By S. Choveiv
a long and fascinating interview, drummer Yitzchok Bitton tells his unusual life
story. He describes the band, the appearances it made around the world, the days
of fame and glory, about becoming a baal teshuva, and about the brachos and
encouragement he received from the Rebbe MH"M
sits facing me. Behind me is a huge oil painting of the members of the band
"Raaya Meihemna," which brings to mind the band that played for
Barak ben Avinoam upon his return from war with Sisra. He gazes at the picture
and then suddenly asks, "Do you know what it is to compose along with the
Rebbe? When two artists collaborate, one contributing a stanza and the other
writing the melody, the creation belongs to them both equally, and it makes no
difference how many lines each one contributes…"
the table is a thick album portraying Yitzchok Bitton’s thrilling life. It
contains newspaper clippings, articles from exclusive European and American
magazines reporting about appearances before thousands of fans, pictures of
sports cars, Harley Davidsons, executive planes, the ‘60’s. But these things
do not move him.
the back of the album there’s an entire section called "The Return,"
or "After Teshuva." He removes a small piece of paper in Rabbi Groner’s
handwriting which says, "If it isn’t a problem to add, ‘May it be soon,’"
and explains: "As I was becoming more involved with Yiddishkeit, I
wrote a song in English about Moshiach’s coming. I presented it to the Rebbe
among other topics I had written about, and this is the answer I received. In a
sense, this song, which was recorded with the addition the Rebbe asked for, was
one I wrote with the Rebbe."
years after the rock band Le Variations disbanded in Cincinnati, Yitzchok Bitton,
the drummer and one of the founders of the band, sat in his home in Crown
Heights and reminisced. He related a thrilling tale of a Jewish neshama
lost somewhere among the flowered shirts and bell-bottoms of the ‘60’s,
making its way back to the neshama klalis of the Nasi Doreinu, the
Moroccan-French mixed with English, a result of his protracted stay in the U.S.,
Bitton’s story unfolded. He described the band, the appearances it made, and
how he became a baal teshuva.
pours cups of cherry soda while I turn on my digital tape recorder, and his
was born 53 years ago to a religious family in Casablanca, Morocco. "Kosher
food and davening three times a day was a must," he says of his
background. "We did not wear kipot in the street in order not to
anger the Arabs, but when I was 12, my father began wearing a kipa
the age of 9, Yitzchok and his brothers were sent to school in France. Yitzchok
attended the De Hirsch Jewish religious school in Paris, and a few years later
transferred to the Yavne school. His youth was spent in both Paris and
Casablanca, where he received a basic Jewish education.
sister would often visit Mrs. Matusof," Yitzchok told me when I asked him
whether he knew Chabad in Casablanca. "I only heard about Lubavitch and
Chabad later in life, but I remember the Shabbasos that my sister spent with the
talent for music became apparent when he was about five years old. "I
drummed on pots, on garbage cans, on anything that made noise." He began
studying drumming in Paris when he was 14. "I studied for three months and
then had to return to Morocco. I continued to practice at home, sitting for
hours with a small set of drums, drumming along with records."
years later, Yitzchok put together his first group with two other Jewish
musicians and one Moroccan. They formed a band called Jet.
18, Yitzchok moved to Paris, leaving home permanently. "We all came from
religious homes, but the atmosphere of the street was very enticing. On Shabbos
we used to make Kiddush with our parents and then we went out with
friends," says Yitzchok sorrowfully.
was the end of the ‘60’s. The hippie phenomenon had taken France by storm.
Young people were experiencing an identity crisis the likes of which humanity
had never known. The Allies had won the war and wiped out the Nazis. The world
had been shaken up. Dozens of little countries gained their independence. Now
what? This was the question which haunted the young generation who had been
raised in the shadow of millions who had died.
are we? Why are we alive? What is our purpose? What will be in the future? Young
people sought spiritual relief, turning to drugs and cults, hedonism,
individuals with a strong financial instinct produced ancient wisdom from the
closet and shook off the dust, and young people flocked to them, thirsting for
something that would supply answers for the mania of doubt and questioning which
had taken hold of an entire generation.
collective search was expressed, among other ways, in music. It was in the music
scene more than anything else that expressed the cultural revolution taking
place in the world.
