At a Shabbat table in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Friedman family sings the customary Shabbat songs, but to traditional Bobov Chasidic melodies. The unexpected and ear-catching harmony gathers crowds during the summer months, as residents gather outside the apartment windows to listen to the makeshift choir.

The harmony, however, is neither coincidence nor rarity. It dates to a time before the current group of singers were even born.

The story goes that after World War II, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe HaKohen Friedman postponed his departure for the United States to remain in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to work with rescue agencies and assist the noted Dr. Jacob Griffel in his relief work. He, and the thousands of other Jewish war refugees streaming into the current Czech Republic, helped in the effort to secure exit visas to the United States, Canada, South America and Israel.

The task was fraught with danger because it required creating documentation, securing transportation across heavily guarded borders and paying-off various Communist officials.

Friedman's friendliness assisted him in establishing important contacts in government offices, which enabled him to find papers and passports for thousands of Jews.

But the heroism and rescue did not come without a price. Friedman was arrested twice in Prague and brutally interrogated by the Soviets.

The risks were so great that Friedman decided to take a drastic measure. During one of his stints in jail, he made a resolution that if he were to become a free man again, he would make sure to sing customary melodies with his family at every Shabbat meal.

Following his arrival in the United States in 1950, Friedman became known for his melodious voice. He was especially noticed as he read from the Torah scroll or led the congregation in prayers on Shabbat and holidays. He also became known for the unique melodies, known as zemirot, that filled the air around his Shabbat table.

Friedman, whose family was affiliated with the Bobover branch of Chasidim, paired the ancient compositions with melodies, known as nigunim, of that dynasty.

The Next Generation

Dancing ensues during 8th Day’s performance at the Chabad on Campus Shabbaton last month.
Dancing ensues during 8th Day’s performance at the Chabad on Campus Shabbaton last month.
Singing has been a part of the Jewish tradition since the Splitting of the Sea after the Exodus from Egypt: The Torah records the Jewish people singing a song in praise of and thanks to G‑d. Thousands of years later, the Chasidic masters placed a great emphasis on the singing of nigunim, making soulful melodies a part of Chasidic daily life and worship.

Singing during prayers, at Shabbat meals and during special gatherings are a standard at Chabad institutions and the homes of Lubavitch emissaries all over the world. Quite often, the singing gives way to spontaneous dancing, as was often the case in the Friedman home.

Itta Marcus, one of Friedman's eight children, remembers her childhood nostalgically and recognizes her father's special talent.

"We always sang during the Shabbos meal," she says. "The singing was quite beautiful. I remember that my father used to teach every so often a new melody. He was passing the melody to the next generation."

Marcus, through her own family, tries to preserve her father's tradition. She and her husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Marcus, are co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Los Alamitos in Long Beach, Calif.; They have made a tradition of singing the same melodies sung at the Friedman table.

"At our Shabbos table it is very similar to the way the singing was at the Shabbos table in my parents home," says Marcus. "History is repeating itself."

The tradition has apparently greatly affected many of their children, who developed a reputation for their voices. Shmully and Bentzy Marcus even decided to go public with the music through their band, 8th Day. The other brothers often join in at concerts.

"People used to say to them that they sing so beautiful, they should produce a CD," says their mother.

In fact, the brothers had never thought of the idea until a Shabbat guest brought them together to sing a favorite melody that he had learned at their Shabbat table. From there, the Marcus brothers recorded some of their own compositions in an unofficial album that became popular in their local Chabad community.

The Marcus brothers, all of whose tunes contain a Jewish message, make it part of their mission to spread Judaism through their music. 8th Day performs in concerts nationwide – they recently played to a full house at the Chabad on Campus International Student Shabbaton – and just released its second album, "Brooklyn."

Back To Brooklyn

Shmuel Marcus engages the crowd.
Shmuel Marcus engages the crowd.
In the Friedman home, the children did not always appreciate the opportunity to sing at the Shabbat table. They remember the subtle hints of their father, who never raised his voice at them, but encouraged them to sing even when they didn't want to.

As they grew older however, they became attached to the tunes. Avraham Friedman, also known as Avraham Fried, the popular Jewish performer, calls the singing "the highlight of [his] Shabbos table."

Echoing his sister, Fried speaks of the power of the songs to extend across generations.

"Years later, now that we all have our own families, and we are all spread across the globe spreading Judaism in all different ways, we sing with our own children at our Shabbos table," says Fried.

It's a theme apparent in "Brooklyn," which 8th Day named after a song expressing their nostalgia for the days they spent in their grandparents' home in Crown Heights.

But while the recorded variety of the music is compelling, Itta Marcus comments that nothing can replicate the actual feel of the notes when sung on Shabbat.

Says Marcus: "The singing at the Shabbos table could never be duplicated."