As a teenager, Yehoshua Lavner played a mean air guitar, while dreaming of a life as a rock ‘n’ roller.
“I think my earliest music inspiration was my mom,” says Lavner, 50, the music teacher at Associated Hebrew School’s Posluns Campus in Toronto. “As soon as she would start singing a song, I could feel stress just melting away. From an early age, it just seemed to me that music and happiness were synonymous.”
Like any aspiring musician, Lavner has some colourful memories from his days trying to make it. One time, he recorded the lead vocals for one of his songs in his car, in the parking lot of Publishers Clearing House, where he worked. “I plugged my recording equipment into the lighter of my car, eventually blowing the fuse,” Lavner recalls. “My boss walked by the car, which was rocking up and down and had the windows fogged up. When I unrolled a window he saw me with my headphones on. Good thing I was on my lunch break.”
In 1988 – his junior year at Rutgers University in New Jersey – the then-18- year-old Lavner entered Chabad House for the first time. It changed his life. In 1990, he finished student teaching and headed directly to yeshiva. From there, he became a Lubavitcher.
“The rebbe became my hero,” says Lavner with a smile. “I even wear his same type of hat, beard and black suit.”
(“OK, it helped that I was already a Blues Brothers fan,” he adds.)
Nearly 20 years later, in 2006, when the Lavners arrived in Toronto from New York, Lavner, who, until then, had made his living as a computer programmer, decided to fall back on his original degree in musical education.
“Mr. Lavner’s music classes embody optimism and a childlike excitement about Judaism,” explains Lee-Ron Kaye, the principal of Posluns. “He fully immerses himself into any school celebration that involves kids singing and he does so in a way that pulls others along with him.”
Looking back on the twists and turns of his life, Lavner admits that, “When I was younger, I definitely wanted to be a rock star, but ha-Shem had a much better plan.” That plan involved his wife of 26 years, Menucha Lavner, who was born in South Africa before moving to Calgary at age four. They married just 11 days after meeting on a shidduch.
“Part of being a good spouse is focusing on your partner’s talents and nurturing them to the fullest,” says Menucha Lavner. “Yeshoshua and I are fortunate that we both love music. I learned quickly in our marriage that letting him toot his own horn was our recipe for marital bliss.”
As an elementary school music teacher, Lavner says, “I couldn’t imagine a more important audience.” And speaking of audiences, the Lavners are the proud parents of nine boys and seven girls, ranging in age from three to 25 years old. How, you may be asking yourself, does a day school teacher support 16 children? “When I went to yeshiva,” he explains, “we learned that with every new baby born, ha-Shem gives a bracha for parnasso and sustenance.”
When he was around 15, Lavner discovered the music of Billy Joel. “He definitely inspired me musically. He is an incredible story-teller,” Lavner gushes. “Those songs were kind of the pre-soundtrack to me changing my life and becoming observant. This was my rock and roll revolution. Gosh, I drove my parents nuts!”
Now, Lavner is working on another musical project: trying to elevate the rather uncool profile of the ukulele. This summer will see the release of his very own product, the Mr. Lavner Ukulele, which comes with his smiling punim on the box.
“It actually wasn’t my idea,” says Lavner. “A number of years ago, I was playing at an intergenerational program when I met Arnold Davidson, who was playing bass.” Davidson was also the president of music company D’Addario Canada. Lavner had recently started to learn to play the ukulele.
“The more I played it, the more I realized that it’s really a family instrument,” he explains. “It’s so small and portable that I can take it around with me all the time and it doesn’t take me away from my family. It just makes me and everyone around me happy.”
Davidson and D’Addario Canada were happy to manufacture the ukuleles for Lavner. “I really hope that the Lavner ukulele will open the door for Jewish kids of all backgrounds and ages to get into the simcha of making music,” Lavner adds. Soon, he will be putting lesson videos on his website (the Lavner ukulele package includes free online tutorials). But the most important thing for learning an instrument, he says, is just to play it every day.
“When I enter a classroom today, it feels like it did those 11 years ago – like someone else would do a better job than me,” Lavner admits. “But ha-Shem gave me so much to share with these kids and I don’t want to let them – or Him – down.”