This Rosh Hashanah concert began four years ago as a sort of mood piece. I decided this year to expand it and include riffs off of some core elements in the Rosh Hashanah service itself.
To explain: The heart of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is a cycle of biblical verses read during the Musaf service, in three groupings of 10 verses each known as the Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, or Kingship, Remembrance and Ram’s Horn verses. Each verse contains at least one mention of the section’s key word - monarchy, memory, mouth-organ. Symbolically they represent the present, past and future (the last as heralded by the blaring of the horn). Each set of readings is followed by a series of actual Shofar blasts. I’ve assembled a few songs in Hebrew and English that play off of the three themes, more or less.
Our selections range from solemn to whimsical. You’ll find performances by, among others, George Harrison, Yossi Banai, Don McLean, the Andrews Sisters, The Weavers, Yaffa Yarkoni, Louis Armstrong, Eyal Golan, Led Zeppelin, Shlomo Carlebach, Merle Haggard, Nina Simone, Connie Francis and Kinky Friedman. Plus Irving Berlin singing one of his own songs and a neglected masterpiece from Bob Dylan’s early days, with Joan Baez singing backup. Also Steve Lawrence and the late Eydie Gorme singing “Bashanah Haba’ah” (“This Coming Year”).
And, of course, Leonard Cohen, without whom no contemporary Rosh Hashanah anthology would be complete. His English rendering of the iconic new year’s Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who By Fire,” has come to define the Days of Repentance for many of us. It’s worth pointing out that although the best known section of the prayer is the middle, “Who by fire, who by water, who in the fullness of his years and who before his time,” it actually opens with the astonishing words that give it its name, unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom, “we give the holy day its potency.” “We give.” That can be read in a number of ways, but to me it seems an astonishing assertion of human agency and responsibility not only for our own fate but for the meaning we ascribe to it. Here’s Leonard Cohen in a terrific 1988 performance, long before his recent post-bankruptcy tour, when his voice still had most of youthful vibrancy.
One begins the new year, of course, with a bit of honey. The way things are going, though, it makes sense to put out the honey together with the stinger. Accordingly we start with Naomi Shemer’s bittersweet “Al Hadvash ve-Al Ha’oketz” (“On the honey and the sting, on the bitter and the sweet, on our baby daughter — on all these, keep watch, my good God”), better known as “Al Kol Eleh.” It’s sung here by the late superstar entertainer Yossi Banai. If you want to sing along with Yossi instead of watching him, there’s a version with the words transliterated on screen here. An English translation is here. And you can hear Naomi herself singing her song here.
On a more upbeat note, let’s ring in the new year by treating ourselves to The Champs from 1962 with a honey-sweet Shofar blast of Teqiya. Anyhow, it sounds like Teqiya. Hard to tell.
The Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah is marked by the Slihot services, in which we begin the days-long process of asking forgiveness from Upstairs. If you missed it in shul, here’s a rocking gospel number with the same message: “(Please Forgive Me, Lord) For the Wrong I’ve Done,” sung by the late, legendary Willie Banks and his Messengers.
Further on the theme of repentance and forgiveness, let’s move on to Connie Francis’s deep meditation on the meaning of contrition, “Who’s Sorry Now?” Kidding. Actually it’s a sardonic observation about the uselessness of apology in fixing a wrong that’s been done. It was written in 1923 by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Francis recorded it in 1958. It instantly became a monster hit and catapulted her to fame. If you’re interested, here are two earlier versions not to be missed: Billy Banks and his Rhythmakers in this hot Dixieland version from 1932 and this version from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night in Casablanca” (1946) with Lisette Verea singing first in French as a torch song and then leading an audience singalong. Anyhow, here’s Connie:
Next is Nina Simone’s 1965 version of “Oh, Sinner Man (Where You Gonna Run To?).” It’s notable for its hypnotic beat and this recently created, powerful documentary montage that goes with it.
To be honest, though, I rather prefer Bob Marley’s version as an inspirational piece. And there are those who prefer the familiar, traditional Weavers version, which actually relates the full original story, missing from Simone and partially elided in Marley, of the sinner’s desperation to find redemption without having to experience full repentance.
Here’s a 1915 novelty song by a very young Irving Berlin, “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-seven Dollars,” that imagines the same Sinnerman faking atonement, but getting away with it. This 2007 version is sung by Janet Klein, who is worth checking out if you like old-time music and Jewish humor and you’re not familiar with her already.
Enough mood-setting. Let’s get down to business and head for synagogue. That is, if they’ll let us in. Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jewboys sang back in 1973 of the problem of getting through the gates — of shul, of heaven — if you don’t fit the right profile, in a song called “We Reserve the Right To Refuse Service to You.”
Now for Musaf. On the theme of Kingship, let’s start off with a terrific Yemenite-rock fusion number by Israel’s troubled superstar Eyal Golan. It’s called “Melech Malchei Hamelachim” (Forgive me for my sins, my Father, my King). Here are the lyrics in Hebrew and English.
Following the same mood of longing to reach the divine, here’s George Harrison singing “My Sweet Lord.”
On a slightly different note, here’s another song of longing for kingship, “If I Were King of the Forest,” words by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, tune by Harold Arlen, performed by Bert Lahr in “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939. But I’m sure you know all that.
