Every Friday night at dusk, Jews welcome the Shabbat to the words of Lecha Dodi.
Lecha Dodi is one of the most beloved pieces in Jewish liturgy, and a barometer of sorts for our communal mood: When Hanukkah approaches, it’s paired with chipper holiday melodies; on the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, it’s accompanied by the somber tune reserved for Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Mourners observing shiva enter the sanctuary at its conclusion, to be comforted and embraced by the community. (This custom is particularly missed now.)
The words of Lecha Dodi are attributed to 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the son of exiled Spanish Jews and a resident of Safed, in the Galilee. The Shabbat is his initial focus, but Alkabetz soon shifts our attention outward: to the material world that he and his fellow mystics viewed as inherently broken, and to the future redemption symbolized by the Shabbat. The transition occurs in Lecha Dodi’s third stanza, which reads:
“Mikdash melech, ir melucha,
Kumi tzei mitoch hahafecha.”
“Sanctuary of the king, city of royalty,
Arise, leave from the midst of the turmoil.”
The Bobov niggun for these verses is particularly fitting for our troubled moment. It’s a gentle, melancholic melody that captures the deep despair expressed by Alkabetz, as well as the flicker of hope his words bring to the heart. The second line is repeated, as if to emphasize the verses’ urgent plea: Kumi tzei, kumi tzei! Arise, arise from this turmoil!
In late 2000, Bruce Springsteen, no rabbi yet a spiritual mentor in his own right, wrote another lamentation: “My City of Ruins”. The song bemoans not Jerusalem or the kabbalist’s vision of a world bereft of divine presence, but the faded glory of Asbury Park, that deteriorated Eden of the genesis of his musical career. Formerly the Jersey Shore’s mecca of rock ‘n roll, the town had fallen victim to mid-20th century America’s urban afflictions: shuttered factories, misguided development, racial tension. “The boarded up windows, The empty streets,” sings Springsteen.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, however, the song took on a broader meaning. America needed a cultural hero and, at a moment when the police force and fire department were on the frontlines, no one was better suited for the task than Springsteen, the voice of blue-collar America. Springsteen’s memorable performance during the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon, merely ten days after the attacks, elevated “My City of Ruins” into an American prayer about heartbreaking collapse and hope of rebirth. For many, Springsteen’s resounding cry to “rise up!” remains a consoling and reassuring memory from a traumatic period in the city’s history. (Some real estate developers may have taken the Boss’s orders too literally; several glass-and-steel towers have indeed ‘risen up’ in Ground Zero and practically everywhere else — even in Asbury Park — further exacerbating the disparity Springsteen wrote about in the first place). “My City of Ruins” was eventually included in Springsteen’s post-9/11 album, The Rising.
This Shabbat, like the several before it, Jews in New York City will not gather to sing Lecha Dodi together. The lyrics of “My City of Ruins” once again eerily echo the city’s condition: “The church door’s thrown open… But the congregation’s gone.” Alone in our homes, we will pray for our struggling city, reduced to a shadow of its normal self. Rabbi Alkabetz’s words on our lips, and Springsteen’s cry in our hearts, we will pray for this city’s resilience, and for a brighter future to come:
“We pray for the lost, Lord,
We pray for this world, Lord,
We pray for the strength, Lord…
Come on, rise up,
Come on, rise up…”
“Kumi tzei, kumi tzei,
Ben Zion Ferziger is an Israeli attorney living and working in NYC, and a member of Shazur/Interwoven, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering appreciation and collaboration between the Israeli and American Jewish communities.