Monday, March 3, 2008

Concerning Lipa Shmeltzer and Making Jewish Music from NonJewish Music

A controversy has raged in the Orthodox community about a concert that was scheduled to be given by Lipa Shmeltzer, a very popular singer across the spectrum of Jewish Orthodoxy . A group of rabbis, concerned that the songs would cause "light headedness" demanded that the concert be cancelled. At issue was the source for some popular Jewish songs that have melodies that are of non-Jewish origin.
Judaism has not existed in a vacuum. Our first exile from the Holy Land brought Aramaic into popular usage. Aramaic is now the language of the Talmud.
Judaeo German and Judaeo Spanish became Yiddish and Ladino respectively.
On the culinary front, it is generally agreed that lox and bagels do not originate with Jews.
There is a pattern throughout Jewish history of taking cultural baggage with us when we move from one location to another. Yiddish traveled with us to Poland, Ukraine and Russia and retained a Germanic core in its lexicon.
Melodies as well as food and language have migrated with the Jewish people. Recognising the spiritual power of music should be a part of Jewish observance. There is a separatist approach, embodied by the rabbis who banned the Lipa Shmeltzer concert, and then there is Mordechai ben David , who has transformed secular music with a beauty that has captivated the Jewish world.
I discovered a few months ago that a beloved Lubavitch song' Nyet Nyet Nikavo had once been a communist song. I asked a friend who had left the Soviet Union as a child and was educated in underground yeshivas how the song made its way into Lubavitch. The man told me that it was very common for apartment buildings to have spies. A farbrengen, or chassidic gathering at which Hebrew songs were sung could have attracted attention from the secret police. A communist melody would not attract the same attention. This way the chassidim could still congregate under dangerous conditions.
It is very common for rival or warring groups to appropriate each other's melodies with opposing lyrics. From my grandmother, I learned an antifascist song "Das Lied von Hans Beimler, only years later finding out that the song was also performed with Nazi lyrics.
In any culture, there is a left wing, which is innovative and likes to import and adapt. There is also a right wing, which likes to preserve the forms and folkways of the culture. I believe that the tension between these forces is a factor in the evolution of every language and culture. I see this struggle in the Jewish community. Unfortunately, Lipa Shmeltzer has been caught in the middle. I respect him greatly for his willingness to give up profits out of respect to his rabbis. What I remain very concerned about are Jewish youth in danger of assimilation. Quality music with strong Jewish content and high quality is an important force in strengthening our community.
In the early part of this century, Marc Chagall achieved world wide acclaim. Because of rabbinic resistance, he left the orthodox community. I believe this was a great loss to us. More fortunate was the story of Chanoch Lieberman, who under the guidance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe maintained and strengthened both his artistic career and his Jewish observance.
The separatists in the Jewish community will continue in their approach, as will those whose adhere to more liberal Jewish legal opinions. It is important that we maintain our love and respect for each other.
One of my most beautiful moments in Israel occurred in front of the Jerusalem central bus station. I approached a yeshiva boy whose attire looked like a Roman Vishniac photo of Jewish life before World War Two. I addressed him in Yiddish, which I do not speak nearly as poorly as I do Hebrew. He shook his head and answered, "Rok Evrit Ani lo medaber Yiddish". Only Hebrew. I don't speak Yiddish." I managed to elevate my laughable Hebrew to the task of understanding directions.
When I reflected on the miraculous revival of Hebrew, I was touched by the simple statement of the Yeshiva student , and the distance Hebrew had traveled in orthodox acceptance.
The architect of the rebirth of modern Hebrew was not an observant Jew. His linguistic revival was met with opposition in an orthodox world bitterly opposed to secular Zionism. With time , the language achieved wide acceptance. Today, the most right wing Jews in Israel use the Hebrew of the non observant Eliezer ben Yehuda in the study of Torah. I have no doubt that as we speak, bricks are being added to his mansion in heaven that are created with the Torah study facilitated by his revival of Hebrew.
I do not expect the arguments about our relationship to non Jewish culture to die down any time soon. I do know that the rebuilding of our holy temple has been delayed because of our baseless hatred of each other. As liberal as I am about music , I intend to hasten the end of our exile by maintaining my love and respect for those with whom I differ.
Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe

Please left click on the title of this post to listen to the communist song with the same melody as nyet nyet nikavo. When you get to the sight, left click on the link for streaming audio. The top link on this post is for Nyet Nyet Nikavo , and can be listened to in the same way.
The last link is to a video of Hudie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, who was a living archive of American folk music. His melody is often used for mi shenichnas Adar Marbim b simcha, a song about being joyful in the month preceeeding Purim.
Finally I am including a short note and a link from vos iz

New York - With all the hotly ongoing debate in the Jewish music industry, its interesting to note, a tune that has been around for many years on 'Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Besimcha' originated from a 'Gentile' musician in the 70's

Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should "elevate" the
song of the Communist International
to be a Jewish song! Just change the lyrics a little bit, which, presently is something like this:

"Arise you people of starvation. Arise, arise, arise, arise."