Yitzchok arrived in the City of Lights in the midst of all this confusion. It
was there that he met friends who would turn out to be a major influence in his
life. Once again, the group consisted of three Jews and one Frenchman. They had
a few joint jam sessions and the spark began to flare. Yitzchok and his friends
formed a band called Le Variations.
performed at a crazy rate," recalls Yitzchok. "We began with clubs and
small shows, and in a relatively short time after breaking into the market we
took our equipment and flew to Denmark where we recorded our first album."
first record was a hit. The music was the sort people were looking for at that
time. The group began almost non-stop appearances. "We had a wonderful,
adventurous, charismatic manager. He got us a huge van with all the equipment
and we went off into the unknown. Wherever we went in Europe, he made
connections and arranged appearances for us wherever possible. We covered all of
Europe and Scandinavia."
a short time, the group had changed from a new and anonymous band that played in
clubs, to a band of renown. Radio stations played songs from their first record,
and prime time television programs were proud to give them a stage. At the end
of 1969 they were invited to appear on a popular show alongside the best
European artists of that time. Thanks to the media coverage, they received an
offer they could not refuse, and they signed a contract with the largest record
company in Europe. This was the beginning of an exceedingly successful era.
Variations took its place among other important rock bands in France. Papers
that covered the music scene and gossip columnists eagerly followed the public
and private lives of the band members. Money poured in, the number of fans grew,
and halls with 20,000 seats and more began to fill up with their appearances.
was the life Yitzchok, known as Jacques, led before he turned twenty. He was on
his way towards realizing his dreams, material though they were. He was a member
of one of the most important bands in France; some actually considered them the
best. Yet something wasn’t quite right.
felt that we had done Europe already, appearing in nearly every possible venue.
It all seemed so easy all of a sudden – the money, the acclaim, the luster. We
felt a void and searched for a challenge. At the height of our career, we packed
our bags and headed to America."
1971, Bitton discovered America. His brother, who studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva,
had married in Ohio, and Jacques attended the wedding. Shortly thereafter, he
landed in Cincinnati, this time with his entire band. They rented a small
apartment that became their second home and began all over again.
script repeated itself with minor appearances in bars and nightclubs. We went to
Memphis and recorded a second record. We knew that spiritually America was not
different, but materially it was completely different. We began at the
beginning, from zero."
something really strange happened.
had signed with a company which provided us with performances in all sorts of
places. We fought to gain a handhold on the ladder to success, which we had done
so successfully in Europe, but for some reason it just didn’t go.
day our manager burst into our apartment all excited. ‘You won’t believe it,’
he announced triumphantly, waving an offer he had just received. ‘You have a
headline appearance for Students’ Day in the University of Florida in Miami.
Over 10,000 students will attend the event. The terms, the audience and the
location are all reasons to expect this to be one of your most crucial
a quick glance at the Jewish calendar, Jacques blanched. The appearance was
scheduled for Yom Kippur. "Unfortunately it wouldn’t have been the first
Yom Kippur we hadn’t kept, but actually to perform? I couldn’t digest the
fact that we would be appearing on that holy day, and I firmly told the manager,
who was Jewish, that I couldn’t perform on Yom Kippur.
looked at me like I fell off the moon. ‘Are you crazy?!’ he screamed. ‘You
think we’re going to cancel the appearance in Miami? Are you insane? This can
be our big break. Do you know what it means to break a contract with a record
gave in, for, after all, a number of holy days had passed unobserved. He found
himself on Yom Kippur setting up his drums on the huge stage. The hot Florida
sun beat down on his head, the sound technicians set up their monitors, the
musicians tuned their guitars, and they were ready to perform that afternoon.
Over 10,000 students packed the stadium at the university and waited impatiently
for the performance.
closed his eyes, going back in time to that miserable performance in Miami.
"I don’t know what to tell you. Some invisible black cat, like an
invisible angel, appeared with us that day. It was the worst appearance we ever
had. We played like the worst students in sixth grade recorder class. We weren’t
in synch, the singers were trying to fake it, and people left in droves. It was
returned to Cincinnati feeling really down. This had never happened to us
before, and we were ashamed to look each other in the eye. ‘You see?’ I
attacked the manager, ‘it’s because we performed on Yom Kippur!’"
stopped speaking and stared off into the distance and sighed. "There are
things you understand only a long time later. Looking back, that Yom Kippur was
actually the turning point in my life. A year ago I went to visit my son who was
learning in yeshiva in Miami. I went to the same spot where we had
appeared nearly thirty years before. I recited Tehillim and tried to
correct at least a little bit of what we had done."
two rounds of appearances in the U.S., it looked like they weren’t meeting the
expectations they had for themselves. They decided to change direction. Bitton
began explaining apologetically, "Do you understand? In America it’s very
hard to break in. You can make the impact of your life here, but you can also
wind up getting it in your face. There’s tremendous competition here. The
pinnacle is much higher, but the road leading there is ten times harder."
a certain point they realized that to come from Morocco to sing American songs
to Americans was like selling ice to Eskimos. They decided to change their style
went to France and recorded our third record – "Morroc’n’roll."
