לוגו הסימפונט באנגלית

The Evolution of Vows

The prayer Kol Nidrei has a unique presence and validity in Jewish liturgical tradition. It marks the transition point from the utterance of private, or community-organized forgiveness in the houses of prayer to Yom Kippur itself and its many meanings. In the following text we will not deal with the religious-social aspects of Kol Nidrei, rather with the musical aspects. A panoramic view of the various Hebrew communities reveals that most of the Eastern communities did not imbue this prayer with a special musical status or a unique musical identity. For the most part, the versions of Kol Nidrei in the congregations are not fundamentally different from the version of the prayer uttered during the days of Atonement.

In Western communities, the prayer Kol Nidrei is not just a marker of the transition point to the day of fasting. It is loaded with meaning and people yearn for it. One notable example being the desire of those who do not keep the commandments and even those who have converted to Christianity, to hear the prayer of Kol Nidrei. In Western communities, synagogues are filled with crowds at Kol Nidrei more than on the two Rosh Hashanah days preceding Yom Kippur and also more than on Yom Kippur itself and more than during the Closing Prayer, which seals the prayers at the end of Yom Kippur and heralds the end of the fast.

In Western congregations, including Reform congregations, the prayer version of Kol Nidrei is a kind of paraphrase or variation on the version probably first recorded in the mid-eighteenth century (1765) in Berlin by Cantor Aaron Beer. The source of the melody is unknown and probably not Jewish. The researcher of Jewish music and author of the anthology “Otzar Na’imot Yisrael” Avraham Zvi Idelson (1882-1938) claimed that the familiar melody was also sung by the Marranos in Spain who gathered, presumably in a kind of underground establishment, far from the ears of Christian neighbors, in order to sing at least once a year the familiar melody and remind themselves and their family members of their Jewishness. 

(For further information, see our post from last year.)

Another important name worth mentioning here is Louis Lewandowski (1823-1894), a musician, choir conductor and professor of musicology in Berlin. Lewandowski composed music for many prayers that were sung in the liberal synagogues in Germany and later also in the Reform synagogues in the United States. Lewandowski took care of preserving Aaron Beer’s version. A request from members of the Jewish community in Liverpool, England from the German Christian composer Max Bruch, yielded the familiar version for cello and orchestra. Baruch learned Kol Nidrei from the English cantor and composer Isaac Natan, who composed the cycle of songs “Hebrew melodies” by Lord Byron. The music of the first line in the song cycle “OH! weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream”, became the melodic key to Bruch’s piece.

Max Bruch: Kol Nidrei, Mischa Maisky (cello), Frankfurt Radio orchestra, conducted by Paavo Järvi

Quite understandably, many famous soloists other than cello players incorporated the Kol Nidrei melody into their repertoire. Here is viola player Yuri Bashmet.

Early recordings of Kol Nidrei, from the first gramophone years of the beginning of the 20th century, may be found on shellac discs of the Gramophone company of St. Petersburg, a branch of the British company by the same name.

Another recording from the dawn of commercial records, made more than a hundred years ago, was made by Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1965), considered one of the greatest cantors of the 20th century, here during a prayer in Vilnius.

The prayer Kol Nidrei was also included in the first talking film, the film that opened the Talkies era after the era of the Silents. The first talking motion picture, The Jazz Singer (1927) not only spoke but sang. The plot of the film concerns a jazz singer, played by Al Jolson (originally Asa Joelson). He plays the son of a cantor who tries to gain recognition as a jazz singer, even though his father wants him to follow the family tradition. The plot is based upon the biography of cantor Joel David Strashonsky Levinson, son of the cantor of the great synagogue in Vilnius. A play based on the cantor’s biography was mounted at the Yiddish theater in Israel and the leading role was played by Sassi Keshet. 

Let us return to the plot of the film. The son is invited to perform in an important hall, but the date is precarious, the eve of Yom Kippur. His cantor father, who is supposed to sing Kol Nidrei, collapses on the eve of Yom Kippur. Representatives of the community turn to the son and implore him to save the situation and sing Kol Nidrei. The son is under pressure from both sides and finally decides to sing the prayer. The next day, on Yom Kippur, his father dies, but that’s a different story.

Kol Nidrei, The Jazz Singer (1927) Original Soundtrack

The “Jazz Singer” story has been given various staged versions – in fact I thought I would find more versions – for film and television. In a television production from 1959 the lead role was played Jerry Lewis, under his original name, Joseph Levich – stage and film actor, director, film producer, entertainer who at the beginning of his multifaceted career was stage director of the Burstein family at the Yiddish Theater in New York. He began his career in ” The Borscht Belt “, the resort complex of the Jews of Greater New York in the Catskill Mountains. In a 1980 production of “The Jazz Singer”, the role of the cantor is played by singer, actor and songwriter Neil Diamond. Like Lewis, Neil Diamond was born in New York to a Jewish family, a descendant of Eastern European immigrants. His father is played in the film by Lawrence Olivier. Watch the dramatic moments, the surprised father and the son who comes to the rescue.

Neil Diamond sings Kol Nidrei after a short introduction by the synagogue chorus.

Sassi Keshet in the Yiddishspiel production of The Cantor from Vilnius

“The Dancing Rebbe,” Shlomo Carlebach, incorporated the prayer into his musical aesthetics. While listening, I was reminded of one of the Hassidic legends about the Baal Shem Tov who did not come to the Kol Nidrei prayer on time. The sun has already set and the worshipers were wondering where the Rebbe was. Finally, the rabbi was found, on the outskirts of town there was a sick widowed woman lived by herself. There was no one to fill the oven with wood. The Rabbi took an axe, cut down trees in the forest, brought them to the widow’s house and sang Kol Nidrei while throwing the wood into the oven.

Shlomo Karlebach. The melody starts at 3:23.

Finally, a decade ago violinist Yitzhak Perlman met with cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgott for a joint concert, an encounter between the prayful cantor and the player of the ‘Jewish’ instrument, the violin. Here is Kol Nidrei from their joint concert.

Author: Yossi Schiffmann

Share

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on linkedin
X