Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Yom Kippur Playlist: Hot Tunes for Judgment Day

We’re back with a Yom Kippur playlist. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, starting with Kol Nidre, going to the evening and morning services, the cantor’s Hineni prayer (Here I Stand) preceding Musaf and so on. Our guests include Bob Dylan, Moishe Oysher, Chava Alberstein, The Beatles, Eminem, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Al Jolson, Arik Einstein, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Amy Winehouse, Earl Scruggs, Arik Lavie, Paul Robeson, Odeleya Berlin, plus Leonard Cohen and Meir Banai and much more.

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. The song was originally written and performed by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” The song comes during the bloody shootout in which Garrett kills the Kid. There’s something about watching the scenes of death and payback while Dylan sings about “knocking on Heaven’s door” that very much captures the awesome, ominous feeling enveloping us as we enter the sanctuary and prepare to pray for forgiveness.

Bob Dylan, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

We’re now in the frame of mind for the chanting of Kol Nidre, the iconic plea for absolution that epitomizes the holy day. The most powerful version ever committed to film, in my opinion, is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (originally “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 a secular opera singer, eventually 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 himself. Oysher joins in at 3:28.

Moishe Oysher, Kol Nidre.

The first Kol Nidre ever committed to film, of course, was the immortal rendition by Al Jolson in the world’s first-ever talking feature film, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. He’s a cantor’s son who runs off to become a vaudeville entertainer and is cut off by his father. They’re finally reconciled at the end when he comes home to daven Kol Nidre in the old shul as his father lies dying. You’ll note that Jolson’s Kol Nidre is just a fragment, a repetition of the first few phrases. Here’s the scene:

Al Jolson, Kol Nidre.


Following Kol Nidre, we begin the Ma’ariv or Evening Service, the first of the five individual services that occupy us during the next 25 hours. Ma’ariv more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim prayer: Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. Bob Dylan did his own adaptation of it, titled “Father of Night,” on his New Morning album in 1970. You can listen to Dylan’s original here or watch Manfred Mann’s Earth Band doing their famed 1973 rock ‘n’ roll cover version here. Your choice.

For you purists, the Hebrew prayer itself can be heard here sung by an anonymous but very talented folkie with acoustic guitar. And here’s a hoot: Dylan’s Father of Night in Sicilian.

The Ma’ariv service introduces us to the iconic cycle of prayers and appeals for atonement, mercy and redemption that will be repeated throughout the day, in the Shaharit morning serice and again in the late-morning Mussaf, the afternoon Minchah and the final Ne’ilah or “closing” (referring not to the closing of the holiday but to the closing of the Gates of Heaven as the day ends).

Let’s start the cycle with the prayer known simply as the Vidui or Confession. It’s often referred to as Ashamnu, which is the first word in the alphabetical Hebrew listing of our collective sins, each accompanied by a pounding of the breast: “We have transgressed, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered…” It’s performed here by Cantor Benzion Miller, as arranged by the late, great Moshe Koussevitzky.

Benzion Miller, Vidui — Ashamnu.

There are any number of ways we could render the sentiments in English, but none serve better than the pounding, tragically autobiographical confession of the late Amy Winehouse, “You Know I’m No Good.”

Amy Winehouse, You Know I’m No Good.

On the other hand, we gotta ask: What does it really mean to be bad? We’re all born with a clean slate and a pure soul. Some of us get lost along the way and don’t know how to find our way back. Chava Alberstein put it better than anyone in her signature song, written by poet Rachel Shapira, “Kmo Tzemach Bar” — “Like a Wildflower.” This clip has Alberstein dressed up in some awful 1970s frock, but it’s musically the best version there is, and it has the English translation on the screen:

Chava Alberstein, Kmo Tzemach Bar.

We follow the Vidui with a plaintive, hearbreaking appeal to God: Aneinu — “Answer Us.” Answer us, God of Abraham, defender of Jacob, shield of David. You who answer in time of desire, of trouble, of mercy, answer us.” Here are the lyrics, if you want to follow by opening a second window. It’s sung for us by Israel’s most awesome spiritual rocker, Meir Banai.

Meir Banai, Aneinu.

