Monday, April 28, 2008

Counting the (H)omer...

Though we're now a week plus into counting the Omer, I keep running into folks who swear they knoweth not about one of the coolest Jewish websites in the Liturg-O-Sphere.  I'm referring of course to the Homer Calendar. (Yes, as in Homer Simpson.)  It was researched, written and designed by my friend, health care advocate Brian Rosman, who guested with his family at our seder and presented us with a copy of the handy "pocket edition" of the Homer Counter hot off the press. 

This is not a one joke deal. Brian's site is 100% kosher, a perfect synergy of ancient Jewish ritual and modern American pop culture. Not only is The Simpsons' creator and many of the writers Jewish (no surprise there), the show itself has frequently referenced Jewish themes, notably revolving around one of the supporting characters who is Jewish, the TV star Krusty The Clown. But you know all this. What you may not know is that there exists a stack of books and articles (and probably a Ph.D. dissertation by now) on the religious (even Jewish) significance of this hopelessly dysfunctional TV family. Brian has some very interesting commentary and links to much of it, including a very funny slide show of "Jewish Life in Springfield." Click here, and happy counting.

Downtown Seder: the last word on Pesach?

Ok, Pesach is over and we're eight days into the Omer. We have to move on, but if I don't put this up now I'll have to wait a whole 'nother year, and who knows if the world will still be here by then.

Michael Dorf, the powerhouse genius behind Oy!hoo, the NYC operation which has pretty much become synonymous with Cutting-Edge-Jewish-Music, posted a Virtual Seder on the cusp of Shabbat Hagadol. If your inbox overflows with viral videos - usually sent by parents, in-laws, cousins, and acquaintances with way too many names in their address books - then you've probably seen it - along with the second Jewish holiday video by that candy-coated singing stick of dynamite (and maybe the next crossover Jewperstar?) Michelle Citrin - but if you haven't, then you're in for a treat. Here are just a few of the celebrity Jews you'll get to see exposing a little of their ethnic under-skin.

Each and every clip is a delight. Especially the entertaining dissertation on maror by a very rabbinic looking Lewis Black.

Memo to Michael Dorf: Maybe Lorne Michaels couldn't get the Beatles on SNL, but if you start now, you might have a shot at getting Bobby Zimmerman for the Downtown Seder in...2010?

Friday, April 25, 2008


Ok, folks, we're in the home stretch and I've saved the best for last.  To get us in the mood for Mike Hammerman's extraordinary Dayeinu (see below), here are a couple of my favorite Dayeinu instrumentals:

We begin with the Farbrangen Fiddlers, whose second LP American Chai (1976) is a pre-klezmer masterpiece of Jewish Americana (sadly, unavailable on CD). The Fiddlers' first record had a very small pressing - thus their "Dayeinu Bluegrass" (cutting edge for the 1970s, trust me) has rarely been heard.  I taped it on cassette one Sunday evening off WEVD in New York, from Robert Cohen's wonderful Yedid Nefesh program.  Back in those early days Robert was the Vin Scelsa of Jewish radio. Apologies for the sound (there's a drop-out or two), but David Shneyer's guitar and Alan Oresky's fiddle make this Dayeinu sweeter than that first sip of Shevitz!

The next cut speaks for itself.  It's from an LP called Twistin' The Freilach by Lou Klayman and his orchestra: a priceless piece of Jewish pop-culture, in which - you guessed it - traditional simcha songs are played in the style of that 1960s dance sensation "The Twist"! 

Here's a Dayeinu For The Ages.  When I started collecting Jewish novelty songs - think Jewish Dr. Demento (he is Jewish, I know) - I would occasionally come across a track that was recorded in complete seriousness, but hit me funnier than many comedy songs.  Not like the stuff on NPR's Annoying Music Show, which is just annoying.  I mean great music, the kind that gets better with age.  (Sometime I'll let you hear my 10 worst Hava Nagilas and you'll see what I mean.) 

So, enjoy this Pesach treat, the late Cantor Michael Hammerman, tenor, beloved hazzan of Brookline's historic Congregation Kehilat Israel, from his album of Jewish songs called Bless This House.  I don't want to spoil the fun of discovering it for yourself.  I'll just mention, in the third verse, after he gives a krechtz (cry) on the words "try to do it" the track gets more and more bizarre by the second, straight through to the end.  This is one you'll want on your iPod. (Here are the lyrics.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Had enough matzah yet?

