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‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging With My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover

As a black classical singer, I avoided singing negro spirituals—until Yiddish music helped me hear them in a new way as a Jew

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Library of Congress)
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I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other. I recalled this confession—

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home…
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
A long ways from home…

—while learning this empathetic question from Belarsky’s setting of “Der Gemore Nign” by Abraham Reisen:

…Tsi du benkst aheym nokh dayne
Tate, mame, shvester, bruder,
Vos on zey, bistu geblibn
Vi a shifl on a ruder?

Are you homesick for your
father, mother, sister, brother,
and without them,
you are like a ship without a rudder?

I was young enough—and ignorant enough and excited enough—to think I had invented the wheel, but it wasn’t very long before I encountered this quote from Ethel Waters, explaining why the song Yiddish song “Eli, Eli” was one of the most-requested pieces in her repertoire: “It tells the tragic history of the Jews as much as one song can, and that history of their age-old grief and despair is similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race, too.”

Even more surprising was to read these words from Paul Robeson in Jeffrey Melnick’s superlative A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, which Robeson gave in an interview with the Yiddish-language paper Morgen Journal-Tageblatt, about how he “did not like to sing in French, German, or Italian. … I do not understand the psychology of these people, their history has no parallels with the history of my forebearers, who were slaves. The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.”

***

When I made the choice to become Jewish, I wasn’t expecting to find my own experiences, personal and inherited, to be trebled so closely by aspects of Jewish culture. I eventually remembered what partially led me to Judaism in the first place: my deep love for the narratives, phrases, and images of the Jewish scriptures, disseminated to me as an African-American child of religious upbringing.

I have become fascinated with the appropriation of foundational images and texts from Judaism that have become integral to African-American religious expression. How can I begin to convey the resonance of phrases like “My Rock, in whom there is no flaw” (Psalm 92) when that euphonious phrase falls upon the African-American religious heart and mind, held there as surely as “light is stored up for the righteous”? The cultural or artistic use of music that is tied to a particular historical moment can be moving in its ability to transcend space and time.

Of course, a reverse appropriation—Jews comprehensively adopting African-American texts—is more difficult, because it does not take very long for most African-American religious texts to run in a decidedly Christian direction. There’s definitely a reason why “Go Down, Moses” made inroads into Jewish ears and hearts while many of its musical brethren—“Ride on, King Jesus,” for instance—were left behind. The unedited content of most negro spirituals, with their exultant depictions of protagonists from both the Jewish and Christian religious canon, is alarming and provocative when placed beside the established tenets of normative Judaism. The meaning of these traditional African-American texts to me as a Jew has become intensely personal, nuanced, and idiosyncratic.

Let me clarify: The meaning of these traditional African-American texts to me as a Jew—to me, and not necessarily to you, to paraphrase the Haggadah. I haven’t necessarily lost all of the bewilderment I felt hearing “Go Down, Moses” at my first Seder. Some additional questions I might add to a Seder would be: Is it strange that some Jews have decided to use African-American religious expression in the privacy of their own domestic rituals to tell their own story? Why is it that “Are you Jewish?” and “How are you Jewish?” have oftentimes been the first things that I hear from Jews I meet for the first time? If I walk into a Seder and find Jews singing negro spirituals, may I ask, “Are you black?” and “How are you black?”

My work with Jewish music and texts encouraged me to engage with the music and texts of my own heritage—not out of an obligation to assumed tradition, but as a catalyst for creative departure. My ongoing musical project, Convergence, combines African-American roots music (work songs, early blues, and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope. Convergence resides in an unusual place in my repertoire—when I perform pieces from it, I feel as if I am davening more than anything else.

On the cusp of Passover, I can’t help wondering if I will throw my voice full-heartedly behind any spirituals I may happen to hear over the Seder table this year. Most likely I will. If you should happen to hear my voice, know that it will be for reasons that are specific instead of general, acquired instead of assumed: I am remembering my own past as I perform the mitzvot of the Seder in the present. I am present at the Seder table as I enrich the meaning of these mitzvot in my future.

For me, in the negro spiritual is written the nascent name and acts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a respectful Jew, I cannot simply throw these texts away. I can only place them, along with their occasional messianic heresies, in the genizah of my soul.

***

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‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging With My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover

As a black classical singer, I avoided singing negro spirituals—until Yiddish music helped me hear them in a new way as a Jew

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