The text is straightforward but dry. It’s a little like singing a rental agreement.
Yet “Kol Nidre,” the liturgy for Yom Kippur eve, is one of the most spiritually powerful experiences Jewish worship has to offer. How does one explain this seeming contradiction?
“It’s the power of music,” says Allen Oren, producer-director of “18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre,” a 2010 documentary that is the centerpiece of a concert “Kol Nidre: Finding Meaning through Music” taking place Oct. 2. “If I learned anything from making the film, it’s the power of the music of faith.”
Cantor Raphael Frieder, who will be performing at the event and can be heard in the film, concurs.
“The music makes it so moving and so representative of the whole service,” he says. “You take nothing of the prayer, as far as the text is concerned. It’s the music that does it. That is what is so moving and special about it.”
As the film notes, the Ashkenazi version of the tune is the one familiar to most listeners and the basis for so many adaptations from Max Bruch’s cello concerto to Ben Sidran’s jazz version. It is one of the “Mi Sinai” tunes, an older tune “from Sinai,” although not literally so.
Frieder, who serves as cantor at Temple Israel of Great Neck, on Long Island, and teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, finds it particularly rewarding to teach Kol Nidre, explaining, “Within the motifs that repeat there are so many little variations and ways to do it. As a teacher of cantorial music I find that fascinating.”
There are few other melodies in Jewish life with which so many stirring moments are associated. “18 Voices” makes reference to Franz Rosenzweig’s decision to remain a Jew after a Kol Nidre service, and a famous anecdote of the Baal Shem Tov. But the most moving stories in the film involve groups of Jews singing Kol Nidre during the Holocaust. One of those stories, in fact, triggered Oren’s interest in the piece and the making of the film.
“About 10 years ago, I was visiting the [U.S.] Holocaust [Memorial] Museum in Washington, D.C., with my family,” he recalls. “I was headed to the exit and out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge video screen on which Holocaust testimonials are playing continuously. It happened that they were playing a clip of Shony Braun’s testimony, and I was mesmerized.”
Braun’s statement, which became the opening sequence of “18 Voices,” recounts a Yom Kippur evening in a slave labor camp. While the 60 Jewish laborers were engaged in their backbreaking daily routine, the lights went out suddenly. One of them took advantage of the sudden, unexpected break and began singing Kol Nidre. Slowly, the others took up the tune, some singing the words, others singing only the tune, under the eyes of the Nazi guards.
“They were in great peril, doing that,” Oren says. “The question formed in my mind, ‘How does one prayer become so important to a people?’”
That question sent Oren, a professor of journalism at Pace University and an Emmy-winning producer-director, on a six-year-long journey that culminated in “18 Voices.” The film itself is a quiet little gem, gracefully conceived and executed, with none of the faux naïvete or self-indulgent sentimentality that frequently mars such documentaries. Rather, the film’s tone is earnestly informative, good-natured and never preachy.
One of the keys to the film’s artistic success is the intelligence with which its “voices” were chosen. They run the gamut from the Reform movement’s Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman to Chabad Rabbi Yehoshua Metzger, from Jewish music historian Marsha Bryant Edelman to law professor Susan Last Stone.
Oren selected them with several goals in mind.
“I chose them for their expertise and their diversity,” he explains. “They are not only delivering information but making a point: Even though Judaism has all its different versions, when it comes to music of the spirit you can overcome all of those different diversities. You might say they’re all singing one song.”
“Kol Nidre: Finding Meaning Through Music,” will be presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) on Oct. 2 at 2:30 p.m. For information, call (646) 437-4202 or go to www.mjhnyc.org. The film “18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre” will air on the same date, at 2 p.m. on WLIW-21 and at 10:40 p.m. on WNET-13. For more information on the film or to purchase the DVD, go to www.18voices.com.