Tunes for Atonement I: Kol Nidre and Father of Night
We’re back for Week 2 of our High Holy Day songfest as promised, this time in two parts. Part One includes Bob Dylan, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and Joe Cocker, plus the legendary Cantor Moishe Oysher, Jerry Lewis (in a serious moment, sort of), Larry David and the Red Army Chorus performing with the Leningrad Cowboys. Part Two includes Barbra Streisand, Leonard Cohen, Abbott and Costello, Louis Armstrong, Israeli rocker Meir Banai and The Band, among others.
We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This is a live version sung by Bob Dylan, from a 1976 concert. Déjà vu: Joan Baez is again singing along, and verse 2 is sung, I think, by Roger McGuinn. (For a different perspective, try this version sung very credibly by the Red Army Chorus with the Leningrad Cowboys, or this one sung Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, released in 1996 with an beautiful new verse written with Dylan’s permission by Scottish musician Ted Christopher in memory of the schoolchildren killed in the Dunblane massacre that year. Children from the village are singing backup.)
Off to shul. Do you have a ticket? Uh oh. Here’s a very, very funny clip (3:21 total) about a ticket scalper working the street outside the shul, Bad Karma on the Kippur, created for the 2008 L.A. Film Race by Men on the Streets. (And here is the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David picks up High Holiday tickets from a scalper and things proceed downhill.)
Next is the most powerful version of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. It’s sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (“Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying. Oysher joins in at 3:28.
The first Kol Nidre on film was in the very first talkie, “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson. I don’t have that piece of soundtrack, but here is the (partial) version Jolson recorded in 1947. For a complete Kol Nidre, you can’t do better than this one by Richard Tucker, the Lower East Side cantor who actually did become a famed operatic tenor. Note the fragment of Yaaleh Tachanunenu at the end. Here is a lovely Moroccan version of Kol Nidre sung by Erez Bitton. And for a peek at how the other half lives, don’t miss the renditions of Kol Nidre sung here by Perry Como and here by Johnny Mathis. Hey, if Irving Berlin can write White Christmas…
If there’s a Kol Nidre that comes close to Oysher’s for sheer pathos, though, it’s got to be the one that ends the 1959 televised version of “The Jazz Singer” starring Jerry Lewis. Following are the last 9 minutes of the show, with Jerry agonizingly torn between his big opening show and his papa’s pulpit. If you don’t have time for it all, the singing starts around 7:33.
O.K., so we did Kol Nidre and now we’re into the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. Up next is Manfred Mann’s Earth Band singing the Dylan version, Father of Night:
A peak moment of solemnity on this most solemn of days comes at the opening of the Musaf service, as the cantor rises and begs to be allowed, unworthy though he is, to speak for the congregation in prayer. Hineni he-oni mi-ma’as — Here am I, devoid of accomplishment. Here is Yossele Rosenblatt, often considered the greatest cantor of modern times.
And here is an approximate equivalent of the prayer in English, Lennon and McCartney’s With a Little Help From My Friends, performed live by Joe Cocker at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Here’s the original version by the Fab Four themselves, Ringo Starr singing lead, with a composite video of them on Ed Sullivan and elsewhere.
But what if a shul doesn’t have a cantor? This is a clip from a Yiddish film about a congregation looking for a cantor for the High Holy Days. Here we present the cantorial equivalent of P.D.Q. Bach, Shepsel Kanarek, a legend in his own mind, the former cantor of Poughkeepsie (with two choirs to accompany him, mind you!), as he is forced to endure the humiliation of auditioning for the High Holidays slot. It’s about half in English, and the rest you don’t really have to translate to get it. When he finally starts to sing, by the way, it’s Hu Malkeinu, Hu Moshienu (vehu yashmiyenu berachamov shenis le-eynei kol chai…) from the middle of the Kedushah, though it’s hard to tell through the hash he makes of it. Followed by a very brief, brilliant, wordless snippet of Menashe Skulnik.