Zichronot, Memories: I have to begin with “Livkot Lecha” (“I’ve come to weep for you, be strong up there … I’ll remember you forever, my brother…”), by Aviv Geffen. This performance took place on November 11, 1995, in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Malchei Yisrael, the place where Yitzhak Rabin had been murdered a week earlier. Maybe you can watch it without weeping yourself. I tried it. I still can’t. If you prefer, this version of the same performance is audio-only, with much better sound quality and a lot less pain. It also shows the lyrics on screen in Hebrew and running English translation. Matter of fact, the version below has terrible sound quality. But I can’t stop looking at it.
No American song I can think of is more evocative of memory and loss than Don McLean’s 1972 hit “American Pie.” You may remember it as an enigmatic, kaleidoscopic retelling of the turbulent 1960s as experienced by the generation of the ’60s, beginning with “the day the music died” — the day in 1959 that rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.D. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash. This is a video that accompanies McLean’s original track with a riveting, illustrated annotation explaining how McLean’s images — the Jester, the Players, the King and Queen — add up to a history of the era.
Another song of memory and the 1960s. No great symbolism here — just a great doo-wop tune: “Remember Then” (1962) by Larry Chance and The Earls.
And another searing memory of Israel’s past: “Bab el-Wad,” sung by Yaffa Yarkoni. The name is Arabic, and means the gate to the valley, or, in Hebrew, Shaar Ha-Gai. It’s the entrance to the canyon where the road to Jerusalem leaves the coastal plain and enters the Judean Hills. That and the nearby hilltop British fortress at Latrun) were the scene of the fiercest fighting of Israel’s 1948-49 war of independence, as the Haganah and Palmach tried to open the road and lift the siege on the capital. It’s been said that as many as one-third of the 6,000 Israeli losses in the war fell in those battles. Yarkoni, then a 24-year-old singer with the Givati Brigade entertainment troupe, had her first hit in 1949 singing the song by Palmach poet-laureate Haim Gouri. It’s been redone countless times since then, but none comes close to the gut-wrenching power of the original.
Shofarot: the trumpet blasts that awaken the soul and, it’s believed, will herald the time of the coming of redemption. Or, as told by the greatest trumpeter of all, Louis Armstrong, the time “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Blow the horn on the new moon” — “Tik’u Ba-Hodesh Shofar” — Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s setting of Psalm 81:4-5. “For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob.”
The Andrews Sisters, LaVerne, Maxine and Patty, burst into stardom in 1937 with their rendition of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” the first and still the only Yiddish song ever to hit No. 1 on the American hit parade (albeit in a mostly English translation by Sammy Cahn). But we’re honoring them right now for something completely different (as the saying goes), their tribute to the sound of the horn: “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” The clip is from Abbott and Costello’s greatest film, “Buck Privates” (1941).
Of course, not everyone welcomes the sound of the trumpet. Irving Berlin wrote a song in 1918, shortly after being drafted into the U.S. Army, expressing his misery at hearing the bugle call that would drag out of bed far too early. To his surprise an officer liked the song, “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and had Berlin put together a show for the troops at his camp on eastern Long Island. Berlin himself reprised the tune in his best known appearance as a singer in the 1943 movie “This Is the Army.”
The new year is nothing if not a time of reflection. It follows the month of Ellul during which by tradition we seek out those we’ve wronged and seek forgiveness, preparing for the Ten Days of Repentance beginning on Rosh Hashanah and climaxing on Yom Kippur. Here’s country legend Merle Haggard reflecting on his own life of sin in his 1968 breakout hit, the semi-autobiographical “Mama Tried.” He never actually did life without parole, but he paid his dues. He once told Johnny Cash that he’d been at Cash’s famous 1958 concert in San Quentin prison. Cash said he didn’t remember Haggard being with him on stage. No, Merle said, I was in the audience.
Honest repentance: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was first recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson. I think his original version is a blues masterpiece and I would have simply put it up here, but I suspect some people will be turned off because of the scratchy, low-fidelity sound. So if you don’t want to go there, here’s Led Zeppelin’s fairly close adaptation, live in concert in Knebworth, England in 1979.
Late update (Rosh Hashanah Day 2): I just found this mesmerizing 1994 of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” by Led Zepp founders Jimmy Page (if you’re not familiar, one of the great guitarists of the last two centuries) and Robert Plant that blows the original Led version out of the water and may even surpass Blind Willie’s original. You might want to consider a daily listening in the days leading up to Yom Kippur:
Bill Gaither has been singing and writing gospel music since the 1950s. This old hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is about accepting the forgiveness and redemption bein adam la-Makom that Ne’ilah is about. If this number doesn’t transport you to a different spiritual plane, have a physician take a look at your soul. (You can look in the Yellow Pages under Soul Practitioner, I guess.)
“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bill Gaither and the Gaither Vocal Band.
The next number, “Beshanah Haba’ah” (“Next Year”) is an if-only wish song, what you might call a messianic vision, about how life would be different once there’s peace in the Middle East. This version is performed by Steve Lawrence and his late wife and muse Eydie Gorme, who passed away just about a year ago. Anyhow, I couldn’t let it go.
Finally, my favorite vision of redemption, bar none, Bob Dylan’s unjustly neglected “When the Ship Comes In.” This performance was filmed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, at the civil rights march where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I have a dream” speech. You can tell Dylan is nervous — he mixes up words in several places. Joan Baez steps in to sing backup, and it looks here like an afterthought, as though she knew he was nervous.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).