Will we be answered? Right now, at the beginning of the cycle, we’re feeling more despondent than hopeful. We ask for forgiveness, but inside our thoughts are probably summed up by this Paul McCartney song from the Beatles’ 1965 turning-point album, Rubber Soul. Personally, I’ve always considered it their most sublime musical moment.

The Beatles, You Won’t See Me.

Ma’ariv ends with the singing of Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King,” which will also cap the day tomorrow night. The late British Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz (yes, the guy from the Hertz Chumash) described it as “the oldest and most moving of all the litanies of the Jewish year.” (I got that from Wikipedia.) Parts of it date back to Rabbi Akiva, who died in 135 C.E. It’s a long list of pleas — Our father, our king, we have sinned before you, renew our days, cancel evil decrees against us” — and ends with the verse, “Our father, our king, have mercy on us and answer us, for we are unworthy, treat us with charity and kindness and save us.” It’s sung here by the duo of Shlomit Levi and RebbeSoul, a.k.a. Bruce Burger.

Shlomit Levi and RebbeSoul, Avinu Malkeinu.


Shaharit, the Morning Service, finds us at once more hopeful, following a good night’s sleep, and more despondent, as we face the prospect of a long day without coffee. If you’re like me, you’ll be entering the sanctuary with mixed feelings, thinking about sin and redemption but wondering if there isn’t an easier way to address them. Your feelings about sin might resemble this tongue-in-cheek version of confession by Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane (All My Sins Been Taken Away)” as performed in 1961 on the Flatt & Scruggs Grand Old Opry Show. That’s Earl on the banjo.

Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.

Soon enough, though, we get down to business. This next number might be the best known of the Yom Kippur confessional recitations, Al Chet She-Chatanu (For the Sin We Have Sinned). This version is by Yossele Rosenblatt, who’s often considered the greatest cantor of the modern recording era.

Yossele Rosenblatt, Al Chet She-Chatanu.

Still feeling just a little resentful about the whole thing? Just a little torn? So does Eminem, performing with Dr. Dre in this gut-punch of a confessional, “Guilty Conscience.” (Caution: some explicit lyrics.)

Eminem & Dr. Dre: Guilty Conscience.

The Shaharit service includes a number of rituals that take us back to biblical times to experience the Day of Atonement as our ancestors did. One of the most compelling is the morning’s Torah reading, which describes the practice of the scapegoat, the Seh Le-Azazel, chosen by lot to be invested with our sins and sent off to the desert to meet its fate. The ritual has been discussed endlessly over the centuries, but we very rarely think about it from the goat’s point of view. I haven’t found any songs about goats abandoned in the desert, but here’s one about a buffalo. Desert Blues was written by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman (here is his original performance) and it’s performed here by John Gill’s National Saloon Band.

John Gill’s National Saloon Band, Desert Blues.


Following the Shaharit Morning Service comes the Musaf, the Additional Service the recalls the Musaf sacrifice rendered in the ancient Temple following the morning sacrifice on Sabbath and holidays.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the cantor rises before the the congregation at the opening of Musaf 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 the full text in English translation.) Here’s Moishe Oysher’s Hineni, from an earlier scene from “Overture to Glory,” before he runs off to join the opera.

Moishe Oysher, Hineni.

This next number isn’t an exact translation of the Hineni, but it captures the idea:

The Platters, The Great Pretender.

Speaking of unworthy prayer leaders, few could be less worthy than the vain, bumbling Cantor Shepsel Kanarek, the cantorial equivalent of P.D.Q. Bach, as portrayed by the Yiddish-English standup comic Michla Rosenberg. Kanarek, truly a legend in his own mind, is here to lead us in the Kedushah, the Sanctification responsive prayer that punctuates the cantor’s repetition of every service, including the one we’re in the middle of. Kanarek can’t get through the prayer, though, because he’s bursting to tell us how incensed he is that he — the former Cantor of Poughkeepsie! who used to have two choirs accompanying him! — is forced to endure the humiliation of auditioning for the High Holy Days slot at a congregation in search of a cantor. 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. It’s followed by a very brief, brilliant, wordless snippet of the Yiddish comic Menashe Skulnik.

Michla Rosenberg, The Cantor from Poughkeepsie

Now here’s the piece you knew was coming: Unetaneh Tokef — “Who shall live and who shall die, who in his time and who before his time, who by fire, who by by water” — in the unforgettable English rendering of Leonard Cohen. I know I blogged it last week for Rosh Hashanah. If you’re not careful I’ll do it again next week too. We can’t hear this enough.

