Carlebach, Neo-Hasidic Music, and Current Liturgical Practice
by Cantor Sam Weiss
A version of this article first appeared in Journal of Synagogue Music Vol. 34, Fall 2009, published by The Cantors Assembly.
The 50th anniversary of the release of Haneshomoh Loch, the first record album by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, is an opportune time to assess his musical and liturgical legacy. According to rabbi and musicologist Jeffrey Summit, writing around the year 2000:
From the 1960s onward, Hasidic and Neo-Hasidic music influenced synagogue and youth music in all the major branches of American Judaism as well as in Israel…. Neo- Hasidism, as introduced in the work of Martin Buber and… later writers… together with the music of Shlomo Carlebach, influenced all of American Judaism’s mainstream movements in the past thirty years in their institutional attempts to find relevance and meaning in Jewish worship and ritual.1
The present article is an attempt to appreciate the above statement principally as it applies to current Conservative liturgical practice, with some attention to that of other Jewish groups as well.
Shlomo Carlebach was born in Berlin in 1925; his father and forebears were Orthodox (non-Hasidic) rabbis. The family moved from Berlin to Baden, Austria, in 1930; they escaped from the Nazis in 1938 to Lithuania, and arrived in Brooklyn in 1939. There he continued his high school education and frequented the few Hasidic shtiblekh that were functioning in New York before WW II. A few years later, to the chagrin of his teachers in the Yeshiva of Lakewood, NJ, Carlebach took to composing and performing simple tunes to short Hebrew liturgical phrases in a style reminiscent of Hasidic singing. He was ordained as a rabbi and briefly held a pulpit, but he avoided the title, instead finding his calling among crowds of young people estranged from their Jewish heritage—to whom he was simply “Shlomo.”
Through the early 1950s he taught his simple but infectious songs—along with his message of love, peace, self-respect, and spiritual connection—in cafes and on college campuses. At first he worked under official Lubavitcher auspices as the pioneering Chabad shaliaḥ (envoy), but he soon found himself at odds with the Rebbe’s restrictions, so he charted an independent course that allowed him to get closer to his audiences and to place greater emphasis on his music-making, for which he learned to accompany himself on the guitar. His was an independent course that lasted 30 years, during which time his Neo-Hasidic genre and its offshoots became the predominant form of Jewish vocal music worldwide. His songs quickly entered the public domain and from there the melodies were absorbed into synagogues (and even some churches) all over the world, often under the rubric of “traditional” (see Example 1).
In 1959 he produced the first of approximately 25 albums—not counting the many unauthorized recordings that were produced during and after his lifetime. In all, he recorded only a fraction of his compositions, variously estimated to total anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 (Carlebach himself was not sure of the number). In the early 1960s he sang in venues large and small throughout America, as well as in Jerusalem, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome. His 1966 performance at the Berkeley Folk Festival was a landmark event that broadened Carlebach’s conception of his musical mission; two years later he founded a synagogue and homeless shelter in San Francisco called The House of Love and Prayer. There, for a decade, the “Singing Rabbi” tended to the physical and spiritual needs of runaways, drug addicts, and sundry “Flower Children,” even as he absorbed some of their dress, manner, and free spirit.
Concurrently with his California activities, in 1967 he inherited the joint leadership (with his twin brother Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach) of the New York congregation formerly served by his deceased father, and maintained an international musical ministry through his concert schedule. He performed wherever there were new hearts to touch: in communes, ashrams, synagogues, concert halls, prisons, and hospitals. In 1970 he visited Russia for the first time, uplifting oppressed Soviet Jews with one of his most famous songs, Am Yisrael Ḥai.2 In 1976, a year before closing his San Francisco center, Carlebach brought several dozen of its members to a settlement near the biblical city Modi’in (southeast of Tel-Aviv) where a new community of his disciples was eventually established. He maintained his international concert schedule right up to 1994, when he succumbed to a fatal heart attack on a plane enroute to a concert.
The lure of Carlebach’s music
The rapid embrace of his songs can be explained in part by the musical and spiritual vacuum in the general Jewish population in the post-Holocaust years. More importantly however, the structure of the songs made them easily sung and remembered, and their logical melodic lines tapped into the folk styles of many different traditions, further advancing their global popularity. Western, Oriental, Sephardic, and Ashkenazic Jews as well as non-Jewish audiences found his gently rhythmic melodies strangely familiar upon first hearing. Many of Carlebach’s songs lend themselves to endless repetition, and in concerts he and his audiences would sing them to the point of exhilaration or exhaustion. This might be preceded or followed by a bit of spiritual wisdom or an elaborate and moving Hasidic or personal story, and the pattern would repeat with the next song.
Carlebach’s charismatic personality earned him an immense and devoted following throughout his career, as teenage fans later became adult disciples. After his death his influence grew exponentially. There is a worldwide fellowship that still sings his songs, retells his stories, and trades hagiographic tales about the noble ways of their “rebbe.” There is also, among the many complex streams in today’s “post-denominational Judaism,” one which unselfconsciously calls itself “Carlebachian.”3
While his spiritual and musical heirs can be found across the spectrum of Jewish society, the esteem—bordering on veneration—for Shlomo Carlebach’s niggunim among Orthodox Jews beginning several years after his death is especially remarkable. Carlebach’s controversial lifestyle caused him to be generally shunned by the Orthodox during his lifetime; but with the passing years those controversies faded, to be replaced with an understanding of Carlebach’s legacy in outreach towards unaffiliated and disaffected Jews, and of his seminal role in popular Orthodox Jewish music via his early influences on such stars as The Rabbis’ Sons, The Diaspora Yeshiva Band, Mordechai Ben David, and Avraham Fried.
