🕯 Moshe Yess (1945-2011) – 4th of Shvat

January 26, 2023

Moshe Aaron Yess z’l (1945-2011) was a world-renowned musician, composer and entertainer from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He was a deep thinker, a gifted balladeer, and a phenomenal storyteller. A member of the Chabad community in Montreal, Yess was a regular performer at Chabad House events and shows, as well as many international Jewish music festivals, Chabad Telethons and even the annual HASC A Time for Music concerts. Yess’s music was able to appeal to all sects of the Jewish spectrum – from the nonreligious to the Ultra-Orthodox – because he had known both lifestyles himself.

When he was in his twenties, his prodigious musical talent led him to the West Coast where he played – and often soloed – with a number of musical groups that achieved great prominence in secular America. It was during this time – the height of the American counterculture era – that Morris Arthur Yess found his musical groove.

He could do it all. A virtuoso jazz, bluegrass, flamenco, and classical guitarist, Yess shared stages with some of the biggest names in American Folk Rock and Sunshine Pop music. He was even asked to become the lead guitarist for what was to eventually become one of the pioneering psychedelic rock groups of its day. He turned them down, but it didn’t matter. By then, he had entered a new level of popular demand. His nightly solo performances in Vegas and its surrounding area would garner a whopping $2,500 per gig!

To any unsuspecting outsider, it would have seemed that this soon-to-be superstar was well on his way. But that was far from the case. Amidst all the glitz and glamor of a budding secular career, Yess was finding it increasingly harder to deal with a very real internal struggle. The secular music lifestyle was leaving his deeply emotional, spirituality-craving soul with a large void. But when these internal existential bouts began to take a toll on his physical health, he knew that he had reached the breaking point – something had to give.

Yess’s friend, Rabbi Yosef Krupnik, recounts that Yess had previously been in contact with Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, one of the original Chabad shluchim in Los Angeles. Rabbi Cunin recognized that if Yess was to flourish spiritually, he would need to get away… and fast. “Cunin felt that Moshe needed to be as far as possible from his $2500-a-night gigs and from the entertainment world” Rabbi Krupnik says.

Rabbi Cunin was definitely onto something. He successfully persuaded Yess to turn his back on a future of fleeting fame and fortune, and head instead to Eretz Yisrael to enroll in a yeshiva for baalei teshuva. Yess bought himself a one-way ticket, and in the Summer of 1978, he moved from Hollywood, California to Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh.

As Hashgacha would have it, it was there that he met a classically trained viola player named Shalom Levine z’l (1951-2013). The two of them immediately hit it off. They were both musicians who had worked the secular music circuit, and had enrolled in Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim at the same time. Levine became his “mentor in Halacha” – as Yess would call him – and a long-lasting friendship of genuine respect and admiration would ensue.

But it took a while for Moshe to pick up a guitar again. As far as he was concerned, the music that he had to offer the world was not exactly “kosher.” All he knew was Rock and Blues and Country – none of which he could consider the least bit “Jewish.” The notion of him not being able to make music anymore, saddened him greatly – enough so, in fact, that he started to feel depressed. A rebbi in the yeshiva took notice and came over to discuss the issue. The rebbi listened to his concern and then gave him the advice that would become the catalyst for Moshe Yess’s Jewish music legacy.

“Throughout this galus” the rabbi told him, “everywhere our nation has been, we have created music that was inspired by that place and time. In Spain we created Ladino music. In Russia we adapted Russian Folk. In Eastern Europe we were influenced and inspired by the various meters and modes of their musical genres. And when we came to America, guess what? Now there’s such a thing as American-style Jewish music! Don’t stop yourself from creating music – find your message and express it in the best way you know how!”

And so, with newfound purpose, Moshe Yess returned to his friend. He and Shalom spoke about harnessing American-style music to create a modern yet sensitive expression of Jewish thought. Thus, the groundbreaking musical group Megama (Hebrew for “purpose” or “direction”) was born. Over the next several years, the Megama Duo recorded two studio albums and would go on to perform their unique sound far and wide. As thousands of fans worldwide will attest, the signature chemistry that defined the pair can only be expressed as magical.

After a few years of rigorous touring, R’ Shalom settled in Yerushalayim to focus on his learning – becoming a sofer in the process. Moshe moved back to Canada and ended up living near Abie Rotenberg in Toronto. When they first met, Abie had just written “The Ninth Man” and was looking for someone to record the vocals for the first Journeys album. With his deep, theatrical voice that always radiated charm, Yess couldn’t say no – he was perfect for the job.

The two musical masterminds collaborated on the next Journeys album, an album called Achva, a third Journeys album, and joined forces to co-create the Marvelous Midos Machine series! All the while, Moshe continued to record independently as well, releasing five solo albums in addition to his own children’s audio series: The Amazing Torah Bike.

In his later years, Yess retired from music when his health began to decline, before ultimately succumbing to illness on Motzoei Shabbos January 8th, 2011 – the 4th of Shvat 5771. Rabbi Shalom Levine was niftar on January 10th, 2013 – the 28th of Teves 5773 – just weeks after making a cameo appearance on The Yess Legacy tribute album, and only a few days before what would have been the second Yahrtzeit of his former musical partner.

יהי זכרם ברוך

In a style that might best be described as “Rock meets Blues meets Jazz meets Country” peppered with their off-beat humor and sardonic comments on contemporary Jewish life, Megama made for compelling listening for all, regardless of nationality or religious background. “Beggar Woman,” “Jack Schwartz,” “David Cohen’s Bar Mitzvah,” “Dollar Bill,” “Pushka Pushka Pushka,” “Ain’t No Bishul” – the list goes on, with every fan claiming a different tune to be their favorite one.

However, if not their absolute greatest hit, then surely their most iconic, was a song called My Zaide, which was composed by Moshe Yess and was sung on their very first record, Megama, in 1980. It’s an unassuming nostalgic song about a boy’s memory of his zaidy whose death leads to the collapse of the family’s last ties to Yiddishkeit.

Having been among the first wave of Baalei Teshuva who somehow managed to survive the 60’s and return to the fold, Yess somehow manages to condense the entire tragedy of American assimilation into the space of a few simple lyrics while charging each and every one of us with a mission of epic proportions:

Who will be the Zaidy of my children? Who will be their Zaidy, if not me?
Who will be the Zaidys of our children? Who will be their Zaidys, if not we?

In honor of this unforgettable song, I felt this post would not be complete without including a clip of Avraham Fried’s monumental tribute performance of this timeless classic while on the HASC – A Time for Music 25 stage back in 2012. No further introduction is necessary; the video speaks for itself.

(L-R) R’ Shalom Levine z’l & Moshe Yess z’l
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Tali Yess

    Thank you so much for putting this article together honoring the memory of my father, the changes he made while briefly visiting this world, and the music he left behind. You recounted his story very well and clearly you have great sources. May we only know of Simchas!

  2. Victor Shine

    I first saw Megama perform in the early 1980’s in Memphis, TN, at the Yeshiva of the South annual dinner. They were fabulous! I bought their first album and listened to it a lot. I later saw Moshe perform live in his coffee house in Jerusalem, around 1984. What an incredibly creative talent. He is sorely missed, but listening to his son, Tali, is a huge comfort.

    • Rabbi Dovid Jaffe

      Moshe OBM was an inspiration who opened hearts and touched souls with his incredible music and persona.

      May his memory be for blessing.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *