J.J. Goldberg

A Passover Concert: Songs of Liberation and Longing

By J.J. Goldberg

To get us in the spirit of the Seder, here are a few songs of exodus, freedom, rebellion and an only kid. We’ve got selections by Bruce Springsteen, Chava Alberstein, Pete Seeger, Moishe Oysher, Bob Dylan, Shuli Nathan, Paul Robeson, Paul Simon, Lahakat HaNachal, the Maccabeats and many more, including two late and very much lamented friends, Debbie Friedman and Meir Ariel. Also Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

There’s a lot to tell. Tradition teaches that the Exodus was a long night, and so is the Seder. So I’m putting it up in two parts.

First up: a quick recap of the Passover story, as retold in this unusual version of the gospel classic “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep (‘coz Pharaoh’s Army got drownded).” It’s performed by the Soul Stirrers, gospel group where Sam Cooke got his start:

Next, of course, comes “Go Down Moses.” This song has many, many unforgettable versions, but for my money there are none as powerful as this one from Preston Sturges’s 1941 film, “Sullivan’s Travels.”

It was a tough choice: I was strongly tempted to go with the unparalled classic version by Paul Robeson. I lovethis up-tempo one by the great Golden Gate Quartet. And this swinging version by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is a gem. All well worth a listen. But for sheer emotional power, none brings you to tears like the one below.

Background: Sullivan, a Hollywood film mogul who’s gone bumming to see the real America, gets arrested and put on a Southern chain gang. In this scene the prisoners brought to see a movie in a nearby black church. The pastor and lead singer is Jess Lee Brooks.

The Haggadah tells of four rabbis who were sitting all night in Bnei Brak recalling the events of the Passover, until their students came and said, Masters, it’s time for the morning prayers. Some commentators suggest that they were actually plotting their own liberation—the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans—and the students’ message was code for “make like you’re praying, the Romans are coming.” If so, here’s what that all-nighter might have looked like, from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

The Magid — the portion of the Seder that retells the events of the Exodus — reaches an early emotional climax with the passage “Vehi she’amda la’avoteinu velanu” (“And that which stood firm for our ancestors and for us — for not just one enemy rose against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, praised be He, saves us from their hand.”)

Here’s “Vehi She’amda” and the paragraphs that follow, sung by the great Cantor Moishe Oysher and choir. Even if it’s not your style, take a taste. There’s none better.

The exodus isn’t just an ancient story. In living memory the Jewish people were brought from a house of bondage to redemption in the land of Israel. Most didn’t make it, and those who did had to sneak across a much wider sea than Moses crossed, in an operation that would have tested Joshua. I speak of the pre-state Aliya Bet. Here’s their song (and one of my all-time favorites), “Bein Gvulot” (Between Borders) sung by Hillel Raveh. “Between borders, over impassable mountains, on dark, starless nights, we bring convoys of our brethren to the homeland. For the young and tender we will open the gates. For the old and the weak we are a protecting wall.”

And of course, the climactic moment when Moses stood on the Red Sea shore, “smotin’ that water with a two-by-four,” in the words of the old spiritual sung here by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sullivan's Travels, Solomon Mikhoels, Pete Seeger, Paul Simon, Paul Robeson, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Moishe Oysher, Maccabeats, Louis Armstrong, Lahakat HaNachal, Jess Lee Brooks, Itzik Fefer, Golden Gate Quartet, Golda Meir, Florence Reece, Debbie Friedman, Bruce Springsteen, Almanac Singers

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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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Who By Fire, Warren Zevon, Vienna Jewish Choir, Unetaneh Tokef, Shepsel Kanarek, The Jazz Singer, Mordecai Ben-David, Moishe Oysher, Michla Rosenberg, Menasha Skulnik, Meir Banai, Mary Travers, Maariv Aravim, Lord Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Kol Nidre, Joe Cocker, Joni Mitchell, Knocking on Heaven's Door, I Shall Be Released, Father of Night, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, El Nora Alila, Cass Elliott, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Avinu Malkeinu, Al Jolson, A Little Help From My Friends, Yossele Rosenblatt

Tunes for Atonement I: Kol Nidre and Father of Night

By J.J. Goldberg

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:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Moishe Oysher, Maariv Aravim, Kol Nidre, Joe Cocker, Jerry Lewis, Bob Dylan




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