J.J. Goldberg

Songs to Atone By: Dylan, Jolson, Streisand, Oysher

By J.J. Goldberg

YouTube Screen Shot
Al Jolson sings Kol Nidre in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ 1927

As we approach the holiest day of the year, I’ve put together a selection of songs that sum up the day and capture its spirit, at least for me. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, from the introductory prayer to Kol Nidre, the Maariv service, some highlights of Mussaf, the Jonah story and finally Neilah and absolution. Some selections are traditional liturgy in particularly excellent musical rendering; others are American songs that capture the message and the flavor IMHO. Included are performances by Bob Dylan, Al Jolson, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, Cass Elliott and Joni Mitchell, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and Louis Armstrong, among many others.

Note: Steve and Eydie are a late addition, erev chag. I don’t know how I forgot them, as you’ll see when you hear their tune. They close the concert. Eydie closed hers just a month ago, on the 4th of Ellul, August 10.

We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This is a live version of the Bob Dylan song, from his 1976 Rolling Thunder Review concert tour, and he’s joined by Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. By the way, the most emotionally devastating version of the song ever recorded might be this one; it’s sung by Warren Zevon on his final album, “The Wind,” reflections on his own upcoming death of cancer, which came just 10 years ago, on September 7, 2003, at age 56, a few days after the album was released.

Incidentally, Dylan originally wrote and performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for the soundtrack (here’s the original) of the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” At the time Dylan was living in New York and meeting with kibbutz aliyah shaliach Shaul Pe’er, who was negotiating for Dylan and his family to spend a trial year at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. But in late 1972 Dylan told Shaul he was putting the talks on hold for several months while he went to Los Angeles to make the film. He never left LA.

Next are the two most powerful versions of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. The first is the iconic rendition by Al Jolson at the climax of the very first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. It’s a tale that closely parallels Jolson’s own life of a cantor’s son who runs off to become a pop crooner and finally comes home on Yom Kippur to fill in on the bima for his dying father.

The second is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (“Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying. Not to be missed.

After Kol Nidre we enter the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim prayer, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. This is Bob Dylan’s approximate translation of the prayer, Father of Night, sung here by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:

Read more


Holiday Songs: Robeson's 'Joe Hill,' Solidarity in WI

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Joe Hill

Some songs for the holiday. First, Paul Robeson’s immortal rendition of “The Ballad of Joe Hill.” It still has incredibly moving power. (Read this and this for some fascinating comment on Joe.)

Then, Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock (author of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”) sings Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”), after reminiscing about the day that Joe first brought the lyrics into IWW’s Portland, Ore., headquarters and Mac was able to perform it in public for the first time.

Then, two versions of “Solidarity Forever.” One is sung by Leonard Cohen, surprisingly (but appropriately, it turns out) hauntingly, almost as a lament. The second is belted out by Wisconsin state employees inside the state capitol rotunda in December 2011, complete with updated lyrics and some unpleasant interactions with the police. And, a few days after that, in January 2012, watch the Red Raiders Marching Band from Pulaski High School in Wisconsin, marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena and stopping in front of the reviewing stand to play Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” (lyrics). The moment is completely lost on the local TV newscasters.

Last, a slanderous but highly entertaining ditty, “The Cloakmakers’ Union,” attacking the leaders of the great Jewish-led garment unions (“the Dubinskys”) and the Socialist Party (“the Hillquits” and “the Thomases”). It was made up in the late 1920s by Yiddish communists, and is sung here tongue-in-cheek in the early 1950s by Dubinskyites Joe Glazer and Abe Brumberg. (The version I learned from my father, a lifelong employee of said cloakmakers’ union, was a little different. It went: “…The right-wing cloakmakers and the Socialist fakers are a bunch of strike-breakers by the bosses…”)

Paul Robeson sings “The Ballad of Joe Hill”:

Haywire Mac McClintock remembers Joe Hill and sings “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”):

Read more


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

By J.J. Goldberg

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:

Read more


Dispatch from a Lost Tribe: Quebec Mohawks Expel Intermarrieds

By J.J. Goldberg

The Montreal Gazette reports in this February 3 article that the Kahnawake Reserve (Canadian for reservation) of the Mohawk nation, just outside Montreal, has issued expulsion orders to about 25 whites living illegally on the reserve. It sounds a lot like a miniature version Israel’s struggles over refugees and foreign workers.

About 25 non-natives — mostly white people involved in relationships with Mohawks — are being asked to leave the reserve because Mohawk law does not allow them to live there, said Joe Delaronde, press attaché for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.

“They are people with no native ancestry at all,” Delaronde said in an interview yesterday.

According to Mohawk law, non-aboriginals have no residency rights. About 7,500 Mohawks live on the reserve.

But this isn’t just about illegal aliens and residency laws. No, it’s much closer to home than that.

In 1981, the community announced a moratorium on mixed marriages, which meant that non-natives who married Mohawks after that year would no longer have the right to live on the reserve. Any non-native who had married a Mohawk before the moratorium is still permitted to live on the reserve.

In the 1980s, some Mohawks contested the policy before the human rights tribunal, but lost. The courts have ruled that Mohawks can make any membership policy they deem necessary for their survival as a people.

“We’re very concerned about protecting our identity because at a certain point, the Canadian government will look at us and say: ‘You are not even Indians,’” Delaronde said.

“We are very proud of our heritage and protective about it. We don’t have a whole hell of a lot of it left. This is part of revitalizing the community.”

“We are very proud of our heritage and protective about it. We don’t have a whole hell of a lot of it left. This is part of revitalizing the community.”

There are more twists here than first meet the eye. For one thing, Kahnawake is on Montreal’s South Shore, just across the St. Lawrence River (here’s a map) and a bit downstream from the storied “place by the river” where Suzanne took you down in Leonard Cohen’s beloved song. Put differently, it’s about five miles due south of Bialik High School in Cote-St.-Luc.

However, if the name Kahnawake sounds familiar to you, you may have been up to something naughty: The reserve is best known as the home of the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, which operates on-line gambling casinos and poker sites under Mohawk tribal law. Wagering over telephone lines is illegal everywhere else in Canada and the United States. Not surprisingly, KGC servers are the only servers in North America that host real-money online gambling; all other real-money servers are housed in the Caribbean, Australia and Europe and are considered less reliable. According to WinnerOnline.com, the attorneys general of both Canada and Quebec have ruled the Kahnawake operation illegal, but the authorities have been reluctant to enter the reserve for the last 20 years. Here’s why:

There was a heated standoff in the summer of 1990 between the Canadian military and Mohawk warriors from the Kahnawake and neighboring Kanesatake reserves over disputed land. Mohawks emerged victorious from the confrontation, but federal and provincial authorities are now reluctant to enter the reserves — or take a strong stand on native issues, for that matter.

For out of Kahnawake went forth the law. And the unwanted aliens. And the intermarried. Sounds like home, no? Or as they say in Yiddish, Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme chose.

Read more



Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.