Leonard Cohen, Who By Fire

As I noted last week, the original prayer actually opens with the astonishing words that give it its name, unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom, “we give the holy day its potency.” Note: “We give it its potency.” That can be read in a number of ways, but to me it seems an magnificent assertion of human agency and responsibility not only for our own fate but for the very meaning we choose to ascribe to it.

One of the distinctive features of the High Holy Days is the recitation during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of the Aleinu (“We must praise the Lord of all”), which is normally recited at the end of each service but now sits at the heart. And at the phrase “va-anachnu kor’im u-mishtachavim u-modim” (“and we bend and bow and give thanks”) — the point where we usually dip our knees a bit — it’s customary in some circles at these two moments, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to prostrate ourselves fully with our foreheads to the ground. The prayer praises God for making the Jewish people distinct amid the heaven and earth he created. You probably know it already, but you haven’t heard it quite the way the late Debbie Friedman did it:

Debbie Friedman, Aleinu.

Now, some folks read the Aleinu as a backward-looking, exclusivist piece (“who has not made us like the nations of the earth”). But you can just as easily read it as a celebration of the glory of human diversity under the one sky that covers us all. Sort of the way Pete Seeger described it in My Rainbow Race:

Pete Seeger, My Rainbow Race.

As Musaf proceeds we return to the cycle of prayers that we began last night. Once again we’re asking God to hear us: Shema Koleinu — hear our voice, have mercy on us and receive our prayer. Here’s the Israeli spiritual-folkie Shlomo Katz.

Shlomo Katz, Shema Koleinu.

For many of us, though, this just raises the eternal question: How does one communicate with the infinite and unknowable? Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel asked that question a half-century ago and here’s what they came up with:

Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence.

In the tradition, the question answers itself: Ki Anu Amecha — Because we are your people and you are our God. We’re your children and you are our father. Here’s a stunning version of that prayer by Odeleya Berlin.

Odeleya Berlin, Ki Anu Amecha.

What does it mean to be a people — anyone’s people, let alone a special one? In November 1945, right after World War II had ended, Frank Sinatra starred in a 10-minute film called “The House I Live In” that talked about what it means to be members of a free people, with a particular emphasis on the evil of anti-Semitism. It won a special Oscar in 1946. The heart of the film, though, was a song by the same name — “The House I Live In” — that broadened the message: “All races, all religions — that’s America to me.” The song was written during the war, tune by Earl Robinson (“The Ballad of Joe Hill”), lyrics by Abel Meeropol (“Strange Fruit”) writing under the pseudonym Lewis Allen. You can watch the full 10-minute film here. Here’s the song itself:

Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In.

During the Musaf service we recite a number of special passages — in effect, epic poems — that retell the Yom Kippur dramas of ancient times. One is the Avodah Service, recalling the atonement ritual performed in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol. It’s renowned in Conservative and Reform congregations across North America as a time when congregants duck out to the parking lot for a cigarette. But there’s a certain beauty to it when we close our eyes and follow it. It was the one moment in the year when a single person, the High Priest, was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies where no human could tread and live. (To this day there’s an Orthodox ban on Jews entering the Temple Mount for fear that one might tread where the Holy of Holies once stood.) Here’s Shlomo Katz again with a lovely, stripped-down rendition of the Avodah’s Service’s dramatic refrain, Ve-HaCohanim (“And the Priests…”).

Shlomo Katz, Ve-HaCohanim.

The Avodah Service is, at heart, a recollection that there are moments in our lives when we need someone else to speak for us. The entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur may be the peak expression of that need, but it happens in our daily lives, too, as Bill Withers reminded us in his 1972 hit, Lean on Me.

Bill Withers, Lean on Me.

I might be struck down for this next one, but songs about priests make me involuntarily think of Joe Hill’s classic song about clergy, “The Preacher and the Slave.” Here it is, sung by Haywire Harry McClintock, the IWW organizer best known as the author of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Haywire knew Joe Hill personally and was the first to sing “The Preacher and the Slave” in public, all the way back in 1912. Joe Hill was shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915.

