A few weeks ago, after Sabbath- morning services at my local Chabad, my spiritual leader, Rabbi Yossi, asked me for a favor: He wanted me to choose 20 songs for him to listen to, secular music with a Jewish vibe. He had recently heard Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire,” derived from the High Holidays prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, and wanted to hear more. He knew of Bob Dylan, of course, though he was more familiar with the star’s Chabad studies in the 1980s and occasional synagogue spottings than with what he actually sounded like.
Yossi also has a selective awareness of non-Jewish songs and singers. He said that when he and his wife were married years ago, their Hasidic wedding band had played Men at Work’s “Down Under” as a tribute to his Australian heritage. So he’s got an open mind to go with his open heart. After our recent Monday night Torah study, he joked, “I expect you to corrupt me!”
My list wound up leaning heavily on male artists, but I did wrestle with the gender imbalance. I considered any number of Aretha Franklin songs, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” (by my favorite Jewish songwriting team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), the collected works of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, even the Indigo Girl’s “Closer to Fine,” all of which have powerful spiritual resonances to me. But even though he joked, “I expect you to corrupt me,” I wanted to respect the possibility of boundaries that I might not even perceive in my secular world. He is a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi, after all, and I’m in no position to answer the question “WWTRT?”: “What would the Rebbe think?” Rabbi Yossi answered my email query pretty directly: “There is much discussion in Halacha about the permissibility of listening to electronic female voices,” he wrote. “Live, it is not permissible, the question is electronically. I personally do not listen even electronically so thanks for asking!” So while he can only use 18 of the 20 I suggested in my original list to him, I realized that I had unintentionally nailed a “chai.” There are no coincidences.
Here’s what I picked, a selection of pop and rock music for a rabbi trusting me to expand his musical horizons. If you have suggestions for Volume 2, let me know.
Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Exodus.”
The whole Rastafarian iconography/theology with former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as the Lion of Judah and descendant of that Jewish tribe is, let’s say, complicated in its relationship to Judaism. Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking the spiritual vibration in so much of Marley and the Wailers’ music, and the title song of their album “Exodus,” declares “Send us another Brother Moses,” and there’s no confusion there.
George Harrison: “What Is Life”
Harrison was the deepest seeker of the Beatles, questioning the values of the material world in song after song. “What Is Life” is framed as a love song, but to whom? It could be a woman, it could be Krishna, it could be God. It’s all in the ear of the beholder. Harrison would have loved Jewish mysticism if he had lived long enough to find it.
The Byrds: “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).”
The beauty of Jim (now Roger) McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker and the devotional harmonies provide a sturdy support for the lyrics, adapted by Pete Seeger, from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys: “Ride ’em Jewboy”
This sometimes misunderstood song is Friedman’s least satirical take on being the ultimate Jewish outsider, born and raised in the Lone Star State. It’s not a faint-hearted effort: It’s tough to pull off a country song about Jewish identity and the Holocaust. “On your sleeve you wore the yellow star,” he sings. In case you overlook that reference, Friedman drives it home with the acidic image: “Dead limbs play with ringless fingers / a melody which burns you deep inside….” Willie Nelson’s version is much recommended, but Friedman’s original from his 1976 “Sold American” remains definitive, sung with a voice soaked in “the blood in the rhythm of the soul.”
Leonard Cohen: “Born in Chains”
Originally written in the late 1980s and first called “Taken Out of Egypt,” the studio version finally appeared on “Popular Problems” (2014). To be sung at a Seder by those who find Chad Gadya too giddily repetitive.
Leonard Cohen: “Hallelujah.”
There is so much struggle, sin, prayer and repentance in Cohen’s songs that it’s hard to choose among them, but it would be negligent not to include his most famous, which begins: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord.” Jeff Buckley’s version is pretty but cannot match the sanctification Cohen seeks here.
Vampire Weekend: “Ya Hey” from “Modern Vampires of the City.”
Vampire Weekend’s most recent album was full of singer/writer Ezra Koenig’s references to Israel, Judaism, conflict in the Middle East, struggles with his Jewish birthright. Vampire Weekend has infused its guitar rock with reggae touches from the start, and “Ya Hey” invokes Rastafarian touchstones of Zion and Babylon. But this time they are red herrings: Zion and Babylon here allude to the Jewish homeland and the exile. The chorus spotlights the burden of a faith that does not allow us to even know the name of God: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name.”
Bob Dylan: “Gates of Eden.”
“Gates of Eden” is Dylan at his most prophetic, some images so opaque they might have been translated from scrolls in Aramaic. (In “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” in passing reference to this song, scholar Christopher Ricks invokes dream interpretation in the Book of Daniel.) I can hear Yossi saying “Wow!” the first time he hears Dylan sing: “With a time-rusted compass blade / Aladdin and his lamp / Sits with Utopian hermit monks / Sidesaddle on the Golden Calf….”
