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.
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