Outside of Orthodoxy as well, Carlebach’s historic musical and spiritual importance is incontestable. His Neo-Hasidic song style meshed with the styles of American folk groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary to inform Jewish songwriting across the entire Jewish religious spectrum, beginning with such 1970s artists as Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman, and groups like Kol B’Seder and Safam. All of this popular Jewish songwriting, in turn, exerted a strong influence on the development of synagogue music to our day. Of course, one cannot easily tease apart the effects of Neo-Hasidic music from the effects of the general popular musical culture; nor is this exercise necessary, given the fact that the nature of Neo-Hasidic music itself has kept broadening and developing as it partook of general popular music (see Example 2).
One of the most striking aspects of Carlebach’s liturgical legacy is the steadily growing international network of “Carlebach Minyanim” (at one time also called “Happy Minyanim”) which are usually populated not by “Carlebachians” per se, but by Modern Orthodox Jews who are drawn to the musical and spiritual experience of a “singing service,” particularly on Erev Shabbat. The hallmark of these prayer groups is a “wall of congregational song” punctuated by the occasional solo line from the sh’liaḥ tsibbur. The congregational singing, moreover, is based on a uniformly programmed selection of niggunim predominantly composed by Shlomo Carlebach, although this style and sequence are not attributable to him. The fervently participatory worship style of the Carlebach Minyanim has also strongly influenced the “Independent Minyan” movement, whose members mostly come from a Conservative background. The success of the Carlebach Minyanim has also changed the character of the Friday night services in many mainstream Orthodox and Reform institutions, but it is among Conservative congregations where such change has been the strongest.
As the leadership in various Conservative synagogues longed to recreate the participatory spirit of an intimate Carlebach Minyan in the context of large sanctuaries that do not easily support it, they looked enviously to the mass participation in such popular Friday night services as in New York City’s nominally Conservative Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Key to its successful participation was the the playing of musical instruments on the Bimah combined with the “constant flow of niggunim” mode, helping to transform a uniformly programmed selection of congregational singing into a program of synagogal concert sets. B’nai Jeshurun served as a model for many East Coast Conservative congregations in this endeavor, which also crystallized on the West Coast as the “Friday Night Live” and “One Shabbat Morning” series of services. But significant as the Carlebach Minyanim may have been in the development of today’s worship styles, to focus unduly on this relatively recent trend would be to miss many of the underlying fundamental influences of Neo-Hasidic music on our liturgical practice.
The term Neo-Hasidic
The citation from Jeffrey Summit’s book that was quoted above—a passing observation that is not really fleshed out in his work—is refreshing for its forthright use of the term Neo-Hasidic music without gratuitous quotation marks or disparaging qualifiers.4 The term Neo-Hasidic was first used in reference to the early 20th Century philosophy and revivalist religious teachings that followed from the writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. The label was later borrowed to describe what was to become the most prevalent form of Jewish song in the last fifty years; as such, “Neo-Hasidic music” has flustered many a scholar of contemporary Jewish music. Euphemisms for the genre range from the neutral “Hasidic-style” to the tepid “ostensibly Hasidic”5 to the rather hostile “faux-Hasidic” and “faux Shtetilism.”6
Why this hesitant if not unsympathetic attitude towards the notion of Neo-Hasidic music? One reason is the fact that with the exception of Carlebach himself, Neo-Hasidic singers, musicians and audiences until well into the 1980s evinced little meaningful relation to the philosophical movement of Neo-Hasidism which preceded it by two generations. The term Neo-Hasidic music, therefore, may have an air of pretentiousness that some find objectionable. Admittedly, the early consumers of Carlebach’s niggunim were not necessarily connected to Neo-Hasidism as a religious philosophy. In this century, however, the spiritual intensity often associated with Neo-Hasidic singing in liturgical or para-liturgical settings among non-Orthodox Jews truly renders such music into a primary component of a rediscovered Jewish populism and a re-attachment to Jewish prayer by a new class of devotees, i.e. a Neo-Hasidism. Many impartial writers and participants have described this type of singing as being the first time that they experienced “true prayer” or “true spirituality in prayer.” Such singing constitutes a religious act that closely parallels the singing of contemporary Hasidic and Yeshivish populations for whom similar musico-religious experiences are elemental, with nothing “neo” about them.
Another reason for the uneasiness is the role played by this genre in contemporary liturgical practice. It is a role that engenders resistance, if not anxiety, among certain theoreticians, composers and practitioners of liturgical music struggling to integrate the new popular-based synagogue song within the old paradigms of Nusaḥ Ha-T’fillah. Cantors who have still not completely come to terms with the effects of the “Camp Ramah phenomenon” on the character of our worship services will understandably be confounded by the nature and popularity of services built upon one song following another. Boaz Tarsi, an important scholar of synagogal modes and liturgical music, makes no attempt to hide his frustration and antipathy towards the “phenomenon of creeping Hasidism” in the synagogue,7 whose primary contribution has been the “flattening and discombobulation” of the Ashkenazic synagogue’s modal framework, and whose “pseudo-Hasidic” songs have caused the “loss of directivity” and even “complete disintegration” of Jewish liturgical space.8
Yet another source of misunderstanding regarding Neo-Hasidic music is the appellation itself, which sounds like it refers to something that has supplanted an earlier period of simply “Hasidic” music—on the model of such genres as Neo-Klezmer music and Neo- Classical (or neoclassical) music. Since music-making among today’s Hasidim has obviously not come to an end, this terminology can indeed be troubling.
