I doubt many of the attendees at Kehilat Hadar’s Upper West Side Yom Kippur services, at which the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” made its debut liturgical appearance last fall, knew the story behind the tune.
I do, because I cooked it up with Aryeh Bernstein, who leads high holiday services at Hadar. We borrowed the melody from the Wu-Tang Clan’s hip-hop classic, “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me”). Our choice of the name “Lamedvavnik,” a Yiddish term for the 36 hidden saints on whom the world depends, alludes to the 1993 studio album on which “C.R.E.A.M.” appeared, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
Bernstein does not mind the worshippers’ ignorance. Though he sometimes matches liturgy to thematically appropriate soul tunes (pairing, for instance, a dark, moody poem in Yom Kippur’s final service with Prince’s “There is Lonely”), he would prefer the “Lamedvavnik Niggun” remain innocuous. I agree. It is probably better that no one, on hearing Bernstein sing words that mean “The Lord shall reign forever, Your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah,” be reminded of Wu Tang’s Raekwon rhyming, “No question I would speed/ for crack and weed/ The combination made my eyes bleed.”
For every hidden flourish of aesthetic genius, countless borrowed nonliturgical tunes — a musical technique called “contrafactum” — can be easily recognized. In my circles, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a ubiquitous setting for Psalm 146 on Shabbat morning, and the chord that Cohen played is anything but secret. But while “Hallelujah” declares, “There’s a blaze of light in every word/ It doesn’t matter which you heard/ The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” doesn’t Jewish prayer depend on making just those distinctions? We bless God for separating holy from profane, not for conflating them. To a traditionalist, foreign music can carry with it alien theology, and pop tunes can puncture or trivialize sacred space.
The question matters in part because contrafactum is, increasingly, how Jews pray today. Examples abound. Ben Dreyfus, for instance, who claims credit (with Shir-Yaakov Feinstein-Feit) for adapting “Hallelujah,” also explains and justifies in detail a Friday night service he organized with tunes from an R.E.M. album. (Translated into alt-rock, a typical line from Psalm 96 apparently reads, “a candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss.”) Chabad Chasidim, following their late Rebbe, sing “Ho’aderes V’hoemunah,” a hymn expounding the majestic grandeur of God, to the tune of the French national anthem.
And while they, like Bernstein, attend to thematic parallels, many people source less scrupulously. Those I canvassed mentioned tunes from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the Beach Boys, the Backstreet Boys, and the Somali singer K’naan, as well as “Pachelbel’s Canon in D,” to name a few. American Jews, especially the younger ones, often pray without professional cantors or fixed musical traditions, and want communal singing. If we are not repurposing Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman, we usually borrow from popular culture.