Though Sukkot continues for another few days, Moses and Miriam have burst onto the scene for day 5, providing a musical climax to our journey of songs which evoke the presence of sacred Jewish ancestors. These two siblings lead the Israelites in celebrating their freedom from Egypt on the other side of the sea, and I don’t know of a song that encapsulates singing, dancing, company, and cookery quite as well as this showstopper from the 1991 Disney animated classic. Even the worrywart clock Cogsworth gets swept up in the revelry by the end, thereby proving that when you do Sukkot right, as with any festive occasion, time ought to stand still. Chag sukkot sameiach!
“Be Our Guest” (Beauty and the Beast) by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, sung by Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury and ensemble
Jacob’s true love Rachel and favored child Joseph arrive just in time for the fourth day of Sukkot. Unlike our previous pairs this week, these two are mother and son, and are absolutely crying out for this vaudeville classic to be featured today. After combing through all the versions out there online, Leo Fuld’s beautifully sung 1956 cover comes to the fore for me. His Dutch-accented English and authentically articulated Yiddish perfectly capture the mixture of adoration, nostalgia, and sincerity that the number truly demands.
“My Yiddishe Momme” by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack, sung by Leo Fuld
On the third day of Sukkot, Jews welcome the spirits of Jacob and his first wife Leah, the “baby momma” for most of his children and older sister of his true love Rachel (who visits us tomorrow). Rabbinic and scholarly commentaries across the centuries are rife with interpretations about Jacob’s relationship with his wives. One of the most radical contemporary versions comes in the midst of Anita Diamant’s 1994 novel The Red Tent, which casts Jacob as a smooth-talking, very virile Casanova, a bonafide “boy toy.” A similar sort of man is the focus of the singer’s ire in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest’s winning tune, which also takes the “cuckold” concept to a bold new extreme. Enjoy!
“Toy” by Doron Medalie and Stav Berger, sung by Netta Barzilai
Isaac and Rebekah, the ushpizin (sacred ancestral spirits) Jews welcome on the second day of Sukkot, are notorious for the all-too human dimensions of their relationship. The Torah describes Rebekah atop a camel, beautifully dressed, on her way to meet Isaac for the first time. She is so smitten by him that she falls off the camel, a veritable victim of love at first sight. Years of marriage apparently take their toll, such that when their twin sons Esau and Jacob grow up, she encourages the younger Jacob to cheat the birthright blessing out of her aged, blinded husband. It’s all too easy to draw parallels between the dysfunction of their true love and that of our favorite 21st century celebrity couples, who “keep on fallin’ in and out of love” just as Alicia Keys sings about in her 2001 breakout hit.
This week, Jewish communities all over the world are exhaling, having made it to the end of the High Holiday season. Today begins Sukkot, an eight-day festival filling a number of purposes: the Biblical account of surviving 40 years in the wilderness; the bounty of the fall harvest; and, perhaps most importantly, the miracle of life in all its fragile, temporal beauty. We build wooden huts covered with tree boughs and welcome in all sorts of guests for meals, merriment, and maybe even a sleepover. The Kabbalistic-minded among us even welcome in the spirits of our ancestors, called ushpizin, a different couple each day. On this first day of Sukkot, we welcome Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, whose tent was open on all four sides and whose legendary hospitality sets the best example I know of how best to welcome guests. It’s a great mitzvah, of course, and it’s listed among “things without measure” in this classic cantorial setting of a Talmudic text equating all the most important mitzvot to Torah study, “which is equal to them all because it leads to them all.”
“Eilu D’varim” (These Are the Things) by Jacob Rappaport, sung by Mordechai Hershman
Jews liken the oral and written tradition to an ever-living, ever-flourishing source of inspiration. The text of “Eitz Chayim” is always sung when returning the Torah scrolls to the ark, along with a prayer to “renew our days as of old.” The late composer, teacher and scholar Dr. Jack Gottlieb wrote his setting of it for the 1970 New Year’s Service for Young People and dedicated the piece to Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, the first woman to be ordained a cantor. I performed it at the end of my master’s recital in 2010 with the composer in attendance and offer it here at the end of this week, along with my prayer that we all find a sense of renewal in this new year.
“Eitz Chayim” (“Tree of Life”)
A vast canon of what Israelis consider to be “folk” songs were actually composed in the last 80 years by real people. Eliyahu Gamliel’s famous setting caught the attention of none other than Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1962 from the piano with her band and, fortunately for us, the cameras were running!
“Eretz Zavat Chalav” (“Land Flowing with Milk”)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the 20th century’s most renowned teachers, philosophers – and, as it turns out, poets! Heschel’s early Yiddish poetry inspired the contemporary cantor and performer Basya Schechter to compose Songs of Wonder, an entire album set to it. Songs of Wonder was released to great acclaim in 2011. Repentence is one of the central tenets of the High Holy Day season, and this track strikes me as both brash and pleading in its insistence.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we recount how Abraham bound Isaac to an altar and nearly sacrificed him. Sephardic Jews precede the Biblical chanting of the story with this 12th century piyyut (liturgical poem) expressing the same story through dramatic imagery and cantorial/choral call and response. Each stanza ends with the refrain oked v’ne’ekad v’hamizbei’ach, “the binder, the bound, and the sacrifice.”
Shanah tovah umetukah! I’m honored to be curating this week’s NYFOS Songs of the Day as Jews all over the world welcome the new year 5777 today and tomorrow. The great Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen drew inspiration from the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy to write “Who by Fire,” here performed in 1989 by the composer together with the incomparable jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org