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:
We’re back for Week 2 of our High Holy Day songfest as promised, this time in two parts. Part One includes Bob Dylan, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and Joe Cocker, plus the legendary Cantor Moishe Oysher, Jerry Lewis (in a serious moment, sort of), Larry David and the Red Army Chorus performing with the Leningrad Cowboys. Part Two includes Barbra Streisand, Leonard Cohen, Abbott and Costello, Louis Armstrong, Israeli rocker Meir Banai and The Band, among others.
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 sung by Bob Dylan, from a 1976 concert. Déjà vu: Joan Baez is again singing along, and verse 2 is sung, I think, by Roger McGuinn. (For a different perspective, try this version sung very credibly by the Red Army Chorus with the Leningrad Cowboys, or this one sung Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, released in 1996 with an beautiful new verse written with Dylan’s permission by Scottish musician Ted Christopher in memory of the schoolchildren killed in the Dunblane massacre that year. Children from the village are singing backup.)
Off to shul. Do you have a ticket? Uh oh. Here’s a very, very funny clip (3:21 total) about a ticket scalper working the street outside the shul, Bad Karma on the Kippur, created for the 2008 L.A. Film Race by Men on the Streets. (And here is the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David picks up High Holiday tickets from a scalper and things proceed downhill.)
Next is the most powerful version of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. It’s 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. Oysher joins in at 3:28.
The first Kol Nidre on film was in the very first talkie, “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson. I don’t have that piece of soundtrack, but here is the (partial) version Jolson recorded in 1947. For a complete Kol Nidre, you can’t do better than this one by Richard Tucker, the Lower East Side cantor who actually did become a famed operatic tenor. Note the fragment of Yaaleh Tachanunenu at the end. Here is a lovely Moroccan version of Kol Nidre sung by Erez Bitton. And for a peek at how the other half lives, don’t miss the renditions of Kol Nidre sung here by Perry Como and here by Johnny Mathis. Hey, if Irving Berlin can write White Christmas…
If there’s a Kol Nidre that comes close to Oysher’s for sheer pathos, though, it’s got to be the one that ends the 1959 televised version of “The Jazz Singer” starring Jerry Lewis. Following are the last 9 minutes of the show, with Jerry agonizingly torn between his big opening show and his papa’s pulpit. If you don’t have time for it all, the singing starts around 7:33.
O.K., so we did Kol Nidre and now we’re into the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. Up next is Manfred Mann’s Earth Band singing the Dylan version, Father of Night: