Jewish Music

10 08 2012

I like to drive, as many people know. I find the long stretch of road between Sydney and Melbourne, or Sydney and Brisbane, most conducive to thought. While I frequently drive in silence, I just as often connect my iPod to the stereo and blast out some mussar schmuessen by Rav Nissan Kaplan. Word.

When I actually play music (which you might be pleased to know is probably more often), I’ve a small but growing collection that I really enjoy. On my last trip to Melbourne, I picked up some CDs of cantorial music: Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot, the up-and-coming Cantor Shimon Walles, and the truly legendary Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Yitzchak Helfgot’s rendition of “Akavia” brings tears to my eyes.

If you enjoy that type of music – I absolutely love it, myself – then I strongly recommend the Milken Archive. This is a growing database of Jewish American music, and one that shows tremendous potential. Founded by Lowell Milken in 1990, the database aims at preserving “the diverse body of sacred and secular music inspired by 350 years of Jewish life in America”. Divided at present into twenty volumes of music (over 700 works by more than 200 different composers), the range is quite refreshingly diverse. You can see all of the individual volumes here, though will note that not all of them are presently available. Tracks can also be sampled prior to purchase.

This is a sample of the Kaddish Shalem, which will be available on the third volume, Seder T’fillot:

Here is another track that I found absolutely haunting. This one is from the upcoming fourth volume, Circle of Life in Synagogue and Home:

I’ve had a lot of fun browsing through the various tracks that are on the website already, and I look forward to more being made available. In the meantime, for anybody who was curious, I’ve included Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot’s rendition of “Akavia” below. As Chief Cantor of the Park East Synagogue in New York City, perhaps we will be able to look forward to his music being made available on the Milken Archive soon too. I certainly hope so.

Lyrics, from Mishna, Avot 3:1 –

עקביא בן מהללאל אומר
הסתכל בשלשה דברים ואי אתה בא לידי עברה
דע מאין באת
ולאן אתה הולך
ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון
מאין באת? מטפה סרוחה
ולאן אתה הולך? למקום עפר, רמה ותולעה
ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון? לפני מלך מלך מלכי המלכים
הקדוש ברוך הוא

Akavia ben Mehalalel would say,
Meditate on three things and you will not come to sin:
Know from whence you came
And whither you are going
And before whom you are destined to give judgment and reckoning.
Whence did you come? From a putrid drop.
Where are you going? To a place of dirt, grave-worms and maggots.
But before whom are you destined to give judgment and reckoning?
Before the king of kings,
The Holy One: Blessed is He.

Come to think of it, there’s not such a big difference between my music and Rav Kaplan’s mussar schmuessen after all…