What, then, do we mean here by this term? In the absence of a watertight musicological description, our working definition will embrace all of the following:
settings of short biblical or liturgical texts (in any language) to simple melodies sung (and often composed) by Jews who do not formally identify with any Hasidic group;
these melodies or similar inspirational tunes sung to vocables with or without occasional words;
any worship music or para-liturgical music intended to invoke the mood or spirit of the songs described above in (a) or (b).
Part (c) above underscores the fact that Neo-Hasidic songs—despite their liturgical texts—were once normally sung only in non-worship environments.9 Nevertheless, even in a concert or other secular surroundings there was always a palpable religious undercurrent to this music. Then with each passing year more and more of the songs found new audiences in synagogues as these liturgical texts, now clothed in popular melodies, made their way to the lips of congregants who heretofore might never have uttered them. Thus one of the greatest impacts that Shlomo Carlebach and the ensuing culture of Neo-Hasidic singing had on Jewish music was to minimize the functional distinction between popular music and religious music. This is particularly relevant to the experience of Conservative Jews, whose exposure to Neo-Hasidic music is predominantly in a liturgical or para-liturgical environment.
Part (a) points out that the prefix “Neo-” for this musical genre may in fact be misleading. Unlike Neo-Klezmer and Neo-Classical, which imply a revival of an outdated genre, Neo-Hasidic music has not replaced Hasidic music, but has grown alongside and even influenced the music of Hasidim. As in the political designation Neo-Conservative, Neo-Hasidic music suggests a change in characteristics, constituency, and development in relation to Hasidic music. Let us now examine some characteristics of Neo-Hasidic music as exemplified by Shlomo Carlebach’s songs, and compare them to Hasidic music. If we scrutinize part (a) we might assume that by deleting the word “not” from the phrase “not formally identify with any Hasidic group” we will arrive at a good definition of Hasidic music. While this assumption is fairly common (and reasonably inferred from the name “Neo-Hasidic”), it is in fact only a back-formation that misrepresents the bulk of Hasidic music before Shlomo Carlebach’s era. Simple settings of short liturgical texts are but a minor category in classical Hasidic song; they are more characteristic of the genre known as Yeshiva songs. “Yeshiva” refers here to the actual study hall environment, and more generally to the Orthodox non-Hasidic population.
The traditional Hasidic niggun is without texts. Where texts do occur, they are often incidental (becoming attached to a pre-existing niggun) and/or variable over the life of the niggun. The typical text in such niggunim will be of considerable length. Examples are complete piyyutim like L’kha Dodi, Eil Adon on Shabbat or V’ye’etayu Kol L’ovdecha on the High Holidays, any of the z’mirot for the Shabbat table, complete psalms like Shir Ha-Ma’alot or Mizmor L’David, or full liturgical paragraphs like Atah V’ḥartanu or Atah Eḥad V’shimkha Eḥad.10 The distinction between the shorter texts in a Yeshiva song or a Neo-Hasidic song and the longer texts in a Hasidic song is not inconsequential. It underscores an important melodic advantage of the latter compared to the former, i.e. an arc of logical musical progression and development that provides a fuller emotional experience upon first hearing. In a liturgical or para-liturgical context, this stronger sense of development will translate into a more powerful spiritual experience. In the following two examples, compare the musical effect of the phrase V’Taheir Libeinu L’ovd’cha Be’emet in the shorter “Yeshiva” A-B version (see Example 3) which has survived and flourished well into the Neo-Hasidic era, with the more authentically Hasidic A-B-C-B’ version (see Example 4) in which these four words are prefaced by section A, considered in section B, expanded upon in section C, and then reconsidered in section B’.
I emphasized “upon first hearing” in the previous paragraph because there are ways to simulate the fuller emotional/spiritual experience of a Hasidic niggun even with songs that lack its compositional features, and Neo-Hasidic music often avails itself of them. One of these ways is through many repetitions of a song, which, with a suitable state of mind, can yield increased intensity. Another method is by encouraging total audience participation, whereby the heft of massed voices compensates for the relative musical lightness of the song. Another way is to enhance the melody by involving the body, be it through grimacing, fist-clenching, handholding, swaying, clapping, stamping, or dancing. Thus Hasidim typically reserve niggunim of the short A-B format for their rikkud (dance) repertoire, as illustrated by the “endless loop” that one associates with Example 3.
The Carlebachian touch
Yet another means of eliciting a stronger emotional response from a simple song is via the “setup,” a contextual subtext that underpins and lends meaning to the singing.11 The undisputed master of setting up a song and extracting all the emotion that it could yield was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. His introductory personal anecdotes and Hasidic stories uniquely synthesized the two most powerful devices in Hasidic culture, the mayseh (tale) and the niggun.
