Brooklyn, NY – Hundreds flocked to Williamsburg Saturday night to pay their respects to Yoely Brach, a well known saxophone player whose positive outlook, warm personality and simchas hachaim made him a beloved fixture on the Jewish music circuit. Brach died on Shabbos after a battle with cancer at the age of 33.
Brach, a Flatbush resident, was remembered by members of the Jewish music industry as the consummate professional who was inordinately sensitive to others and is widely credited for his insistence on having Chasidic musicians performing at Chasidic simchos.
“He felt that Chasidishe musicians belong playing Chasidishe weddings,” said keyboard player Yanky Goldenthal. “They have the right feel and he felt that it was the right thing to do to give parnassa to our own people.”
Brach’s attention to detail, especially when it came to music, was well known.
Orchestrator Yitzy Spinner completed an orchestration for Brach just seven weeks ago.
“It was a medley of Yom Tov Erblich tunes and he knew I wasn’t familiar with the Yiddish so he took the time to translate,” said Spinner. “He said he wanted the orchestrations to reflect the lyrics themselves.”
Brach earned a reputation as a “go-to” guy from his earliest days on the bandstand.
“I used him countless times on jobs,” said singer Srully Williger. “There weren’t that many frum saxaphone players years ago and he was a young excellent player, who was very professional and always a pleasure to work with.”
“What a gentle, thought-through, calculated, accomplished person,” said musician Mendy Worch, who was also a cousin to Brach. “He was always happy and was always kind. It was never about him. It was always about the family, the job, the team, the task at hand. What a great human being.”
Yona Lunger was one of several people who received an email from Brach describing how he shocked he was to find out he had cancer after living a healthy lifestyle, avoiding sugar, carbohydrates, red meat and alcohol, in addition to working out daily for two hours for seventeen years. The email shared lessons Brach had learned, including using your time wisely, appreciating the value of family and the importance of making a difference in the world. The email concluded with the words, “Realize that if you have enough money to pay your bills, if you and your family are healthy, you are truly the luckiest person in the world.”
Despite his illness, Brach continued to play as often as he could.
“He told me he never turns down work because when he’s playing music he stops feeling the terrible pain and itching,” said singer Benny Friedman.
“Yoely didn’t give up a single gig,” added chazan Yanky Lemmer. “He played his heart out with literally his last breaths.”
While life on the bandstand can sometimes be fraught with tension, Brach always maintained his positive attitude.
“There was one time that the musicians were complaining and he said, ‘Just be thankful to Hashem that we are here today to play for this chosson and kallah. You never know what’s going to be tomorrow,’” recalled Goldenthal. “I found out two weeks later that he was sick. Even throughout his treatment he would play as if he was playing the first job of the season, full of energy and flair.”
“This past year, anytime I worked with Yoely, I’d pull him to the side,” added drummer Avi Bernstein. “I was all concerned and would ask him how he’s doing and he would say with his big smile, ‘I’m great,’ or ‘It’s all good,’ or ‘Let’s play some music!’ Then he would play and you look at him and listen to him and you’d wonder, ‘Is he really sick?’”
While Brach’s personality and dedication were well known, other parts of his life were less public.
Brach’s eidelkeit shone through both in his music career and in his private life.
Michoel Schntizler recalled how Brach was having issues with a contractor who was working on his house.
“I said to him ‘Why don’t you say something to him?’” said Schnitzler. “He told me that if he was a Yid, he didn’t want to bother him and if he wasn’t a Yid, he didn’t want to make a chilul Hashem.”
“He had a heart of gold,” said singer Shloime Taussig who made the Kel Maley Rachamim at the levaya. “At so many weddings people would wait for him after the job because they knew he would give him a nice donation. He would do it hidden; nobody knew about it. He would just give people money quietly because he was mamash that type of person.”
That same thoughtfulness was evident in other aspects of Brach’s life. Singer Lipa Schmeltzer described how Shloime Taussig had wanted to go visit Brach in his final days, but knowing that Taussig had just gotten up from sitting shiva for his own father who had succumbed to cancer, Brach vetoed the idea.
“He didn’t want Taussig to be reminded of his own father’s illness,” explained Schmeltzer.
Schmeltzer saw Brach the day before his death.
“I had the honor to go visit him before he died this Friday,” said Schmeltzer. “His wife told me before I came that he is tuning out and that maybe since I didn’t see him in a while, he’ll wake up. When I came in, he lit up and told his wife, ‘Him I love,” which made me recognize how important this last visit was. His kids came to visit while I was there and I made sure to try to keep him awake until he kissed each of his kids and showered them with his last words of love.”
Just before his petira on Shabbos afternoon, Brach called his wife to his bedside.
“He said he feels is going and said goodbye, asking his wife to take good care of the kids. He said Shema and then his neshama went,” said Lunger.
The levaya for Brach was held at Yereim Chapels in Williamsburg at 12:30 Motzei Shabbos. Numerous hespedim were held, despite the lateness of the hour.
“I can tell you he was seen off like a gadol,” said composer Yossi Green.
“We lost a kind soul, a good heart, a beautiful person,” said entertainer Yoely Lebowitz, who went to yeshiva with Brach.
“My memories go back to the Burshtin Yeshiva in Borough Park, where we learned together back in the nineties. I remember in camp I would put up different funny characters while he was playing the saxophone from his bunk bed. We’d dress up and put up impromptu acts.
The whole Yeshiva was pretty much entertained. He was always talented, creative and entertaining. Everyone loved him, and he will surely be missed by all who knew him and mostly by his family he so loved, always a proud husband, father and son. My deepest condolences to his beloved wife and kids, parents and siblings. May his memory be blessed and inspire us all to make this world a better place.”
“I knew Yoely from when we were kids, we grew up in the same neighborhood in the Roberto Clemente city projects on Division Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” said singer Yumi Lowy. “I remember when he started playing saxophone as a bochur and I used to see him all the time walking with his saxophone case on the way to his teacher for lessons. He was a little older than me so we weren’t close back then, but as we grew older and we started working together in the music business, we became very close and stayed close until the last minute.”
Brach, who is survived by his parents, siblings, his wife Sheindy and three children, was buried at the Satmar Beis Olam in Kiryas Yoel.