J.J. Goldberg

Tunes for Atonement II: Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die, Who Shall Get Eaten by a Big Fish

By J.J. Goldberg

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Now we’re coming into the home stretch. Coming up are Leonard Cohen, Hasidic crooner Mordecai Ben-David, Abbott and Costello, Louis Armstrong, Barbra Streisand, Meir Banai and The Band getting us, finally, released.

Berosh Hashana: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast day of Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, but repentance, prayer and righteousness — teshuva, tefila u-tzedaka — avert the harshness of the decree. Here’s a lively Hasidishe version, sung by kosherer krooner Mordechai Ben-David. (Here is another take on teshuva, tefila and tzedaka, set to the tune of — what else? — “Tequila.”)

And here’s the piece you knew was coming: Leonard Cohen singing his version, Who by Fire, with Sonny Rollins on sax. (If you didn’t catch his tour last year, you owe it to yourself to check out this version, not for the vocals but for the incredible 3-minute intro by Javier Mas on the bandurria.)

Essential to the Yom Kippur cycle is the reading of the biblical Book of Jonah during Minchah in the late afternoon. Here are three versions of the story, first as stunningly related by Louis Armstrong; then perhaps the weirdest version of Jonah ever, by the eternal high priest of hip, the late Lord Buckley; and finally as told by Abbott and Costello.

Jonah and the Whale (Lord, Wasn’t That a Fish?) – by Louis Armstrong.

Jonah and the Whale, Lord Buckley’s hipster version, performed by Lord Buckley impersonator Rod Harrison. (If you’re curious, here is a clip of Lord Buckley himself in a 1949 television show, doing his impersonation of Louis Armstrong.)

And bringing up the rear, Abbott and Costello offering their learned exegesis, Captain Jonah and the Whale:

The final service of the day is Ne’ilah, the Closing of the Gate. In Sephardic traditions it is introduced by a piyut or sacred poem by Moshe ibn Ezra called El Nora Alila (“God of Awesome Deed, grant us forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah”). This is an up-tempo version by Israeli rocker Meir Banai, a scion of one of Israel’s best-known showbiz families. I blogged it last winter, but it’s too good to leave out. Here are the Hebrew lyrics. Here is my blog with my translation, since I can’t find a more authoritative one.

And now the climax, my favorite moment in all of Jewish liturgy, Avinu Malkeinu, which we will not hear this year because it is not sung on Sabbath, which I have always found very annoying. Anyhow, here is Barbra Streisand doing her haunting, ethereal version, followed by the Vienna Jewish Choir doing a lovely version of the more familiar melody.

Here is the Vienna Jewish Choir doing Avinu Malkeinu as most of us probably remember it:

And what could be more appropriate to follow and wrap up this moment of absolution than the image rendered by The Band in this 1970 concert version of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released? (I almost went with this version sung by Cass Elliott, Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell, which should have been incredible but has a truly hokey instrumental backup that sounds like the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, though it’s redeemed by Cass’s first verse and especially Joni Mitchell’s third verse which is worth the price of admission.)


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