It was professional, original rock music with a Moroccan rhythm."
it was the right move at the right time. The record was a hit and it moved us
forward in our quest for stardom. Now we weren’t bar musicians anymore. We
began to take off, and received invitations to appear as the headliners for
famous singers and bands. We appeared all over the U.S. and on television
programs with excellent ratings, and it looked as though we had found the way
towards what we were trying to achieve."
that time we were already firmly located in America, and were constantly doing
the Ohio-Paris route. We produced a fourth record called "Cafe Paris."
We made another few rounds of appearances in the U.S. and Europe. We signed a
record contract with the biggest company in America and were working on our
record company pressured us tremendously. We rented a large farm in Pennsylvania
in order to be able to work in peace and quiet. We worked like crazy around the
clock in order to keep up the pace."
was coming up and Jacques informed his friends, in no uncertain terms, "I’m
going to New York for Yom Kippur."
tried to convince him otherwise, but to no avail. Bitton’s conscience still
bothered him about the previous Yom Kippur’s ill-fated performance, and he was
adamant about going. The group took a break for a few days and Jacques and the
other Jewish fellows (one more had recently joined) went to New York to daven
with his brother in Flatbush.
davened with Rabbi Halioua," recalls Bitton. "He had a small
Moroccan minyan which he set up in his garage behind his house. We all
had long hair and wore white or colorful suits, which was the style at the time.
We went to shul, and I stayed there the entire Yom Kippur. I didn’t
leave the shul. That was the first Yom Kippur I remember that I observed
properly, with all the t’fillos. It made a tremendous impact on
was a turning point in Jacques’ life. The yearning to return to his roots and
to learn more grew stronger, and it was with this influence that he performed in
the next round of shows.
went to my brother in New York more often. I spoke a great deal with friends of
the family from Morocco who studied in yeshivos in the U.S. and France.
At that time I also met Rabbi Meir Abehsera who lived in Brooklyn, and I spent
Shabbos with him.
one of my visits to New York I met a friend of my father from Morocco. He looked
at me seriously and said, "You? You’re the son of Ezra Bitton? That’s
what you look like? Long hair? You don’t keep Shabbos? You don’t even look
Jewish! You are an embarrassment to your family!"
tried to explain to him that in the music world it’s hard to climb to the top
while remaining religious, but he didn’t let me talk and he continued blasting
away at me. In retrospect, I think he shook me up and sent me heading in the
neshama began crying out. It didn’t let him rest. His neshama wanted
to burst forth and announce: Hey Yitzchok, I’m here!
timing was right because the band was just beginning to fall apart. The lead
singer and guitarist got involved in drugs and was thrown out of the band. His
precipitous departure was a great blow for the band, one from which they could
not recover. They changed singers and musicians rapidly, but it just wasn’t
the same tight group anymore.
band didn’t give up, though. They felt so close to the pinnacle and they could
just picture tens of thousands of Americans packing the stadiums to hear them.
They desperately tried to keep the band together as they stood inches away from
that time, the desire to return to my roots intensified. I began with kashrus,
and every Shabbos my manager would take me to the local shul. In shul I
met a nice boy by the name of Shmuel Kolotzky, who was also taking his first
steps to teshuva. It turned out that Shmuel was not a bad musician, and
he joined us at rehearsals, where we spoke for hours about emuna and
ideals. On Shabbos we ate together at his home. He was in touch with the Rebbe’s
shluchim in Cincinnati, and began taking me with him to Chassidus classes
with Rabbi Kalmanson and Rabbi Popack."
half a year Le Variations fought to stay alive, until they finally broke up, ten
years after beginning to create music together. They realized they couldn’t go
on as they were, and officially announced the breakup of the band.
Kolotzky heard we had broken up and that I was planning to return to Paris, he
told me about a Shabbaton Chabad was making for university students in Crown
Heights. "Come," he said, "we’re going to meet the Rebbe."
