‘From the Gegent’ is a series of articles featuring businesses, services and the people behind them in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. Presented by Mica Soffer, owner and publisher of community news service COLlive.com and neighborhood directory gegent.com:
Photos: Sholem Srugo
The last thing Chony Milecki expected to do for a living was become a musician – even if he is one of the most popular wedding musicians in the Crown Heights neighborhood and Chabad community.
Shlichus is what the Australian-born 38 year old planned to do. After all, he grew up watching his father and mother Rabbi Benzion and Henya Milecki leading the South Head Synagogue in Sydney as Shluchim.
“This was never what I had planned to do, to make a career out of playing music,” Chony Milecki says in an interview in his recording studio. “I wasn’t particularly passionate about the music scene and didn’t follow the latest music.”
But then he started playing on his own and the talent became evident. “I had a lesson here and there, but am largely self-taught. I somehow picked up the principles of music, and until today I’m constantly studying and improving my skills.”
For Yeshiva, he studied in Australia and later in England and Israel, all while planning to graduate and then join the Rebbe’s Shlichus – the international outreach efforts of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“In yeshiva, music was my escape,” he says. “It was just a great way to relax and refresh, and I got better and better at it.”
And while he is constantly working on his musical ability, there is so much more that goes into playing for a wedding than meets the eye, Milecki explains.
“Being the most technically proficient musician is not important. The real talent in playing music, like public speaking or teaching kids in Yeshiva, is you’ve got to feel the crowd. You have to be attuned to their feelings, their joy, their pain, even anticipate their boredom. If your heart is not in your audience, you will lose them,” he says.
His first wedding gig was at a friend’s wedding when he was 24 years old. “He saw me play in Yeshiva and thought I was good, so he took a chance on me. I guess I did OK, because from then it was just word of mouth, and people kept hiring me.”
“By the time I got married, I was already established, so I didn’t think it was justified to just end it all, even though I had always seen myself as going on Shlichus,” says Milecki, who can be seen almost nightly playing at a wedding or community event.
“I love what I do, and I think I have one of the best jobs in the world,” he admits. “It’s not only being at people’s happy occasions; it’s actually making them happy. People are so full of gratitude, and can you believe it, I even get paid for it!”
Since he started out 14 years ago, Milecki says the standard of Jewish music has only gotten better.
“The entire level of Jewish music has completely changed over the past 7-8 years. It used to be bands would show up with a speaker or two. Now you need to show up with a great sound system. And it’s no longer a jam session. All the good bands rehearse and prepare their own arrangements. And the choirs have become really good.”
“The entire industry has become very professional,” he states. “It’s now a given that a musician must know how to read and write music. There are so many frum musicians who grew up on Jewish music who are now performing it. It’s a much more authentic feel. It’s also become a point of pride, people are proud to be musicians. The entire industry has moved up in exponential ways.”
Another change he points to is the composition of the songs, which in the past were mostly based on verses from the Siddur, Tehillim, Chumash and Gemara.
“That was the standard, and no one deviated from it,” he says. “Perhaps a singer would have one English song on an album. But if you look at the albums today, they are pretty much all personal messages. There’s definitely a value to having songs of Pesukim, but I do see a value in giving concrete and relatable messages. Nowadays artists are not only looking to sing and perform; they also want to inspire and touch people with a positive message.”
One example is “Yesh Tikvah”, composed by Ari Goldwag and sung by Benny Friedman. “It was groundbreaking and a threshold for Jewish music,” Milecki says. “It was a hit that made the industry sit up and take notice that we need more messages.”
Another example, he says, is the upbeat song “Ivri Anochi – I’m a Jew and I’m Proud,” also composed by Goldwag and sung by Friedman. “It’s an amazing song with a such a positive message. For some reason so many songwriters, write from a place of pain and the messages are “don’t cry” or “don’t be afraid,” but Ivri is such a great song, it’s about Jewish pride and nothing else. Nothing today is more important than being confident and proud of our Jewishness and using it to bring light to the world.”
Which brings Milecki back to his childhood Shlichus dreams.
“I began to see what I do as a form of Shlichus,” he says. “I think that nowadays, a musician or singer can have greater influence than a rabbi or Mashpia. Music is the greatest platform to influence people.”
One episode that solidified that notion with him was singer Avraham Fried at the first Ohel concert. “He is saying these one-liners between songs, and you hear the crowd going crazy for it. You get a certain leeway and a certain place in people’s hearts when you are a performer.
“That’s why I tell all my musician and singer friends, we need to be role models,” says Milecki. “I think that because we are regular people with the same issues and struggles as everyone else, we can be more relatable and more honest, in our ability to be mashpia.
“For this reason, I try to stay involved on many levels. The Big Hakhel event for 20,000 people, which might have been one of the largest gatherings of people in Crown Heights history, is something I’m very proud of. I’m involved in Tzivos Hashem, for 5 years I wrote scripts for JEM, and I was a finalist in the Chasidus Applied essay competition. I also wrote and produced the 90 Second Dvar Torah video series to allow lay people and even shluchim to access meaningful and relatable messages from the Parsha. All because I believe that Chasidus has changed my life in many ways and I want to share that,” Milecki says.
Milecki is proud to maintain a balance in his Judaism. “Growing up in a Shlichus environment heavily influenced who I am today,” Milecki says. “We grew up very strongly frum and chasidish, in an environment that was not.”
So while he is fully comfortable walking around in a less traditional t-shirt, he never misses a day of Chitas and Rambam, he says. “And, I enjoy playing modern styles of music, so I am a little bit of both worlds,” he says.
His new album, titled The Great Farby, to be completed in the coming weeks, personifies that claim. While the album will feature all Chabad niggunim, it will feature electronic dance-style music and performances from a lineup of Jewish singers such as 8th Day, Eli Marcus, Yoni Z. and others.
“Lubavitcher niggunim are honest, real, authentic songs,” Milecki says. “When any of the popular Jewish music singers come out with a song, they are wonderful, but at the end of the day, it’s really just a guy in a studio trying to figure out, ‘how am I going to come up with a hit.’ A Lubavitcher niggun, on the other hand, comes from a raw, authentic, vulnerable place, that makes it truly authentic,” he says.
“What I’m aiming for in the album is to push the edge, yet still only feature Niggunim. It will be very modern music, definitely edgy, and I’ve taken a lot of risks and experimented a lot. I think that’s really what it’s all about, bringing that authenticity into the modern world, without compromising. I believe everything in this world, just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s evil. It can be used for good.”