Jewish music arrived gently, on a Jerusalem breeze. The northern midnight breeze, said King David, blew through his window, caressing the strings of his bedside lyre, providing not only divine inspiration but collaboration for his psalms’ melodies. Psalms were prefaced “to the chief musician,” for harp, lyre, for the “ten-stringed” instrument. Music was everywhere; Levites would sing a different song daily in the Temple. When Jerusalem was destroyed, the people exiled, the music was hushed, as well. “By the rivers of Babylon,” the lyres were hung, unused, on willows, with the psalmist writing, “How can we sing in a foreign land?” From the Book of Psalms not a single musical fragment remains, just words.
For centuries, Jewish liturgical music remained in eclipse, if not entirely lost. Even when Kabbalists in the 16th and 17th centuries wrote such Shabbat classics as Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem, the words survived, the tunes were lost. Marsha Bryan Edelman, administrator of the Zamir Choral Foundation, says that Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, who wrote the classic melody for Shalom Aleichem in 1918, “was really the beginning of the American-born [Jewish liturgical] composers.”
This year will be the anniversary of the two most ubiquitous melodies in the Jewish canon: the 100th anniversary of Goldfarb’s elegant Shalom Aleichem, and the 80th anniversary of Moshe Nathanson’s melody for the first verse of Bentching (as in benediction), the Grace After Meals, first heard in 1938.
The former principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rabbi David Eliach, 95, who grew up in Jerusalem, said he never heard anyone sing the Bentching until he came to New York in 1953. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who grew up in New York, attending both Ramaz and Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (both founded and led by his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein), certainly would have been exposed to a melody for Bentching, but he remembers the first time he heard it sung: “It was 1945, when I went to Camp Massad.”
Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, who led what is now known as the Kane Street Synagogue, recalled in a 1963 letter that he composed the melody to Shalom Aleichem on the Columbia University campus, on a bench near the library: “I began to hum to myself. I fished out a sheet of music-paper from my briefcase and jotted it down. It was on a Friday, which may be the reason why the melody and the words came to my mind simultaneously. Besides, I was working at that time on my ‘Friday Evening Melodies’ in which it was printed for the first time.”
In that 1918 book, written with his brother Samuel, were the classic tunes for “Va Y’chulu” (the Kiddush), “Alenu,” “Av Horachmim,” “V’al Kullom” and “Mi Chomochah.” A few years later, brother Sam wrote the even more famous music for “I Have a Little Dreidle,” and in 1959, working at a Reform temple in Seattle, he got into a fight with an unknown teenager named Jimi Hendrix, throwing him out of the temple’s performance space for his “wild” guitar playing and stage antics.
In the 1920s, however, Sam Goldfarb worked as music director for the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York, enabling Goldfarb to teach his brother’s Shalom Aleichem to children and teachers in almost every Jewish school, and they, in turn, taught it to their families.
The Young Israel movement started on the Lower East Side in 1912, without rabbis or cantors, and with the aim of stimulating congregational singing, though there was not much to be sung. Several Goldfarb cousins were active in Young Israel. Rabbi Goldfarb would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on Friday night for after-dinner Shabbos singing with his Young Israel cousins and friends. As Young Israel spread through the boroughs and the country, Goldfarb’s Shalom Aleichem went along with it.
One reason why the 20th-century Shalom Aleichem feels so timeless and authentic, said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun, is because the melody is so rooted in and evocative of the “Shaachris nusach [the classical musical formulation for davening] on Shabbos, and the nusach of Kedushah.” Edelman added, Goldfarb’s music “was so evocative of its text, it resonated with people.”
Paul Zim, a prominent recording artist and Conservative cantor at the JCC of Fort Lee/Gesher Shalom, said Goldfarb’s daughter used to come to his shul and “I’d always sing her father’s Shalom Aleichem. It’s probably one of the most popular melodies in our entire Jewish musical history.”
Nathanson followed Sam Goldfarb at the Bureau of Jewish Education. Raised Orthodox in Jerusalem, he studied choral music with the musicologist Abraham Z. Idelsohn. One day, Idelsohn came across a Sadiger chasidic melody and gave his students the assignment of finding suitable lyrics. Nathanson, 12 years old, came up with the “nagila” verse from Psalm 118, and so was born Hava Nagila (though Idelsohn claimed credit for the final shape of the lyrics).
Moving to New York, Nathanson became the cantor at the Reconstructionist’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism, and worked as the music counselor at Camp Achvah, the first Hebrew-speaking sleep-away camp.
One day, after lunch, the story goes, one bunk started singing the Bentching’s Oseh Shalom verses to the lively Woodcutter’s Song from the Hansel and Greta operetta. In that spirit, Nathanson tried writing a lively camper-friendly melody for the first paragraph of Bentching. Campers took to it. It was published in 1939, but Cantor Zim said Nathanson’s melody “was already familiar” from camp, placing the date of Nathanson’s composition in the summer of 1938.
When Camp Achvah closed, its cultural baton — and its Bentching — was passed to the Modern Orthodox Camp Massad, which in 1941 became the second Hebrew camp. In 1947, the Conservative movement started Camp Ramah, the third Hebrew camp, with many staffers coming from Massad. The Bentching came, too.
That it was sung with an increasing number of camp jingles and ditties, led even Rabbi Lookstein, who took the text very seriously, to have fun with it, singing the verse “U’vineh Yerushalayim” to the tune of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow,” when he might lead Bentching at bar mitzvahs or weddings. “You could do that,” he said, the lightness of spirit was already established in Nathanson’s first verse. Nathanson’s melody was “just a ditty,” said Rabbi Lookstein. “It takes your mind off what you are saying, the juxtaposition of words and melody is just crazy. If you want to understand the meaning [of Bentching], you have to recite it, not sing it. Nathanson’s song was a great way to memorize the Birkat HaMazon, but in the process we lost the grandeur.”
Nathanson, a Reconstructionist, was also a teacher at Orthodox schools such as the Yeshivah of Flatbush and the Crown Heights Yeshiva. By the 1950s, said Rabbi Eliach, “They were singing it in all the yeshivas,” complete with summertime shtick. The Oysvorf, a charedi blog, recently mused, “how amazing it [is], that not one Jewish singer… has come up with a new niggin [spiritual melody] to benching… . Those of us who had some camping experience remember that we banged the tables and created the first ever stomps … . The girls come home with all sorts of hand gestures … .”
“Everybody says that their great-zaydeh sang it in Europe.”
As it says in the Bentching, “I was young but now I’m old.” Who remembers? Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantorial School, asked if she knew of any anniversary commemorations, said, “I don’t. There should be.” But how can there be if no one knows that these classics had composers? Even in Nathanson’s lifetime, an article about him in a rabbinic journal, “The Reconstructionist Who Wrote Hava Nagila,” never mentioned his melody for Bentching. His obituary in The New York Times never mentioned it either. Neither did his biography in Hebrew University’s Jewish Music Research Centre.
And Goldfarb? He wrote, in 1963, “A great many publishers, some in Israel, not knowing the origin of the [Shalom Aleichem] melody, simply [write] ‘traditional’ or ‘Hassidic’… . Many people came to believe that the song was handed down from Mt. Sinai.”
Even today, “Everybody says that their great-zaydeh sang it in Europe,” says Cantor Sherwood Goffin, of the Yeshiva University Belz School of Music.
As the verse in Shalom Aleichem goes, “leave in peace,” dear forgotten composers. This coming Shabbat, hundreds of thousands will sing you, even if almost no one knows your names.