I agreed, and two weeks after the breakup of the band, I found myself jostling
among hundreds or perhaps thousands of Chassidim in 770, waiting for the Rebbe
to come in for Maariv.
remember that we sang and sang, and suddenly – like the splitting of the Sea
of Reeds, the Rebbe entered in all his glory, and walked directly to his place.
was blown away. His holy appearance, his majestic bearing. I felt endless rays
of energy flowing from the Rebbe’s essence into me. I shuddered.
will never forget that Shabbos the rest of my life. I was hosted by the Goldman
family (later on, Rabbi Goldman taught my children). We participated in all the t’fillos
and farbrengens. I especially loved the niggunim that were sung so
often. I saw true joy, and a purity I had never experienced before. When I first
heard the niggun "Al ha’sela hach hach." The truth is
that I didn’t understand much, but the Shabbos made a tremendous impression on
me, and I began putting t’fillin on every day.
wrote my father a letter, telling him I needed t’fillin and a tallis.
I received them in Cincinnati within a few days. At a later point, my father
told me that the day he received that letter from me was the happiest day of his
returned to Cincinnati to pack up my equipment, and then went off to visit my
parents, who had moved to Eretz Yisroel and lived in Ramat Gan. Then I went to
Kfar Chabad where I learned with a French-Moroccan bachur. When he saw
that I wanted to return to France, he told me there were two groups in France,
one belonging to Rabbi Azimov and the other, Hadar Hatorah, belonging to Rabbi
Pashtar. ‘Knowing you, I think Pashtar is more your speed,’ he told me. He
returned to France and felt at home immediately. I joined a group of baalei
teshuva my age and more or less in the same boat. Among them were Rabbi
Yaakov Amar, Shaul Ben Shimol, Rabbi Chai Barkatz, and others."
quickly acclimated to Hadar Hatorah. Slowly but surely he returned to his roots.
"You know, it wasn’t easy doing teshuva. It wasn’t the style
then, the way it is today where people suddenly start wearing a beard and yarmulka.
You meet old friends from the music world. Sometimes I took my yarmulka off
in the street, sometimes I wore a cap, and sometimes I wore tzitzis
without a yarmulka. A good friend once saw me like that and he began
laughing at me for going with tzitzis without a yarmulka. From
then on, I always wore my yarmulka."
second time Yitzchok saw the Rebbe, this time as a baal teshuva, was on
13 Tammuz 5737, with a group from Hadar Hatorah of Paris. Yitzchok had his first
yechidus. He spoke in French and told the Rebbe about the problems his
family was having with his brother. He wrote to the Rebbe that he tried to work
on him but was unsuccessful. The Rebbe looked at him penetratingly but lovingly
and said in French that a brother cannot influence a brother. The yechidus ended
and Yitzchok left the Rebbe’s room with a new spirit for life.
that time, my parents wanted me to come live with them. I didn’t want to
because I loved the group in Paris. I wrote to the Rebbe explaining my position
and asked the Rebbe what to do. In addition, I described my musical background
and wrote the words to the new song which I had just written about Geula."
thereafter, Yitzchok received an answer from the Rebbe: K’horoas rav s’fardi
(as a S’fardic rabbi will direct him). Concerning the song, the Rebbe wrote:
"If it isn’t a problem to add, ‘May it be soon.’ Azkir al ha’tziyun
about all the above-mentioned."
experienced a difficult period. It’s hard to take that final step. It’s a
new life. In the music world, it’s even a stronger change. Clubs, performances
– that life is all over. You can’t play on Shabbos. I asked myself whether I
could continue with my music, or if perhaps a religious life was a contradiction
to that. I didn’t see myself playing at weddings, though I knew I would have
to do that at some point in order to be able to carry on, but it really didn’t
appeal to me. I was more involved in the creative end of music and didn’t
enjoy playing other people’s music.
knew outstanding musicians who had completely left the music world when they
became baalei teshuva. They didn’t see a future in music. They felt
satisfied with Torah, and didn’t need music any longer. I was afraid that
would happen to me too, which is why the Rebbe’s answer breathed new life into
me. I saw it as endorsing and encouraging me to continue with my music.
consulted with a S’fardic rav who told him to go to Eretz Yisroel.
Three months later he met his wife-to-be and they married in Eretz Yisroel. In
the months that followed his marriage, Yitzchok tried his luck in Eretz Yisroel.