Besides integrating the simplicity of the short liturgical Yeshiva song with the deeper emotional involvement of the Hasidic genre, Carlebach’s songs and concert presentations used synthesis in other ways: While we often associate Carlebach songs with Hasidic-style vocables like lai-lai-lai, actually very few of his songs are wordless niggunim per se. Instead of distinguishing between songs with texts and those without, any Carlebach song was a candidate for temporary or extended conversion into a niggun at the appropriate moment. Similarly—albeit with many examples of clearly devotional songs or songs meant for dancing—the two categories of “slow song” and “fast song” tended to fuse into one song-type that was subject to slowing down or speeding up in order to generate moods of introspection, excitement, or something in between.
By all of the aforementioned means, Shlomo Carlebach and his followers transformed a simple song into a vehicle of rich emotion, and the very act of group singing into a communal religious experience. It was a small step, then, for such vehicles and experiences to find a home one day in the synagogues of America and beyond. Borrowing popular melodies for use in the sanctuary has a long and broad history, and in this respect there would be nothing remarkable in using a Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman tune in a service. But the effects of Neo-Hasidic music on the synagogue were more pervasive than what had come before, as we shall see below. We will now briefly survey the development of this music after and alongside Carlebach.
A group of Yeshiva students calling themselves The Rabbis’ Sons played an important role in expanding the genre by consciously grafting the American folk musical idiom onto Carlebach’s Neo-Hasidic model. This was accomplished in part through fresh melodic and harmonic ideas, but primarily through a vigorous emphasis on guitars as rhythm instruments. Their first recording was released shortly after Israel’s Six-Day War victory in 1967, and pride in that victory helped propel this hybrid “new traditional sound”—with its Hebrew lyrics and contemporary folk feel—to audiences who might otherwise have felt estranged from that musical culture. This included adults meeting for worship in the newly popular Ḥavurot (small independent prayer groups), and youngsters inspired by this music in Conservative and Reform youth groups and summer camps.
The 1970s also brought Neo-Hasidic music to American audiences from the State of Israel. The trajectory from Hasidic to Neo-Hasidic music in Israel was different from the American route embodied in Carlebach’s early career: The Hasidic songs and stories on the hit soundtrack album of the 1968 show Ish Hasid Hayah sparked a national interest in things Hasidic, and within one year an annual “Hasidic Song Festival” had been established. The selections in the festivals were, of course, Neo-Hasidic rather than Hasidic, including Carlebach compositions like V’ha’eir Eineinu and Od Yishama.
During the same period in the United States, the Neo-Hasidic rhythm section took on even greater importance among the 1970s “Simcha bands” like Ruach Revival, The Messengers, and Neginah Orchestra, groups whose Neo-Hasidic repertoire reached new audiences in the form of wedding and bar-mitzvah entertainment as well as recordings and concerts. Slowly but surely songs with a strong beat were becoming the most palatable form of Hebrew singing among ever-expanding Jewish audiences. As such up-tempo liturgical songs like V’ha’eir Eineinu and Oseh Shalom passed from the dance floor and concert stage into the synagogue service, they naturally slowed down to a more dignified tempo. At the same time they lost some favor in the Neo-Hasidic entertainment industry (or “Hasidic entertainment,” the self-adopted term) and were supplanted by a newer breed of instrumentally heavy songs variously dubbed Hasidic pop, Hasidic rock, or Ortho-pop. Meanwhile, the earlier Carlebachian folk-flavored Neo-Hasidic music—whether as entertainment or worship—blossomed and grew in new directions among the more liberal segments of Judaism.
The proliferation of Neo-Hasidic songs in the synagogue
Understandably, the songs that gained the most widespread liturgical use were those that invited direct incorporation of both text and tune. This is perhaps best exemplified by the near-universal singing of the passage “Ha-Raḥaman hu yishlaḥ lanu et eiliyahu Ha-Navi…” in Birkat Hamazon to the popular song composed by Haim Kirsch (see Example 5b). This Neo-Hasidic interlude is often nicely bracketed by a Hasidic prelude to Birkat Hamazon in waltz time (Hin’ni mukhan um’zuman…(see Example 5a) and a table-thumping Hasidic postlude at the final paragraph (Y’ru et adonai k’doshav …). As befits this authentic tish niggun, it tends to be sung with gusto on vocables after the text runs out at “… et amo vashalom” (see Example 5c). While on the subject of food and songs, it is worth noting that in the last half-century short Neo-Hasidic songs have supplemented—if not edged out completely—the traditional corpus of z’mirot at many communal Shabbat tables.
In Conservative synagogue practice there are many examples of such easily assimilated songs: the aforementioned Oseh Shalom by Nurit Hirsh and V’ha’eir Eineinu by Shlomo Carlebach, the latter’s Hallel settings of Yisrael B’tah Bashem and Pit’ḥu Li, as well as his Mizmor Shir L’Yom Ha-Shabbat and Ein Keiloheinu. Sometimes a melody of this type doesn’t fare well in its original liturgical location but finds a new home when shifted to another t’fillah, as in the case of Carlebach’s soulful Mimkomkha Malkeinu tune for Shabbat morning (see Example 6a), which is heard more often on Friday nights at V’Shamru (see Example 6b). Ad lib contrafacts of popular melodies for short passages or complete piyyutim like L’kha Dodi or Eil Adon constitute yet another category of modern synagogue music. Finally, the many new liturgical settings in Neo-Hasidic style which are composed expressly for worship round out this liturgical genre.
All of these types of liturgical borrowing from popular song may seem no different from long-standing synagogal practice. After all, hazzanim have always utilized tunes that might be familiar to the congregation from another context and, more to the point, have imported niggunim when matching texts seemed to call for it (often from the category designated above as “Yeshiva” songs, e.g. V’Kareiv P’zureinu, V’Teḥezena Eineinu, V’Taheir Libeinu). Nor is there anything new about including an occasional metrical strain within a chanted passage. In reality, however, the last two generations of Neo-Hasidic influence on the synagogue have significantly altered the liturgical soundscape and the worship experience of many Conservative congregations. To be sure, not all congregations are alike, and these influences occurred in synergism with other cultural, liturgical, and general musical trends; nevertheless, the quantitative and qualitative marks left by Shlomo Carlebach’s legacy are manifest.
Quantitatively, the proliferation of short, rhythmic, easily sung tunes in Conservative and Reform congregations over the last forty years is analogous to the steady rise in congregational singing among many New York Orthodox congregations beginning in 1912. In that year the nascent Young Israel movement sought to democratize the prayer service by moderating the role of the cantor and increasing the role of the congregation. As its name implies, the major goal of Young Israel was to attract younger Jews to the synagogue by making them feel like it was “their” service.12
While the goal of increasing synagogue attendance is a present-day concern as well, the exponential increase in congregational singing in our own times has been driven by additional forces which include a general disengagement from the traditional prayer experience even among those who do attend services, a resistance towards looking into a Siddur in favor of singing a few memorized words at a time, and a redefining of what it means to “participate” in a prayer service. The classic distinction (even if subjective and unspoken) between a “real” (i.e., statutory) t’fillah and a sung metrical piyyut has been turned on its head: In the minds of many congregants the “real prayers” are the ones they hear each other sing; everything else disappears into a mystical void comprehended only by the hazzan and the rabbi.
The impact of Neo-Hasidic songs upon the hazzan
Whereas in an earlier era a hazzan might have introduced a tune to fill a gap in the nusaḥ or to break the monotony of a longer passage, today the liturgical fate of a text may depend entirely on the availability of a Neo-Hasidic or other familiar tune to differentiate it from a neighboring text. In many Kabbalat Shabbat services only the sung verses L’khu N’ran’nah… Yism’ḥu Ha-Shamayim … and Or Zaru’a… (and perhaps Rom’mu Adonai …) survive from the five psalms (95–99) preceding Mizmor l’David (Ps. 29); large swaths of the Shabbat morning P’sukei d’Zimra before and after “Mi ha’ish heḥafeitz ḥayyim …” (Ps. 34:13–15, popularized by a Rabbis’ Sons melody) fall into silence; and the softly sung Oseh shalom bimromav ... may be all that registers from the Amidah after l’Dor vador in this age of the “Hoykhe Kedusha” (i.e., the practice of only reciting the Avot through Kedushah aloud while the remainder of the Amidah is read silently, with no repetition by the hazzan).13
Instead of a simple moderation of the cantor’s role, as occurred in the early part of the twentieth century, recent generations have seen a transformation of the cantor’s principal musical role—from liturgical soloist to liturgical song leader. As such, the cantor more literally “leads” the congregation in prayer, inspiring them perhaps by some of the devices mentioned earlier for eliciting emotion from a simple song. The interchangeability between the concepts of “song” and “prayer” in this context is an important ingredient in the functional transformation: it corresponds to a confusion between these two terms long heard from the mouths of b’nai mitzvah students (who refer to all the prayers they are learning as “songs”) and quite a few adult worshipers as well. Needless to say, liturgical musical awareness and understanding of such terms as nusaḥ, chant, niggun, recitative, and cantillation have long fallen by the wayside—everything that emanates from the mouth of the cantor or sh’liaḥ tzibbur is a “tune.”
Key to the inspiration that is expected from the modern cantor is the spiritual uplift that each worshiper feels from being bound in the same “song” with fellow worshipers. The performative value of the hazzan’s office has not diminished; it is only weighted more towards selecting, leading, modulating and perhaps composing the congregational singing. Just as the medieval European payy’tan-hazzan was influenced by the culture of the troubadours,14 today’s hazzan is his counterpart of sorts who, instead of authoring new hymns, reaches out to his or her congregants by tune-smithing or tune-setting a liturgical passage here and there in the musical idiom favored by the congregation. With fewer and fewer congregants paying attention to the printed page at all, the total reliance on a hazzan for the prayer texts certainly recalls times of yore; and the analogy to a troubadour is even more pertinent in cases where the cantor is accompanied by one or more musical instruments.
There is a palpable connection between this turn of events and the Neo-Hasidic musical culture—beyond the fact that many popular song leaders temporarily adopt a cantorial role “on demand”or eventually transition into that vocation. A Neo-Hasidic concert is typically an “outreach” event; the performer teaches the sacred words and their melody—interlacing them with commentary and perhaps English lyrics—and inspires the audience with the message of the song. Here too, even more inspirational than the singer is the wave of group singing that carries the audience. Shlomo Carlebach, the progenitor of this kind of spiritual musical performance, was a rabbi. Unsurprisingly, among today’s Neo-Hasidic recording artists there are many cantors and rabbis; and in synagogues as well, it is not only cantors but rabbis who lead their congregations in singing. This leads to the following Neo-Hasidic musical equation: Jewish musical entertainment = religious inspiration = liturgical music = Jewish musical entertainment. Viewed from this perspective of musical spirituality, we have yet another model for the modern cantorate—the hazzan as a “Neo-Hasidic musical rebbe.”
We turn now to some of the qualitative features of Shlomo Carlebach’s liturgical legacy. When compared to the “Young Israel legacy” of congregational singing, the Neo- Hasidic musical corpus clearly reflects its Hasidic heritage in that it is decidedly melogenic, i.e. its melodies “have a life of their own” in relation to the words that are being sung. Carlebach said of his own songs that “the melodies came to him first, and only then did he scan the prayer book or the Bible to find the words to fit them.”15 In the older metrical settings of the liturgy, by contrast, the melodies are derived from the cadence of the words and—like the nusaḥ of plain davenen—the melodic lines will “breathe” along with the text. Some of these settings (like the cantillated V’ahavta or the uniform Avot chanted by the congregation) are little more than “nusaḥ in unison,” while many others may be metrical or only quasi-metrical stylizations of nusaḥ (see Example 7).
According to an extensive study of the American cantorate in the 1980s conducted by Mark Slobin for his book Chosen Voices, the most standardized congregational melody reported at that time was the anonymous early 20th century setting of Tsur Yisrael. Slobin transcribed six of the many variations of this “standard” melody, none of which is notated metrically.16 Example 7 is based on the notation of Tsur Yisrael in Zamru Lo: The Next Generation, a 2004 compendium of congregational melodies.17 In spite of the bar lines, the seeming metricality is belied by the constant shifting between triple and duple time signatures. These signatures are omitted in Zamru Lo but are included in our notation. The many different versions of a single prayer contained in Zamru Lo makes this a very useful reference book; in the examples below we refer the reader to the page numbers in that volume.
A quintessential Neo-Hasidic composer for the synagogue is Sol Zim. Atypically among Neo-Hasidic performing artists who are also prolific composers, Zim’s settings are primarily conceived for the synagogue even if they may migrate to the concert stage. His syncopated setting of Magen Avot which appears on p. 112 of Zamru Lo is complete with neo-Hasidic vocables that are integrated into the composition. The Goldfarb and Lewandowski versions of Magen Avot that appear on pp. 109–110 exemplify the older nusaḥ-based style of congregational melodies; their free-flowing character would be clearer if the notation reflected the fermatas and tenutos that are heard in actual performances.18 The setting arranged by Lawrence Avery (p. 106) recalls the classic Hasidic genre of the d’veykus niggun. As in the nusaḥ-based genre, to properly perform a d’veykus niggun an occasional fermata or ritardando is in order. Occupying a middle ground between the latter variety and the energetic setting by Sol Zim is a gentler Neo-Hasidic composition by Gerald Cohen (p. 107).19
A comparison of the time signatures in these five Magen Avot selections brings us to the next distinctive feature of the Neo-Hasidic musical genre: it favors melodies in duple or quadruple meter, often in a bright tempo, as represented by the Zim and Cohen settings—in contrast to the three melodies in an older style which are in triple meter.20 Perusing the approximately 25 versions of L’kha Dodi included in Zamru Lo yields similar results. Only six of these melodies are notated in 3/4. One is a traditional niggun of the Breslover Hasidim (p. 22), two are by Lewandowski (p. 29) and Sulzer (pp. 25, 34) and three are venerable missinai melodies used as seasonal motifs (p. 35). Of the remaining eighteen, there are three Neo-Hasidic tunes notated in 6/8, all of which retain the flavor of the Hasidic waltz genre on which they are modeled (pp. 21, 32, 39).21 Illustrative of the allegiance to a traditional sound inherent in the latter song-type is the fact that among the earliest Neo-Hasidic tunes broadly adopted for worship by Orthodox congregations was Nachum Portnoy's gentle waltz Eitz Hayyim (p. 300).22 In fact, the first modern Hasidic “hit” (which has also thrived as a Neo-Hasidic “crossover hit”) is the setting in triple time of Psalm 23 by Ben-Zion Shenker23 which was recorded three years before Carlebach’s Haneshomoh Loch album (see Example 8).
For a perspective on the effect that the “Neo-Hasidic lively four” metrical shift has had on the synagogue soundscape, consider that in the classic cantorial recitative literature a change from non-metrical chant to metrical singing is almost always indicated by the appearance of a 3/4 time signature. In a similar vein, three iconic liturgical songs that belong to the Ashkenazic folk musical patrimony—Eliyahu Hanavi, the last stanza of Avinu Malkeinu and Sulzer’s Sh’ma Yisrael—are in triple meter.24
While there are many older congregational melodies in duple meter, they tend to be in a slower tempo, e.g. Dunajewski’s Av Haraḥamim (p. 269), Rovner’s Bei Ana Raḥeitz (p. 272), and Sulzer’s Eitz Ḥayyim (p. 302). Alternatively, a brighter duple melody may suggest a stately march, as in the settings of L’kha Adonai (pp. 274–275). Among the traditional melodies of the Hotsa’at Hatorah service (pp. 268–275) 4/4 and 3/4 live in close proximity; yet there is a perceptible “congregational lift” that takes place when the meter in these stately strains changes to triple time at Ki-Mitziyon. For the reverse effect, listen to the universally sung Aleinu as it shifts from the opening section in three to the Shehu noteh shamayim section in four: A bit of musical grace departs from the prayer even for those who are not reminded of the Eentsy Beentsy Spider.
