This song has been around for two or three years, but I just came across it on the Ynet.co.il Web site and was blown away. The lyric is El Nora Alila, a liturgical piyyut poem written in the early 12th century by the immortal Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher Moses Ibn Ezra. The singer is Meir Banai, an Israeli rocker who has been on his country’s charts since 1984 (and, if you follow these things, a cousin of Ehud Banai and nephew of Yossi Banai). The music is Meir Banai’s own cool fusion of blues and Mediterranean/Sephardic.
It’s a fixture of the traditional Sephardic Yom Kippur service, chanted at an emotionally climactic moment just before the end of the Ne’ilah (“closing” of the gates of repentence) service that ends the fast. It’s sung in some Ashkenazic congregations as well. I’ve never heard anyone do it like this, though.
The words mean, roughly, “God, awesome in deed, grant us forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah This paltry few, those You called, lift their eyes to You and recoil in anguish at this hour of Ne’ilah. They pour out their hearts to You–wipe away their sin and deceit and grant them forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah…” (Wikipedia has the full Hebrew lyric, in Hebrew characters and transliteration.) A full English translation appears here after the jump.
In Banai’s rendering the hymn becomes almost defiant, raising Yom Kippur as a challenge to the prevailing insistence on denying any and all claims of wrongdoing by Jews as a group (memo to Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor & co.). I’m told he’s performed it at peace rallies and the crowds sing along, at once penitent and defiant. Listen to the crowd warm up and starting belting it out along with him in this live performance at the Tsavta club in Tel Aviv. Which illustrates another overlooked truth: how fiercely secular Jews will reach out and embrace tradition when given the opportunity to approach it on their own terms.
Here’s Banai’s studio recording of the same song - full band, more fully realized, but without his arresting stage presence. It’s from his last album, the 2007 Shma Koli, dominated by traditional liturgical poetry, reimagined and rocked out.
Here’s the translation:
It’s my own effort, with thanks to the lovely but partial (and too free for my taste) translation at Kesher Talk. I couldn’t find any other translations that stayed even moderately close to Ibn Ezra.
God that does wondrously,/ God that does wondrously, / Grant us pardon, Lord, we cry, / At this hour of closing. The folk You called, these paltry few,/ Lift their tearful eyes to You / And shrink in anguish from Your seeing eye / At this hour of closing. They pour out their hearts to You. / Wipe their sin and deceit from view, / And grant them pardon, Lord, we cry / At this hour of closing. Be their refuge, shelter them, / Do leave them by curse condemned, / Inscribe them for a year of beauty and joy / At this hour of closing. Pardon them, Your mercy show, / And on the oppressor and cruel foe / Pronounce Your judgment from on high / At this hour of closing. Remember their fathers’ righteous ways, / Favor them and renew their days / Return them to the days gone by / At this hour of closing. Come Elijah, Michael, Gabriel, / The hoped-for tidings tell, / Let redemption be Your cry, / At this hour of closing. God that does wondrously, / God that does wondrously, / Grant us pardon, Lord, we cry, / At this hour of closing.
Here’s Banai’s upbeat, slyly sultry version of Shalom Lecha, Dodi, giving the lyric the sensuality it’s been awaiting for lo these centuries. It’s as genre-bending and delightfully must-hear in its way as El Nora Alila.
Also, click here for his haunting version of Anenu (“Answer us, God of Abraham”).
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).