He taught drumming in kibbutzim in the north and played at weddings, but
he felt that he had to return to America.
checking things out in America, it was his wife who decided to live in Crown
Heights. "Although it would have been more pleasant to live near the family
in Flatbush, my wife felt something electric in the atmosphere in Crown Heights.
We rented an apartment on the outskirts of the community."
the United States, Bitton met other baalei teshuva musicians like
himself, and they formed a band. "One day I was learning Tanya and
came across the words "raaya meihemna." For some reason I liked
the sound of the phrase, and decided that is what we would name the band. We
produced our first record, which included the song that was written with the
Rebbe. We gave the record to the Rebbe and Rabbi Groner told me that the Rebbe
thanked us for it.
eight months after the first record came out, Rabbi Groner called me and said,
"The Rebbe said you should consult with a rav about the name of the
band." I was shocked. I hadn’t asked the Rebbe anything at that time. I
hadn’t sent a letter or anything, and suddenly the Rebbe was telling me this.
immediately asked Rabbi Marlow, z’l, and he told me it wasn’t
forbidden, but if the Rebbe pointed it out, I should change the name. The band
was just beginning to become popular in religious circles, and I didn’t want
to change the name completely, so I changed it to raava meihemna.
Bitton and the band Raava Meihemna produced a second record. They were invited
to appear around the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Eretz Yisroel. He constantly
received encouragement and brachos from the Rebbe before each round of
appearances. He once even received a check for fifty francs before going off to
various reasons the band eventually broke up, and for the last 17 years,
Yitzchok has been working on a third record, this time alone. "Each year on
my birthday on Yud-Tes Kislev, I would ask the Rebbe for a bracha for the
third record, but never received an answer. All other letters, about births and bar
mitzvos, were responded to with brachos, but no bracha was
forthcoming for a third record. All sorts of unnatural delays and postponements
prevented producing the record.
Yud-Tes Kislev 5752, I passed by the Rebbe for dollars. As I did every year on
my birthday, I asked for a bracha for the record, and suddenly the Rebbe
said "Bracha v’hatzlacha." The answer greatly encouraged me,
and I realized I was about to make a breakthrough, though for some reason it was
late in coming.
few months later my wife began expressing doubts about my continued involvement
in music. She wrote to the Rebbe that we had no parnasa and the record
wasn’t happening, and she asked whether I should continue with my music. Rabbi
Groner read the letter to the Rebbe and the Rebbe nodded his head in the
was this answer which I received through my wife that gave me renewed energy.
The money started coming in from many unexpected sources. We bought recording
equipment, and now, after 17 years of waiting, we are about to produce the third
record with professional, part rock ‘n roll and part flamenco, Eastern and
Western music. It has songs about Geula and Moshiach, Eretz Yisroel,
big dream is to sing before the Rebbe again, this time in Yerushalayim with the
third Beis HaMikdash!"
I looked through Yitzchok’s album and noticed that in many pictures, he
appears wearing a large Magen Dovid necklace. "Did you perform while
wearing that?" I asked.
when I think back, one of the things which definitely pushed me was that Magen
Dovid. I was vacationing with my parents in Eretz Yisroel when I saw this Magen
Dovid. I liked it and I bought it, and wore it at every opportunity. It had
precious stones which sparkled in all the pictures, and I was very proud of it.
I wanted to show everybody I was Jewish."
In 5739 I had a yechidus with my wife, my oldest daughter, and my
two-year-old son. The Rebbe wanted to give coins for tzedaka to my children, but
my son refused to take the coin.
wife took the baby’s right hand and stretched it out towards the Rebbe, but
the Rebbe ignored it and held out the coin towards the baby’s left hand. We
were very surprised. Years later we discovered that my son was left-handed and
we realized why the Rebbe had done what he did.
It was 5743, and the first time I participated in the Lag B’Omer parade. I
was amazed by the sight of thousands of marching children, the fantastic floats,
and the Rebbe watching his soldiers from the dais. I noticed with great interest
each detail of the parade, but one thing bothered me. How could it be that on
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s day of celebration, with all these things being done
in his honor, not one person sang the song "Bar Yochai"?
following year I took the initiative, and spoke to the organizers of the parade.
I brought along singers, a sound system and a generator, and hitched a ride on
one of the trucks. That is how we passed in front of the Rebbe MH"M, while
singing the song "Bar Yochai."