Harry McClintock, The Preacher and the Slave.

Following the Avodah comes the Eleh Ezkerah (“These Things I Remember”) or Martyrology, a lengthy, anguished epic poem about the murder of the 10 greatest rabbis of their day in the Land of Israel at the hands of the Romans, in the course of suppressing Jewish rebellion in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple.

To capture the meaning of the Eleh Ezkerah, let’s listen to Paul Robeson singing the hymn of the World War II Jewish partisan fighters, Zog Nit Keynmol — “Never say you’ve walked your final road. The dark skies will clear, our longed-for day will yet come when our marching steps will thunder: We survive.” This is a live recording of his concert at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow on June 14, 1949, which was aired live nationwide on state radio. A few days earlier he had visited with his friend Itzik Feffer, the imprisoned Yiddish poet, who is said to have told him that their mutual friend, the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, had been murdered a year earlier by Stalin’s henchmen and that he, Feffer, expected to meet the same fate soon (he would indeed be executed along with 12 other Yiddish literary figures on August 12, 1952). At the concert, according to Robeson biographer Martin Duberman,

Asking the audience for silence he announced that there would be only one encore for that evening. He then spoke of his deep cultural ties between the Jewish peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States, and of how that tradition was being continued by the present generation of Russian-Jewish writers and actors. He then referred to his own friendship with Mikhoels and Feffer, and spoke of his great joy in having just come from meeting with Feffer again. Robeson then sang in Yiddish, to a hushed hall, “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song, first reciting the words in Russian:

“Never say that you have reached the very end When leaden skies a bitter future may portend; For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive And our marching steps will thunder: ‘we survive’.”

After a moment’s silence, the stunned audience, Great Russians and Jews alike, responded with a burst of emotion, people with tears in their eyes coming up to the stage, calling out “Pavel Vaslyevich,” reaching out to touch him. Having made that public gesture in behalf of Feffer and other victims of Stalin’s policies — all that could have been done without directly threatening Feffers’s life — Robeson clammed up on returning to the United States.

The Soviet authorities edited the song and the audience’s response out of the post-concert tape, but for the Jews who heard it live it was a historic jolt of energy and support.

Paul Robeson, Zog Nit Keynmol.


Following Musaf we take a break for a few hours to nap, stroll along the river or stay in the sanctuary for group study. I had relatives who made it a custom to use this time to sneak into the kitchen and grab a snack when they thought nobody was looking (ha!). We reconvene in the late afternoon for Minchah, the Afternoon Service.

I don’t know about you, but by this point in the day I’m beginning to take the issues of introspection and repentance a little more seriously. It’s time to return to the topic of sin which we treated flippantly in Earl Scruggs’ version of “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” and listen to it again in the more solemn version as rendered by Norman Blake: “My Sins Have Overtaken Me.” The one pitfall that might ensnare my soul is Blake’s flatpicking, which leaves me awestruck but sinfully jealous.

Norman Blake, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.

The heart of Minchah is the reciting of the biblical Book of Jonah, with its universal lessons of repentance and forgiveness.

Here’s the Jonah story as told in song by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the pioneer gospel and rhythm-and-blues artist known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jonah.

The late Israeli superstar Arik Lavie had his own retelling of the story of Yonah Ha-Navi, Jonah the Prophet. In his version, though, Jonah signs up for the Navy and receives a commission as the first Jewish submarine commander. If your Hebrew is good enough to follow, the words appear on the screen as Arik sings.

Arik Lavie, Yonah Hanavi

Many of us have been wondering for years what it was that drew Jonah to flee his mission to Nineveh and instead head for the bottom of the ocean. Samuel E. Wright explains why it’s better down where it’s wetter Under the Sea.

Samuel E. Wright, Under the Sea.

Before we leave Jonah, here’s another oft-overlooked aspect of the story that’s worth considering for a moment, if your Hebrew is up to it. It’s a sketch from the Israeli public television series “Ha-Yehudim Ba’im” , “The Jews Are Coming,” that retells the forgotten history of Jonah’s encounter in the whale’s belly with fellow traveller Pinocchio. Jonah asks Pinocchio if all that stuff about the talking cricket and the Blue Fairy is true, and Pinocchio replies that everything in the book of Pinocchio is true. “It’s a documentary.” He then asks Jonah if all the stuff about being tossed from the boat by the sailors is true, and Jonah replies that everything in the Bible is true. Watch what happens to Jonah’s nose at that point.

