J.J. Goldberg

Yom Kippur Playlist: Hot Tunes for Judgment Day

By J.J. Goldberg


We’re back with a Yom Kippur playlist. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, starting with Kol Nidre, going to the evening and morning services, the cantor’s Hineni (Here I Stand) prayer and so on. Our guests include Bob Dylan, Moishe Oysher, R.E.M., Chava Alberstein, Al Jolson (in the original Jazz Singer), Barbra Streisand, Arik Einstein, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Amy Winehouse, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Mordechai Ben-David, Paul Robeson, Dolores Gray, plus Leonard Cohen and Meir Banai (twice each) and more.

Update: Note the addition, following Mussaf and the Jonah story (after the jump) of the musical production number that delightfully depicts the depravity of the city Jonah was sent to save, Not Since Nineveh, from the 1955 film “Kismet.” It’s particularly relevant now that Nineveh and its depravity are back in the news (under the city’s modern name, Mosul).

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. The song was originally written and performed by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack of the 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Watching the scene where he sings as Garrett shoots the Kid makes the lyric — “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore” — come alive more than any concert performance could. It’s about the awful reality that killing is sometimes necessary and yet utterly dehumanizing, which seems a particularly timely thought this Yom Kippur. Here it is:

Time for Kol Nidre, the iconic plea for absolution that epitomizes the holy day. The most powerful version ever committed to film, in my opinion, is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (originally “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 himself. Oysher joins in at 3:28.

The first Kol Nidre ever committed to film, of course, was the immortal rendition by Al Jolson in the world’s first-ever talking feature film, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. He’s a cantor’s son who runs off to become a vaudeville entertainer and is cut off by his father. They’re finally reconciled at the end when he comes home to daven Kol Nidre in the old shul as his father lies dying. Here’s the scene:

Both Oysher and Jolson give only a fragment of Kol Nidre. For a complete rendition, you can’t do better than this performance by Richard Tucker, the Lower East Side cantor who actually did become a famed operatic tenor. Want more? Here is a lovely Moroccan Kol Nidre sung by Eyal Bitton. And for a peek at how the other half lives, don’t miss the famous Kol Nidre sung here by the devoutly Catholic Italian-American crooner Perry Como. Hey, if Irving Berlin can write “White Christmas”…

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. Here’s Manfred Mann’s Earth Band singing Bob Dylan’s version of the prayer, Father of Night:

For you purists, the Hebrew prayer itself can be heard here sung by an anonymous but very talented folkie with acoustic guitar. And here’s a hoot: Dylan’s Father of Night in Sicilian.

The themes and messages of Yom Kippur that we struggle with during the evening Maariv service and Shaharit the next morning have to do with reaching up and out for divine forgiveness and at the same time digging deep inside, admitting that we’re helpless and yet hoping we can find the strength to turn ourselves around. R.E.M. nailed it dead-on in their 1991 hit, Losing My Religion:

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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:

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Rockin' Hit From an Israeli Pop Legend: 'Almighty God, Forgive Your People'

By J.J. Goldberg

This song has been around for two or three years, but I just came across it on the Ynet.co.il Web site and was blown away. The lyric is El Nora Alila, a liturgical piyyut poem written in the early 12th century by the immortal Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher Moses Ibn Ezra. The singer is Meir Banai, an Israeli rocker who has been on his country’s charts since 1984 (and, if you follow these things, a cousin of Ehud Banai and nephew of Yossi Banai). The music is Meir Banai’s own cool fusion of blues and Mediterranean/Sephardic.

It’s a fixture of the traditional Sephardic Yom Kippur service, chanted at an emotionally climactic moment just before the end of the Ne’ilah (“closing” of the gates of repentence) service that ends the fast. It’s sung in some Ashkenazic congregations as well. I’ve never heard anyone do it like this, though.

The words mean, roughly, “God, awesome in deed, grant us forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah This paltry few, those You called, lift their eyes to You and recoil in anguish at this hour of Ne’ilah. They pour out their hearts to You–wipe away their sin and deceit and grant them forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah…” (Wikipedia has the full Hebrew lyric, in Hebrew characters and transliteration.) A full English translation appears here after the jump.

In Banai’s rendering the hymn becomes almost defiant, raising Yom Kippur as a challenge to the prevailing insistence on denying any and all claims of wrongdoing by Jews as a group (memo to Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor & co.). I’m told he’s performed it at peace rallies and the crowds sing along, at once penitent and defiant. Listen to the crowd warm up and starting belting it out along with him in this live performance at the Tsavta club in Tel Aviv. Which illustrates another overlooked truth: how fiercely secular Jews will reach out and embrace tradition when given the opportunity to approach it on their own terms.

Here’s Banai’s studio recording of the same song - full band, more fully realized, but without his arresting stage presence. It’s from his last album, the 2007 Shma Koli, dominated by traditional liturgical poetry, reimagined and rocked out.

Here’s the translation:

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