbat services for a few months, then stashed the tefillin away with his childhood memorabilia. In high school, his Jewish identity found expression through cultural enjoyment of Yiddish humor and theater. Once he reached college, the interest in drama took backstage to his focus on classical flute.

The classic life of a struggling musician began… Fishel played in clubs, concerts, bars, festivals and taught music. Then, about twenty-five years ago, Fishel was hired by the Providence, Rhode Island Parks and Recreation Department to develop a Jewish Folk Arts Festival. Fishel realized his Jewish background was insufficient, and decided to research traditional Jewish culture and "the art of Jewish living."

Setting out to fill his knowledge gaps, Fishel visited Providence's temples and synagogues. A phrase from Hebrew school kept echoing in his mind: "the holiest day of the Jewish calendar comes every week." He remembered once seeing a traditional Shabbat table, and decided to display one at the fair. He contacted observant families to get the appropriate data.

"Until then, I had an Eastern spiritual orientation," Fishel explains. "I felt there was more to life than material existence, but I had a Taoist outlook, focusing on living in harmony with the natural order of the universe. I remembered Judaism as stodgy, with ornate hallowed, sanctified, magnified words, and stuffy rituals. I never thought of it as spiritual.

"As I did my research, I kept an open mind and just recorded the raw data, putting my liberal prejudices aside," Fishel recalls. "My initial reaction to many things was often negative. I tried not to make superficial judgments, but to ask questions and get more information on what I saw.

"One day I had a shocking realization; my concept of Judaism was that of a thirteen-year-old's, the age when my Jewish education ended. No one would tell an astrophysicist, 'I know all about it! I studied stars in sixth grade.' But most intelligent adults assume they know all about Judaism, even though they formed their opinions with a childish comprehension!"

"My concept of Judaism was that of a thirteen-year-old's, the age when my Jewish education ended"Fishel felt he owed his heritage another open-minded look as an adult. Raised as a liberal, committed to the search and honor of truth, he felt compelled to give Judaism an honest try. One Saturday night he was reading the text V'Atah Kadosh in the evening prayers when he had a sudden "Ah-ha" moment. He suddenly realized: this describes a personal mystical experience of G‑d, a connection to the truth of the universe.

"Two special people made a great impact on me: artist/writer, David Sears, and Klezmer musician, Andy Statman. These very cool guys were not only observant, but each of them independently remarked that they thought keeping kosher was most important. At the time, I found that curious, to say the least. It helped me stay open and realize that, hey, there must be something going on here. We formed deep and lasting friendships, and they still help guide my growth.

"I started reading the siddur, the prayer book, putting on tefillin, and learning. I'm a creeper, not a jumper. I slowly worked into Shabbat, kosher, and the rest, some things within months, and others over a few years."

As a musician, Fishel was profoundly affected by the moving Chassidic melodies. "When I heard them, I was transported. My soul was moved."

Photo by Eliana Bresler
Photo by Eliana Bresler

Not working on Shabbat is tough for a musician, since so many gigs are on Friday and Saturday night. "It took me a while to extricate myself from Shabbat job commitments. Now I'm proud to say I am a full-time musician without working on the biggest day of the week in my field. Today, if someone offered me a Friday night appearance on the Tonight Show, I wouldn't even give it a second thought. I once had a conflict and asked a rabbi, 'How can I stop everything for Shabbat?' He replied, 'Keep Shabbat three times, and you'll wonder how you could live without it!' He was right. To play on Shabbat now would feel like trading a priceless treasure for some plastic trinkets!"

Fishel performs Jewish music as artist-in-residence in schools, public parks and festivals, for corporate functions and hospitals. His unique artisanship has earned a highly competitive "Folks Art Fellowship Grant of the RI State Council on the Arts." He has also developed several vaudeville and medicine show routines and characters, including "Sappy the Old Cowpoke."

He was also honored to be chosen as an emergency sub for Andy Statman, covering part of a concert tour with mandolinist, David Grisman, based on the recording, "Songs of Our Fathers."

Every human has his expression, his form of language, and we just have to find itFishel's wry humor and lively tunes have enhanced many weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah's and synagogue celebrations, getting most everyone to kick up their feet while still remaining committed to the spirituality at the heart of Jewish musical traditions. "Our music should not be just pretty pop tunes with Hebrew words pasted on," he says.

A unique audience is also the recipient of Fishel's greatest musical efforts. They generally don't respond with dancing, or even applause, yet their lives are profoundly affected. These are adults and children with severe multiple handicaps, as well as hospitalized children. For close to thirty years, Fishel has brought music into their lives, using it as a vehicle of communication and expression that sometimes stimulates progress in ways that no other therapy can reach.

"Our sages say that music is the pen of the soul. The rabbis who composed holy melodies, niggunim, knew that music goes to the deepest part of the brain and speaks to our soul and core. I see children who are not verbal, have limited use of their hands, can't walk; many are autistic or semi-autistic, some are also blind. Every human has his expression, his form of language, and we just have to find it.

"Most everyone readily responds to music. Engaging with music doesn't require intellectual skill, and each can react in his or her own way. People think such work must be depressing. Not at all. When you first enter a room of these children it can be saddening, but as you start to work you must find and relate to what's healthy, and connect to it with happiness. It's hard, it's exhausting, but a tremendous spiritual exercise. I focus entirely on each person; the less ability they have, the more attention it takes to find the point of connection. I have to pick up any cue, discover what they like and what bothers them.

"With a new group, I start by getting the room quiet – not an easy task with the nurses going in and out and suctioning the children. I go around, say hello to each person in a simple musical interval used by children globally, the sound used in 'Rain, Rain, Go Away' and 'Hello Sylvia, It's Music,' with gentle singing.

I see my work as holy clowning, spreading rays of laughter and happiness"I use elemental sounds, like my ocean drum, which sounds like a surf, working up in complexity to a wooden flute and other instruments. Some of these kids put out more effort to participate than you or I put out for anything. One boy loves to strum the guitar. His muscles are so spastic that he breaks out into a heavy sweat to accomplish this task, but his happiness is tremendous. A girl I see has turned her head, which is usually completely frozen, to see and hear the music. I play in her left ear to stimulate her to turn that way.

"I've learned so much. You have to open your heart, and use the Chabad approach of mind and heart together. You have to know whom you're working with, tune into them and adjust your expectations. You find out what's essential about a human being. It's not our jobs, status, possessions, looks, or what we can do. It's an ability to share a sense of love, affection and wonder.

"How far can you pare down the externals, and come to the core we all share? If anyone feels sorry for himself, go and do this work. You'll come out saying, 'Hey, I can walk, talk, breathe and digest without a g-tube.'"

A natural joker, Fishel finds it hard not to generate puns and funny voices. "When you go to the store, the guy behind the counter is also a person. It's an opportunity for play and interchange."

Chassidism teaches to serve G‑d with joy, that it breaks through all boundaries. "Clowning is not true inner spiritual joy, but it helps us awaken from our sluggishness and sadness. I see my work as holy clowning, spreading rays of laughter and happiness."