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:
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: