After performing at the historic Caesaria Amphitheater for two years, Israeli-born Orthodox superstar Yaakov Shwekey took his concert experience to a new level this week, enthralling a massive crowd of 10,000 enthusiastic fans with his mellifluous voice and passionate emotion at the Yad Eliyahu Arena, commercially known as the Nokia Arena, in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2013.
The show, titled “Shir L’Chayalim,” gave Shwekey the chance to thank thousands of Israel’s finest soldiers for constantly putting their lives in danger for the Jewish state. In an unprecedented stage setup, the concert featured approximately 200 musicians – including Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat, child star Mishel Cohen, and the group Metalish – all backing up the singer’s performance of both his classic songs and new tunes.
Yaakov Shwekey was raised in Brooklyn, where he attended Yeshiva of Brooklyn. He now lives in Deal, New Jersey, with his wife Jenine and their four children. Shwekey’s career began when he and his brother, Yisroel Meir, sang with the Miami Boys Choir. As a young man, Shwekey learned in Rabbi Menachem Davidowitz’s yeshiva (TIUNY) in Rochester, New York, and for a short time in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Toronto. For a period of time, he worked as a wedding singer.
Shwekey’s music and songs are composed by others. His albums are produced by Yochi Briskman, and distributed in the United States by Aderet Music, and in Israel by Greentec. Many different respected arrangers have arranged his albums, including Moshe Laufer, Mona Rosenblum, Yanky Briskman, Leib Yaakov Rigler, and Yisroel Lamm. Until 2006 Shwekey’s primary studio was “Studio X” (run by Yochi Briskman, engineered by Zohar “Baba” Buerger), today, most of his recording is done in his private home studio.
One of Shwekey’s most famous songs is Racheim, which was composed by Pinky Weber. The lyrics are from Birchat HaMazon, asking Hashem to have compassion on the Jewish nation and the city of Jerusalem. As Shwekey describes this song, “It’s a prayer. It’s not just a song. We connect with G-d and ask Him to have mercy.” In 2008/2009 Vehi She’omdah, composed by Yonatan Razel and debuted on his Live in Caesaria concert DVD (and later rerecorded on Ad Bli Dai) became a major hit.
Another one of Shwekey’s songs that gained tremendous popularity is Mama Rochel, which evokes the classic Torah theme of the matriarch Rachel crying to Hashem for the salvation of her children, the Jewish people. Many of Shwekey’s songs, including Shomati (from the Talmud) composed by Yossi Green and Im Eshkacheich, from Chapter 137 of Tehillim, have found considerable popularity as Jewish wedding songs. Some of Yaakov Shwekey’s most popular albums include Shomati (2001), Besimcha (2003), Live in Paris (2006), Libi Bamizrach (2010) and Cry No More (2012).
While he is generally accepted across the diverse subgroups within the Orthodox community, Shwekey’s career has not been totally devoid of controversy. In August 2007, he and Avraham Fried were slated to headline a major concert in Jerusalem at Teddy Stadium. The event was produced by Moshe Ben-Zimra and billed as a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. Leading chareidi rabbis, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the Gerrer and Belzer Rebbes, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Shmuel Wosner, and Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg signed a ban which appeared in the chareidi press forbidding participation or attendance of the event or similar events.
Shwekey issued a response that he had already posed the question to his rabbi, Rav Ovadia Yosef, when an earlier concert featuring him, along with Mordechai Ben David, was also banned. Rav Yosef responded that there is absolutely no prohibition as long as it is a completely separate seating event. Neither Shwekey nor Fried pulled out of the concert.
Shwekey supports his family through his albums, performances at Jewish weddings, and concerts. He also performs at fundraisers for charitable organizations.
His wife Jenine is a founder of “Special Children’s Center of Lakewood,” a respite and support program for special needs children; Yaakov Shwekey also volunteers much time and energy to this philanthropic endeavor. In an interview with Yated Ne’eman, the singer said, “I’m convinced that the success I’ve experienced in my music career is all because of our work with these special children.”
His latest album, Cry No More, was released earlier this year. The CD includes multiple arrangements from Yanky Briskman and arrangements by Moshe Laufer, Yisroel Lamm, and Jeff Horvitch, among others.
The Nokia Arena opened in 1963 and is the largest indoor sports arena in Israel. It hosts the Israeli Super League final four, the State Cup final four, and most of the Israeli national basketball team home games.