How one Jewish prayer helped to heal a distinctly non-Jewish community
The first time I heard “Avinu Malkeinu,” I was at the top of Arthur’s Seat, a dead volcano in the center of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. The climb to the top and back is 2 miles. It was earlier this year, sometime in June. In the wake of the COVID outbreak during the previous year, when suddenly being outdoors was safer than being indoors, walks like this became a daily practice for me. The thing that kept me (semi)sane for the past 18 months.
Scotland has mercurial weather. “Four seasons in a day,” is a common phrase. What had started as a mellow, warm day turned into a gale halfway up the Seat. The wind was slapping around my face, tangling my hair into my mouth and eyes. I could barely catch my breath. I leaned into the current, bracing myself so it wouldn’t knock me over.
I had been listening to a folk music playlist on Spotify, using the jaunty tunes to keep me going up the hills. At the time I was obsessed with Dick Gaughan, the Dubliners, Planxty, the Pogues. You get it: folk ballads and folk-punk music. I certainly wasn’t playing anything in Hebrew, let alone something spiritual. It was a complete anomaly, a flaw in Spotify’s algorithm. Or maybe a blessing.
When a Planxty song stopped, I waited for the next song — “Dirty Old Town?” “Arthur McBride?” — and was surprised to hear the sober notes of a cello instead. I rifled through my bag, aiming to change the song so I could keep my momentum. Then Barbara Stresiand’s husky voice began, “Avinu Malkeinu, Shma Kolenu, Avinu Makeinu, Chatanu Le Faneya…”
I didn’t know what the words meant, but it didn’t matter.
Looking out as the song washed over me, I could see the rolling hills and jutting crags of Holyrood Park surrounding me framed by the city scape, equal parts Georgian Era, equal parts medieval. Beyond was the estuary known as the Firth of Forth. Far off were soft outlines of the distant highlands, a gray smear of munros.
The tone of the song and Streisand’s skill in singing it communicated repentance, blessing and celebration. At first, she imparted a sound of mourning. Then the tone strengthened, became powerful and passionate. Suddenly, her voice crested on a high note, a flat, wide sound that felt like it lingered almost too long before descending. Chills rippled along my skin.
I am not particularly religious. My connection with Judaism is rooted in the culture, the fellowship of bonding with family and friends. But in that moment, through this song, I felt myself praying to Hashem with Streisand.
In my tiny, attic room in the neighborhood of Newington, I looked up the song, “Avinu Malkeinu.” I learned that it was a portion of a prayer, put to music and that the first words, “Avinu Malkeinu” translate into “Our Father, Our King.”
The actual prayer, much longer than the song, is recited during the Ten Days of Repentance starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur. In her essay, “The Incarnations of the “Avinu Malkeinu,” ethnomusicologist Tamar Zigman states that the prayer dates back to the Talmudic period (between 70-640 C.E.) and that it is “one of the most familiar prayers and one of those most closely identified with this period, the ‘High Holy Days.’”
According to Zigman, the tradition of putting portions of this prayer to song has a long history within the Ashkenazi community. The rendition sung by Streisand was one of the most recent, based off an arrangement by the Chicago-based composer Max Janowski (1912-1991).
Listening to the song on Arthur’s Seat, I hadn’t understood the Hebrew lyrics. Upon reading the transliteration, I was moved. The feelings that the melody and Streisand’s voice evoked in me were matched by the meaning of the prayer.
Each of the song’s three verses starts with the words, “Avinu malkeinu.” The first, full of humility, acknowledges that we are sinners and asks for compassion. The second verse asks for an end to war, famine and pestilence. The third verse, when Streisand hits that remarkable note, changes both in content and literally in key. In it, the singer requests for renewal in the new year. The remainder of the song repeats “Avinu malkeinu” followed by “sh’ma kolenu” (hear our voice) in various ways, as if sending the prayer up into the sky.
Perhaps the power of this ancient prayer is its applicability to human suffering throughout our history. Or, perhaps it’s the weird sensation that the prayer, when spoken or sung, is a direct conduit for the individual’s experiences.
Personally speaking, the song connected me to my Judaism for the first time since the lockdowns started. Isolation and social distancing regulations, not to mention my being located in Scotland, a place largely devoid of Jews, made things like Shabbat dinner impossible.
On a universal level, the prayer seemed to speak of what we’ve gone through over the past year and a half — pestilence, famine, war. COVID, global warming and conflict have taken a heavy toll. To date, it is estimated that over 4.6 million people have died from COVID. According to a report published by Oxfam, the number of people living under famine-like conditions has multiplied by six. We’ve seen rising violence against minority groups, attacks on women’s rights, and the spread of disinformation.
I decided to perform the song within the Scottish folk scene. I wanted to secularize it, share it outside of a religious context to a broader audience. I hoped the prayer would give some peace — relief from the traumas we’ve endured over the last 18 months and renewal for the upcoming year.