HaYehudim Ba’im, In the Belly of the Fish


The final service of the day is Ne’ilah, the Closing of the Gate. In Sephardic traditions and some modern Ashkenazi congregations it’s introduced by a piyut or sacred poem by Moshe ibn Ezra called El Nora Alila (“God of Awesome Deed, grant us forgiveness at this hour of Ne’ilah”). This is an up-tempo version by Meir Banai. I jumped the gun and blogged it last week for Rosh Hashanah, but it’s too good to leave out. Here are the Hebrew lyrics. Here is my blog with my translation, since I can’t find a more authoritative one.

Meir Banai, El Nora Alila

The Ne’ilah Service has a distinctive tone. It’s all about the last-minute appeal, before the gates of Heaven close and fates are sealed for the coming year. Here’s Hanan Yovel singing one of the iconic prayers of Ne’ilah, P’tach Lanu Sha’ar — Open the gate for us at the time of the closing of the gate, because the day is passing.

Hanan Yovel, P’tach Lanu Sha’ar.

And here are The Sensations, with their version of that message. From 1962:

The Sensations, Let Me In.

As the sun heads down, there’s a heady, cleansing sense that the day’s prayers may have worked. Whether that’s because there’s someone upstairs listening or simply because our own hearts were cleansed, you can decide for yourself. For me, this song, written in 1864 by the Baptist poet Robert Lowry, tells the whole story of the approaching climax, the anticipation of release and, just perhaps, redemption of a sort. And, of course, a nosh. Some historians tie the river image to the New Testament book of Revelations. The echo I hear is from the opening of Psalm 1: “Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked…he is like a tree planted beside streams of water.”

Randy Travis, Shall We Gather at the River

The Ne’ilah service ends with a climactic singing by the congregation of Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King.” This rendition is by the Brazilian gospel singer Leonardo Goncalves, who had a spiritual reawakening in 2005 and recorded an album of Hebrew prayers and sacred songs titled Avinu Malkeinu. The Jewish music blog Gathering the Sparks reports that he was inspired “either by the discovery of his own Jewish ancestry or perhaps that of a friend.” I’d add that Goncalves is from the northeast Brazilian state of Pernambuco, whose capital, Recife, emerged in the 1600s under Dutch rule as the largest Jewish community in the New World. You probably know that it fell to the Portuguese in 1654 and its thousands of Jews fled for their lives to any Dutch port, including 23 who landed in Manhattan. I know of a few descendants of conversos who stayed behind, became Christians and then, many generations later, discovered their roots and returned to Judaism. One of them is an old and dear friend of mine. Anyhow, here’s Leonardo Goncalves’ version of Avinu Malkeinu:

Leonardo Goncalves, Avinu Malkeinu

We’ll break with tradition and add one more prayer after Avinu Malkeinu: Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” in the iconic rendition by The Band. That’s the late Richard Manuel singing lead.

The Band, I Shall Be Released.

A final note: The Yom Kippur prayerbook sends us home with the vow that we recite twice a year — on Yom Kippur and on Passover — of “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It’s both a literal wish and a messianic vision of redemption and return. I thought I’d end with a vision of return that’s at once more fanciful and more down-to-earth: The Ballad of Yoel Moshe Salomon, sung by Arik Einstein. Written by Yoram Teharlev with music by Shalom Hanoch, it tells the founding of Petah Tikva in 1878 by Yoel Moshe Salomon, the pioneer of Jewish settlement on the land outside walled cities. It’s told as a magical fantasy: Five riders head north from Jaffa to the swamps near Umm Labess. Four, hearing no birds, fear death (probably mosquito-borne malaria) and flee back to the city. But Salomon defies death, stays the night and is rewarded by sprouting wings and flying off — perhaps to heaven — and bringing back the gift of life and health; in the morning the cursed valley is filled with the chirping of birds, and there are those who say to this day the birds sing of Yoel Moshe Salomon. Here are the words in Hebrew and English. But read them before or after (or print them out) – be sure you’re watching Arik as you listen.

Arik Einstein, The Ballad of Yoel Moshe Salomon.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.