Piping Up For Israel


What’s that sound coming from the courtyard?

Bagpipes? No, it can’t be. It’s not even St. Patrick’s Day.

And yet, there they are, standing near the patchy lawn behind their Washington Heights apartment building — an Orthodox Jewish couple, playing the bagpipes.

Sam and Sandy Benson usually practice their unusual instrument in Fort Tryon Park, but on Fridays, when time is short and the food is in the oven, they just come downstairs to play.

They are the unofficial “Shabbos siren” of Bennett Avenue — and just as loud.

“It has this unique sound,” said Sam Benson, the more experienced piper of the two. “The drones create this wall of sound that gives it this rich background.”

Benson started playing the bagpipes 30 years ago, as a teenager — “I liked the sound” — and put them down when he went to college.

But about a year ago, he picked up the Great Highland Bagpipe again.

As an emergency manager for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, Benson said he “was looking to get back into a work-life balance.”

Playing the bagpipes, he said, gives him a much-needed respite from crisis management. They’re “something purely for enjoyment.”

Sandy, who works in the computer department at New York Presbyterian Hospital, is Sam’s partner in piping, and in life. She started off on a practice chanter — an instrument that resembles a recorder — and recently purchased a set of bagpipes.

The two take weekly classes through the Caledonian Club (www.nycaledonian.org) and have a private tutor, and Sam is involved with the New York Scottish Pipes and Drums.

“One of the hardest things about being frum and a piper is that so many of the events are on Shabbos,” he said.

But there’s one upcoming event that he will be able to participate in — Sunday’s Salute to Israel Parade.

“Now I have a whole bunch of Hebrew tunes that I’ve got to get down,” Benson said — “Sisu et Yerushalayim,” “Hava Nagila” and “Tzena Tzena” among them.

The Bensons are also looking forward to Make Music New York on June 21, when musicians throughout the five boroughs produce a symphony of sound to celebrate the beginning of summer.

Don’t be surprised if you see a couple of Orthodox Jewish bagpipers among them.

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