We're halfway through Chag Ha-Pesach, and our over-consumption of white flour is beginning to have an effect on the internal organs.  (They do sell whole wheat matzah, which isn't bad, but we never seem to be able to stock enough of it to last through the week.)  So, to help get you through the next few days with a smile, here are a few 'Songs you never learned in shul' relating to - what else? - the Bread of Affliction: 

From the great Allan Sherman we have "Mammy's Litttle Baby Loves Matzoballs", the finale of 'Shticks and Stones' from his landmark first LP, 'My Son the Folksinger'. There is much more to say about Allan Sherman (and we shall) but in the meantime there are rewards aplenty for those who search out his TV appearances on YouTube.

There is also much that can be said about the legendary 1930s jazz hipster Slim Gaillard, whose Yiddish inflected novelty tunes can be heard on multiple CD compilations. Slim recorded several memorable paeans on his love for Jewish foods, among them, "Matzah Balls," which appears on the excellent Columbia CD of proto-Jewish pop, 'From Ave. A To The Great White Way', and thus can only be excerpted here.

As you can hear, Gaillard seems to enjoy eating his matzah balls with gefilte fish.  To each his own, I suppose, but that brings me to the deliciously named 1980s California group Gefilte Joe and the Fish. Gefilte Joe (who he actually is/was is a mystery to me) was not the first (nor the last) Jewish humorist to channel Mel Brook's Yiddish accented 2000 Year Old Man. As you can hear on "Matzoh Man," (from a curious and long-out-of-print Rhino Records six-pointed-star-shaped EP - on blue vinyl(!) - called 'Hanukkah Rocks') he 'sings' in a way that makes you wonder if it's a total put-on or whether he's just your average disco-loving Jewish grampa.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Happy Pesach!

Wishing you and your family a sweet, healthy, and meaningful Yontif!

Songs for your seder from Kol B'seder

Maybe you already have these on CD, perhaps on cassette tape, or maybe you don't, but here's some Pesach music to sing at your seder from Kol B'seder.

In Every Generation - mp3 - lyrics - music: page1 - page2 - page3  Here is "B'chol dor vador" from the Haggadah (just after Dayeinu), that we must see ourselves as personally delivered from Egypt.  We sing the Hebrew with the traditional wording, and also in a gender-neutral Hebrew version. The English is a reminder that just as we must "look upon ourselves as if from slavery we were freed," we must also, "look around and help all the ones who are in need." (By the way, that's the incredible Howard Levy on harmonica.)

The Ten Plagues - mp3 - lyrics - music: page1 - page2  This song is not just a handy way to remember the order of the plagues. It reminds us of a midrash that the Eternal rebuked the angels for rejoicing at the destruction of Pharoah's army saying, "My children are drowning in the sea..."  The drops of wine we spill from our cups are thus, in a way, like tears.

If you'd like to sing and play more of our music, here's a special offer on our Songbook.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Uno Chi Sa?...When In Rome

As long as we're globetrotting, here is another version of Echad Mi Yode'a, this time in Italian, "Uno Chi Sa?", from the Roman tradition.  My trip to Rome in 1989 (visiting my wife, Deeana, who was doing a fellowship in history at the American Academy) had a profound effect on me.  I found the Roman liturgical  music - which has been carefully preserved for generations - to be meaningful in a very personal way.  For myself, who grew up without a distinct Jewish musical tradition of my own and thus had to create one (I'm speaking of the so-called "American nusach" folk style of liturgical song), having the opportunity to experience and absorb the Roman tradition for nearly six weeks felt very comforting.  So much so, that when we were both back home, we decided to adopt their melody for the Shabbat evening Kiddush as our family tradition, which has continued to the present.  I'll get back to all this in a future post, but for now here is a sweet little macaroon of a seder song. Recorded in 1985, the two wonderful soloists (hazzanim) are Rav Haim Vittorio Della Rocca and Rav Avraham Alberto Funaro.  The Italian lyrics may be found here (just scroll down a bit).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Echad Mi Yode'a from Syra in Judeo-Arabic

Every Pesach I try to convince my wife that I am actually Sephardic, and thus we should be able to eat rice and kitniyot on Pesach.  (I was spoiled by the one year we went to Jerusalem during Pesach and realized I could just walk into Supersol, pretend I was Mizrahi and buy a container of the best hummos I've ever had. Now, that was heaven - on matzah.)  Well, each year she doesn't buy it.  With the first seder on motzei Shabbat this year, the kitchen is about to be turned upside down so she can start cooking.  I may have to keep my bagels in the basement freezer this week, thaw them with a hairdryer and eat them in the car.  I do try to incorporate as many Sephardic melodies into the seder as I can, along with songs from Israel, Russia, Germany, Italy and the USA.  This amazing version of Echad Mi Yode'a from Syria has an incredible back story that you can read about on my web site, here.  The printed lyrics in Hebrew/Judeo-Arabic are here (page 1; page 2) and in transliteration (slightly different wording) here.  No other melody gets me into the mood for the seders like this one. It has a beat that may as well be trance music - it's hard to explain but it really moves me. Singing it after four cups of wine, I don't hold back.  (Hint: it's a good way to clear out the last few lingering guests.) The wonderful old gentleman who recorded this, Avraham Malki, z"l, taught me how to say "Hazak U'varuch" (the Sephardic equivalent of "Baruch Tih'ye") and it stuck.  That's what I say all the time in response to the ubiquitous "Yashar Koach" in shul. So, maybe I do have Sephardic blood in me after all. 