The music scene boasts a particularly eclectic cast of regulars hailing from Brazil, Spain, Italy, Iraq, Ireland and China to name a few. Often, the songs they sing are religious: Middle Eastern chants, gospel hymns, pagan summonings. Within the pubs, the music gains a universal meaning for all listeners regardless of faith or ethnicity. “Avinu Malkeinu” would fit in well.
The folk music community has taken a battering. On March 20, 2020, Boris Johnson shut down the U.K.’s pubs in an effort to stave off the spread of COVID. On March 23, the U.K. entered its first lockdown. While some artists created online music sessions, most folk musicians (also called musos) in Edinburgh ceased to play and took up jobs working for places like Amazon, Sainsbury’s and Deliveroo.
Best described as “grafters,” (a British term that means “hard work”) the musos had dedicated years of long hours and poor tips in order to secure regular venues, devoted client and good pay. To seemingly lose their careers within a matter of weeks was a blow.
It had been a way of life. The relationship between the pubgoer and the musician was a symbiotic one. Musos offered the crowd boisterous tunes and popular sing-alongs. In return they received praise, drams of whiskey, pints of beer and a fistful of change in their tip jars. Together they created a community — what we called our “musical family.” Without it, the musicians – who often live alone – were miserable.
Only now, in the summer of 2021 have things started to return to normal. On August 9th, the Scottish government dropped social distancing rules allowing venues to host at full capacity. The Captain’s Bar, the Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s reinstated their daily sessions. Smaller venues like Thistle Street Bar, Mousetrap and the Waverley restored their gigs too. The “circut” of venues, which supported full time musicians, was back.
I was out of practice. Moreover, “Avinu Malkeinu” is a song well out of my skill set. Streisand is a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, I was excited.
I planned to record the song in time to release it for Rosh Hashanah. However, on Aug. 19, I contracted COVID and went into isolation for 10 days. Having been double-jabbed, the symptoms of the virus felt more like the flu. I dread to think what it would have been like without the vaccine. Nevertheless, when I came out of isolation on Aug. 30, I was shaky and weak. I texted Toby, my musical collaborator, and said, “I’m not in great shape.” He replied, “No worries, get some rest. I’ll be ready to back you up, or hold you up.”
On Sept. 4, I went to my producer, Dave Wah’s studio, located in Leith next to the Hibernian Football Club Stadium. Just like the old days, I donned the costume I wore to the pubs in 2019: a three piece suit of gray, Harris Tweed. On my left hand, I wore my Edwardian diamond and a Victorian mourning ring, life and death. Toby wore a gorgeous pair of black wool trousers held up by red suspenders, a pink shirt and a gray houndstooth flat cap. On his right pinky was a ring made out of an old, silver coin.
Toby and I recorded the song live. We faced each other, playing the way we would in a session. The benefit was that we maintained our musical chemistry by interacting naturally. Because we weren’t recording in separate booths, the drawback was that the sounds of my voice and his guitar were picked up in each other’s microphones. Intertwined. We couldn’t take a portion of one take and attach it to another. If we made a mistake, we started over. It was all or nothing
Gargling strange herbs I bought from a pagan bouzouki player (no lie), swallowing Sudafed and sucking on my landlady’s homemade pastilles in between each take, I sang “Avinu Malkeinu.” It took 15 takes before we got an audio recording that was suitable. Then came the videographer and we did it over again. We got it done on the fifth take.
The urgency to complete a project we had worked so hard on carried me through. But on the following day, I couldn’t get up. I felt terrible. I slept the day away.
Later that evening, I saw online that several musos, barmaids, and regulars were in isolation for COVID-19. It seems I contracted the virus at the beginning of another surge.
A realization that many of us are starting to swallow finally sunk in. I’d seen it in the news, heard it on the radio. I suppose I tried to block it out. COVID-19 is here to stay. I had been waiting so long for the pubs to reopen, for the music to come back, for things to return to “normal,” that I forgot about that interminable phrase I heard government officials say in the beginning of it all — “new normal.” This was it.
Short on staff, Sandy Bell’s was shut for the week. The same happened to Captain’s. Several musicians had to cancel their gigs. Restaurants, performance halls and sports venues were experiencing similar problems.
This time the government wasn’t going into lockdown. The vaccine had done its job. Severe cases were low and the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. Yes, things would continue, albeit in fits and starts as we adapted.
On Rosh Hashanah, I was a gray, wilted thing. I walked into the Antiquary, a folk pub located in Stockbridge. In a sort of whisper, I sang the song, feeling mournful. Then, a violin started to hum behind me, wavering, searching for the right note, then finding it. Next, I heard the warbling twang of an irish bouzouki. A hand drum took up a rhythm. Then, voices started up, unsure of the words but eager to join the chorus. Some sang, some hummed with me each time I came to the words, “Avinu Malkeinu, Avinu Malkeinu.” And then, the song carried through the room.
Amanda Chemeche is a queer writer and folk musician living between Edinburgh and NYC. A Yale and Trinity College Dublin alumni, they are currently working on their first book and completing a Creative Writing MFA at Columbia University.