Lasting effects of Neo-Hasidic songs on the way we worship
Perhaps a change in emphasis from musical “grace” to musical “ru’aḥ” in and out of the synagogue is a way of encapsulating the gradual transformations wrought by Neo-Hasidic music. Every Jewish community and religious denomination has been enriched and enlivened in manifold ways by the spirit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Reform worshipers have more Hebrew on their lips and in their Siddurim than ever before; Hasidic children are excitedly in touch with the ins and outs of favorite recording artists on their MP3 players; Jewish Renewal devotees chant Breslover Hasidic niggunim with greater kavvanah than do many Breslover Hasidim; Orthodox shuls resound with lusty harmonies as each singer imagines himself to be a member of the latest a cappella group; Conservative congregations transform their Friday night services into Friday night concerts and each additional congregant who enters the sanctuary is celebrated and counted with the assiduousness of a gigging musician whose livelihood depends on a percentage of the gate.
It is worth reflecting on the merits of this transformation from the point of view of liturgical musical structure and history. There was a time when synagogue musical traditions constituted the lodestone for those actively involved in Jewish liturgical music. Today’s mental reference points are popular Jewish music discographies and concert schedules. Jewish liturgical moments are no longer dependent on clergy nor are they confined to the synagogue; they may happen wherever two or more Jews who can carry a Hebrew tune are gathered, be it at a baby-naming, a Havdalah gathering, a wedding, a Shabbat meal, a study group, a camp reunion, etc.
This sense of open boundaries and personal enthusiasm carries over into contemporary synagogue experiences as well, and it behooves us as synagogue musicians to comprehend its ramifications. To take the example of a genuine Carlebach Minyan: Somewhere in between the hagiography of Carlebachians and the worried deprecation of Boaz Tarsi—who sees in such a Minyan nothing more than the destruction of the Ashkenazic synagogue’s modal framework—lies a better understanding and accommodation that will necessitate rethinking and stretching that framework. For instance, the notion of a “MiSinai melody”25 can perhaps be broadened to include any iconic tune to which a congregation has formed an emotional attachment and an expectation that it be sung. The ebb and flow of spiritual and musical energy at a rebbe’s tish or other Hasidic gathering contain powerful liturgical forces that have little in common with the East-European cantorial traditions—but are obviously at work in a Carlebach Minyan.
As implied earlier, moreover, to understand the aesthetics of today’s synagogue experience we may need to start with the aesthetics of a concert program—and the time may have come for a new liturgical modal framework that combines the synagogue and concert stage models. Perhaps today’s global fluidity of Jewish communities is a signal for us to cut the Ashkenazic cord and form broader musical connections. In the Western Sephardic model, for example, there is little modal awareness of makam or nusaḥ, and the fixed congregational melody reigns supreme. Even within our own tradition and history, the canon of Ashkenazi nusaḥ has never been closed. It remained porous enough to absorb such comparatively recent innovations as the Ahavah Rabbah and Mi Shebeirakh modes; perhaps it also has room for syncopation, I-IV-V-I progressions, and a lot of ya-na-nai-na.26 In sum, if Shlomo Carlebach found room in his German-Jewish Yekke heritage for Polish Hasidism and American guitar strumming, maybe our liturgy can find a proper place for the music of all of his “holy brothers and sisters.”
Sam Weiss, hazzan at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, NJ, is a recitalist, lecturer, and Jewish Music consultant in the fields of liturgical, Yiddish and Hasidic song. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Synagogue Music, his article, “Ha- Derekh Arukah: The Songs of Naomi Shemer,” appeared in the Fall 2007 issue.
