The Arty Semite

Kol Nidre in Memories and Dreams

By Jeremiah Lockwood

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‘Jews Praying In The Synagogue On Yom Kippur’ by Maurycy Gottlieb (1878).

I’ve been spending the morning pacing around the house singing Kol Nidre while my two-year-old son Jacob toddles about playing with his toys. Just like every year, it seems, the High Holidays arrive to find my life in a startling upheaval of activity, with the world swinging back into movement after the sultry months of summer. And it seems that every year I wait until the day before erev Yom Kippur to practice Kol Nidre. I have just a few hours before I will be singing it again for the expectant Jews, their viscera open in that particular way that Yom Kipur operates on the Jewish psyche.

For me, my morning wandering about the house while my little boy plays, enjoying the sound of the Kol Nidre melody and pleasurably flexing the muscles of my voice, is a richer experience than I will have tonight, davening in front of the congregation. The human experience is so infinitely variable and fragile. Once you bring a room full of people into the mix it even the most nostalgic and intimate experience can become vulgarized and frail.

Generally speaking, I tend to think of Jewish musical culture as being in a period of decadence, with many musicians lacking an intimate knowledge of the tradition. This seems to be especially the case with liturgical music. Cantors are trained in a university environment where they are not necessarily exposed to the older generation of artists, thus breaking the chain of oral transmission that is so essential to the preservation of a folk idiom. Kol Nidre is more than just a series of notes; it is a sense of style, a turn of phrase, and a certain dream-like gesture.

I have the palest of hopes that I can tap into those intangible qualities when I sing, even when I am away from the safety of my family and my dreams about the past. My grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, had a little joke with the prayer that precedes Kol Nidre, in which the cantor begs for permission to sing in the company of sinners. When he came to the words “with sinners” the first time he would point at the congregation. The second time he would point at me, or whoever was next to him, and the third time he would point at himself. It’s a good memory, one of playfulness even in the context of something extremely serious. Perhaps it’s that comfort within the spiritual tradition, to the degree of being able to play around the perimeter, that I so sorely miss. It’s strange, but the only Jewish world in which I feel fully comfortable at this point in my life is the realm of my imagination.


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