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Adir Hu in the traditional method..."

That is how my grandfather, Bernard "Barney" Klepper, z"l, introduces the Pesach melody taught to him by his Romanian grandfather 100 years ago, on a scratchy old record that floated around my extended family for years until I found out about it and got a taped copy.  (I'm told the original disc no longer exists.) Every time I hear NPR's 'Lost and Found Sound'  I think this recording would be perfect for it.  The story: in 1942 my grandfather and his three siblings sat around a microphone and recorded their favorite seder songs, including the gypsy-klezmer inflected Adir Hu and the equally infectious Chad Gadya.  No one's quite sure how the recording session came about, and that generation is gone, but there is something both spooky and comforting about hearing the voices of your ancestors from beyond the grave. The complete 12 minute recording can be found here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"They're gonna put me in the movies..." line? C'mon..." They're gonna make a big star out of me." Right you are. 'Act Naturally' by the Beatles - written by Buck Owens - and sung by Ringo!

Which is just a lead in to this: I have a bit part in the new documentary, Voice Teacher by Danny Mendelson. It's about MY voice teacher, the legendary Donald Roberts. He's the guy who got me singing again. (It only took five years of excruciating work. But that's another story.) It's a FANTASTIC film. Here's the trailer. Can you catch my 6 seconds? Watch for it on the festival circuit next year!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Music & Mishkan T’filah

As one of three cantors on the Editorial Committee of Mishkan T’filah (the new Reform Movement prayerbook) from 1999 to 2005 I was involved in many decisions about the content and form of this new sidur. There were hours of discussions around controversial issues such as, “should the Hebrew prayers be transliterated?” - the vote was yes - or “should the traditional second paragraph of V’ahavta (which deals with God’s retribution) be included?” - the vote was no. On some issues, such as proposing to change the phrase in G’vurot from “m’chayei hakol” (gives life to all, the Reform wording) to “m’chayei meitim” (gives life to the dead, the traditional version), the vote was so evenly split that both phrases were included, the traditional wording in parentheses.

Everyone who prays from Mishkan T’filah should be able to see their own reflection in its pages. As cantors, we were responsible for ensuring that Mishkan T’filah could work with a wide variety of worship and musical styles. In some congregations everyone sings everything, while in other congregations only the cantor or choir sings much of the service. We quickly realized that this sidur could not include such directions as, “rise,” “bow,” or “silently,” nor could it force the singing of any particular prayer in either Hebrew or English. It is up to the leader of each service, taking into consideration any prevailing local customs, to determine which prayers will be included and how they will be performed. Although some of the pages, spreading out to the left and right, may look confusing at first, there is a very careful logic to the placement of each prayer. Having additional readings or songs on the left-hand page allows for variation in the service from week to week. If anyone is bored praying from Mishkan T’filah, it will not be because of the prayerbook!

Mishkan T’filah is a sidur that facilitates singing. The Hebrew and English transliteration is easy to read, the headings and rubrics are clearly marked, and sections of a prayer that are usually sung are subtly separated by a line break or indentation making it easy to locate the text. Most important, cantors and music leaders now have more musical choices and possibilities than ever before. This is nowhere more evident than in the large selection of songs in the back of the sidur.

With the invaluable help of Cantor Benji Ellen Schiller I had major responsibility for putting the song section together. Deciding which songs were in and which were out took many hours of meetings, emails and phone calls. The material had to be collected, checked, translated, categorized, typeset, re-checked, formatted, indexed, and proofread. There are close to 300 songs in Mishkan T’filah, many of which have never appeared in a sidur. Some of these are notable, if not historic: Debbie Friedman’s version of Mi Shebeirach and her “Miriam’s Song”; an entire section of contemporary songs from Israel; several songs in Yiddish (and one in Ladino), plus songs for every Jewish holiday.

There were a few songs I proposed that didn’t make the final cut. The one I was saddest about losing was “This Land Is Your Land.” One can fight only so many battles, but, looking back, I wish I had fought harder. Whenever I look at page 680, after “God Bless America,” I see a big white space on the page, and I sigh. It could have gone right there.

Monday, April 7, 2008

It's been a long time coming....

I'm gearing up and should be blogging with some regularity very Pesach?