1 Jeffrey Summit, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (Oxford University Press), p. 95. [return to article]
2 Am Yisrael Ḥai had been composed five years earlier for the Freedom for Soviet Jewry movement. The brief lyrics of this song were reputedly the first Hebrew words ever heard by Soviet dissident and, later, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky. [return to article]
3 Its members are defined by Frumster.com as “individuals who are Shabbat- and Kosher-observant and tend to embrace a more spiritual and relaxed observant lifestyle.” The “hardcore” Carlebachians (such as those who emerged from the Modi’in community) will also sport identifiable clothing and hairstyles. The term Carlebachian is also sometimes applied to bands that emulate Carlebach’s musical style, like “Reva l’Sheva,” “Soulfarm,” and “Moshav Band.” [return to article]
4 Of course, quotation marks necessary for clarity cannot be avoided, as in the present discussion. [return to article]
5 Marsha Bryan Edelman, Discovering Jewish Music (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), 2003:141. [return to article]
6 Michael Isaacson, Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish? (Encino, CA: Self-published) 2007:245. [return to article]
7 Boaz Tarsi, “Congregational Singing as a Norm of Performance within the Modal Framework of Ashkenazi Liturgical Music,” Journal Of Synagogue Music, 30:82-92. In his zeal to identify the roots of such “creeping Hasidism,” Tarsi supposedly traces its effects all the way back to the ai-ai-ai vocables traditionally inserted by Ashkenazic ḥazzanim in the High Holidays Ashamnu and the dukhenen niggunim sung during the Birkat Kohanim ritual. In this he mistakenly confuses the genre of ḥazzanic niggunim with that of Ḥasidic niggunim. Cf. Eric Werner, A Voice Still Heard (The Pennsylvnia State University Press), 1976:173. [return to article]
8 Tarsi reserves his strongest condemnation for the Carlebach Minyanim, of which he writes: “… the disintegration of the musical structure in essence renders this kind of service an apostasizing from the liturgy itself.” op. cit., p.91, n. 48. [return to article]
9 This is equally true of Hasidic songs. See Sam Weiss, “Congregational Singing In Hasidic Congregations,” Journal of Synagogue Music, Fall 2005, vol. 30: 96-101. [return to article]
10 The last two examples will usually find their way into—and derive further longevity from— the Z’mirot for Festivals and Third Shabbat Meal, respectively. [return to article]
11 This is why, for example, even a ditty like “Happy Birthday” suddenly gains deep meaning when sung to one’s one-year-old child or ninety-year-old father. [return to article]
12 See Macy Nulman, “The Role of Liturgical Music in the Young Israel Movement” in Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer (New York: Cantorial Council of America at Yeshiva University), 1985: 91-92. [return to article]
13 Via a process of “niggunic osmosis” certain texts with no melodic particularity of their own are fortunate enough to survive by taking on the melody of a famous neighboring text. Thus in Psalm 118 of the Hallel, the commonly sung fifth verse Min hameitzar karati Yah… (or Carlebach’s setting of Verse 19, Pit’ḥu li…) may lend its melody to one or two subsequent verses, or either of these melodies might reappear in the responsively sung Ana Adonai hoshi’a na …. [return to article]
14 The Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Piyyut” [return to article]
15 Mark Kligman, “Contemporary Jewish Music in America,” American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 101 (2001), p. 100. [return to article]
16 Mark Slobin, Chosen Voices (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) 1988: 201-206. Slobin notes that some attribute the tune to cantor and composer Zeidel Rovner (1886-1943). [return to article]
17 Jeffrey Shiovitz, ed., Zamru Lo: The Next Generation (Cantors Assembly), p. 166. As a testament to the remarkable entrenchment of this tune, Shiovitz’s monumental collection of Shabbat melodies offers only one alternative setting of this prayer, a more recent composition by Gerald Cohen that is clearly strophic and melogenic (p. 169). [return to article]
18 The close affinity of these melodies to nusah is highlighted by the practice in many congregations (especially Orthodox) that use either of these two settings: the hazzan repeats the entire Magen Avot prayer as a solo, chanting it exactly as was sung by the congregation. [return to article]
19 Rounding out the Magen Avot settings in Zamru Lo is the one by Robert Solomon (p. 111). Although it shares some of the harmonic language of Neo-Hasidic music, its intricate melody sets it apart from that congregational genre, and makes it more suitable for solo performance. [return to article]
20 The decision to notate the Goldfarb version in 12/8 does not take away from the four triple pulses felt in each measure. [return to article]
21 A Neo-Hasidic liturgical innovation of many Orthodox congregations was to adopt the Hasidic custom of singing Y’did Nefesh prior to Kabbalat Shabbat. (Some Conservative congregations eventually followed suit, though they rarely sing the complete piyyut.) The practice is interesting—and remains controversial—considering that changes to the Orthodox liturgy are not made lightly. The appeal of the melody (Zamru Lo, p. 10) undoubtedly facilitated this innovation. This melody, moreover, has been adjusted over time from the notated version in 2/4 time and is sung closer to the prototypically Hasidic 3/4 time. [return to article]
22 There is a group of Neo-Hasidic songs in slow quadruple time that is related to the Hasidic genre in 3/4 time via the “long-short-short” rhythmic pulse they have in common. The d’veykus feel of these melodies is illustrated by Carlebach’s Mimkomkha Malkeinu (Example 6). In fact, Zamru Lo (p. 86) contains the version of V’shamru that is based on this Mimkomkha with a 3/4 time signature! [return to article]
23 A high-school classmate of Shlomo Carlebach, Ben-Zion Shenker (b. 1925) was a fellow aficionado of the music of the Modzitzer Hasidim, one of a handful of such groups who had established a small presence in America before the great migrations following the Holocaust. Shenker’s 1956 10″ LP Modzitzer Melave Malka was the first commercial recording of Hasidic niggunim. Shenker and Carlebach were the two trailblazers whose example was followed by countless subsequent American Hasidic and Neo-Hasidic recording artists. [return to article]
24 One way of measuring the musical health of an Ashkenazic congregation—to see if it still has a Jewish musical pulse, as it were—is by whether these three songs come readily to their lips. [return to article]
25 The term MiSinai normally applies to a special group of venerable Ashkenazic liturgical melodies with historic pedigree. They are almost universally respected by hazzanim—who will resist changing them at all costs. [return to article]
26 As a footnote to our discussion of the neo-Hasidic musical impact on recent congregational melodies, we should note the remarkable paucity of melodies in Ahavah Rabbah and Mi Shebeirakh, a phenomenon which directly mirrors the scarcity of these scales in the Neo-Hasidic musical repertoire. This stands in sharp contrast to the repertoire of the other Jewish musical populists of our generation, the Klezmer musicians, which strongly favors both of these scales. [return to article]