Bob Dylan: “Talkin’ Hava Nagila Blues.”
First (and last) performed in 1961, Dylan recites this 51-second snippet one syllable at a time, and ends with a yodel. Shedding identity or mocking assimilation? Who am I to judge?
Bob Dylan: “Highway 61 Revisited.”
The first time my family and I were invited to Yossi’s home for a Sabbath dinner (about two weeks after we met), he kept peppering me with questions about Dylan. “Isn’t there a song about Avraham and the sacrifice?” Yes, sir. This is it. I recited the opening lines to him:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No, ” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
Next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well Abe said, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God say, “Out on Highway 61 ”
As with most Dylan, you need the music, driven by Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, Harvey Brooks’s bass and Al Kooper’s keyboards, with Dylan adding slide whistle impersonating a police siren, to really get the impact of the outrageous, irreverent humor. Those with psychoanalytic tendencies note that Dylan’s father was also named Abraham.
Dan Bern: “Jerusalem.”
Funniest song you’ll ever hear about the coming of the Messiah. Hint: Bern thinks he’s the one. His therapist doesn’t quite talk him out of the notion. So he goes to Jerusalem and eats a lot of olives. Bern is happy. He likes olives.
Carole King: “I Feel the Earth Move,” from “Tapestry.”
Trembling with awe, the experience of ecstasy, even if it’s on the surface about a mere boyfriend. From the foremost Jewish woman songwriter of her generation.
Randy Newman: “Dixie Flyer.”
It’s World War II. Newman’s father is in the Army; his mother is lonely in Los Angeles, and wants to go home to her family down South. “Dixie Flyer” is the name of the train that took young Newman and his mother to New Orleans from Los Angeles in 1943. They’re met at the train by Newman’s grandmother and other mishpokhe, or family, who’ve come from Jackson, Mississippi. They’re drinking rye from a flask, “tryin’ to do like the gentiles do,” Newman sings wryly, and then almost shouts, “Christ, they wanted to be gentiles, too. Who wouldn’t down there, wouldn’t you?”
Nina Simone: “Eretz Zavat Chalav U’dvash.”
Live performance, 1962, learned from Simone’s good friend and sometime soul mate, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The song is based on a dance attributed to the Israeli choreographer Eliyahu Gamliel.
Louis Armstrong: “Go Down Moses.”
The only African-American slave song to appear in many modern Haggadot, Armstrong’s stands atop the tower of versions of this song.
Blues Project: “Wake Me, Shake Me” from “Projections,” 1966.
The great New York Jewish blues band of the 1960s (Al Kooper, keyboards; Danny Kalb and Steve Katz, guitars; Andy Kulberg, bass; Roy Blumenfeld, drums) puts its own spin on an old gospel song, “trying to make it in due time / before the heaven doors close.” Wakefulness! Heightened consciousness! However we get there, we arrive on time.
Jorma Kaukonen: “Hesitation Blues.”
Kaukonen’s maternal grandfather was a Torah scribe and the leader of the Jewish community in the Connecticut River Valley, where he and fellow Russian Jewish émigrés started a tobacco collective in the 19th century. Kaukonen’s most important musical influence is the Rev. Gary Davis, and the bluesman’s “Hesitation Blues” is a staple both in Kaukonen’s solo repertory and with Hot Tuna. Teaching it to his guitar students one afternoon in 2014 when I attended at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, Kaukonen pointed out how mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff had taught him that “Hesitation Blues” had the same chord progressions as those that were in the classic Jewish song “Shalom Aleichem” (A minor to E major, transition to C7). Kaukonen figures if that’s so, Davis probably absorbed the chord sequence from the sound of the music emanating from the tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
Peter Himmelman: “Impermanent Things.”
Himmelman was an up-and-coming rock musician in the 1980s when he embraced observant Judaism in the realm of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His songs are not as specific as Cohen’s or Dylan’s in drawing from Torah sources, but they rarely stray far from the spiritual core of Judaism. “Impermanent Things” is Himmelman at his best, expressing a sense of wonder at the unseen source of the light of the world.
Simon & Garfunkel: “Sound of Silence.”
In a recent discussion of a parsha, Rabbi Yossi quoted from “I Am a Rock,” and then asked me afterward, “That’s Paul Simon, right?” Simon wrote it, the first unexpected hit by two Jews from Queens, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. The most repeated line in “Sound of Silence” is “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.” Before it was called graffiti, anyway. Who knows if it was ever even true? But it sounded good to me as a 15-year-old at the time, an abundant expansion of the possibilities for a pop song lyric.
Paul Simon: “Graceland”:
Because Elvis Presley was a Shabbos goy, and because it’s not just about visiting Graceland, Presley’s Memphis, Tennessee, home, but about achieving a kind of grace and continuing to grow in all directions. And because my rabbi should know that Simon was much more than a folk singer.
Wayne Robins teaches journalism at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, and is the author of “A Brief History of Rock…Off the Record.”
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