Even if prayers are ancient, even liturgy isn’t immune from pop trends—just recall this viral video of Adon Olam to Hamilton. But if you really want to be down with the hip, progressive Jewish youth these days, you have got to know Lincoln’s Niggun. The niggun (wordless melody, often set to an existing prayer) is only a few years old, but in certain circles (circles like liberal Jewish Brooklyn), you’re as likely to hear it as a Carlebach tune these days.
Its composer is Joey Weisenberg, a central figure in contemporary religious Jewish music. Weisenberg is officially the Creative Director of the Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, but an author and educator, he’s become widely known as a Debbie-Friedman-esque songleader and writer, especially in Jewish communities that are progressive, experimental, and/or tend to attract a lot of young adults. And Lincoln’s Niggun has become one of his signature pieces.
The story behind the name has already become a bit apocryphal—was it something about Lincoln being serenaded by Jewish union soldiers? Weisenberg loves the idea, but set the record straight:
Weisenberg admires Lincoln, and in the summer of 2014 he was reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“Lincoln used to go down to inspect his troops in the field, and they’d be lined up for miles waiting for him to come,” Weisenberg recalls reading, “And as soon as he’d come, they’d split to the right and the left to make room for him, and he’d ride down the lines kind of saluting each one.”
Later, Weisenberg was in a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and was struck by a verse with the words, “yamin u’smol tifrotzi”— “and to the left and to the right they part ways, or burst forth.”
The prayer was “saluting a different kind of nobility, the Shabbat queen or the lover,” noted Weisenberg, but he still thought of Abraham Lincoln and those parting crowds of soldiers. “It made sense to put those words in with this melody,” he said. As for the composition:
“It’s pretty classic Americana. It’s straight up American sounding Civil War themes, but with a little bit of Jewish phrasing so that it comes out sounding like an American niggun. And that made sense to me more and more, because my family has been in America since before the Civil War.”
“It’s very accessible in terms of its music,” continues Weisenberg. “It’s not hard, and it’s familiar to the ears of Americans.” This is because, as its name suggests, the melody is a fusion of traditional Jewish melodies and Americana. “I thought it was time to start letting some American into the realm of the niggun,” he says.
The piece of music is poignant and beautiful— think a bit of the way you felt when you first heard Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” before you heard it one too many times. One glowing comment on a Youtube video of a performance of the niggun reads: “When I first heard this, the melody sounded strangely familiar, and yet a few days later, I still cannot place where I had heard it before. Perhaps it just felt familiar to my soul?”
Increasingly, it’ll be familiar to your ears, particularly on Friday nights. Like other Jewish melodies, its use isn’t limited to one prayer, but its first use, and persistently most popular use remains L’Cha Dodi during Kabbalat Shabbat. Or you can hear it over the Yamim Noraim.
As most years, this holiday season Weisenberg is leading “alternative” services for the Kane Street Synagogue; his Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur gatherings draw large crowds. Despite the niggun’s popularity, Weisenberg doesn’t often pull out Lincoln himself, and only on Shabbat. But reconsidering his hit convinced him to use it during High Holiday services this year.
“Its nobility, its regality, the sense that we’re like Lincoln or like the Shabbat Queen, the High Holidays is all about kind of coming before HaMelekh, coming before the king— the king of kings of kings— having to make account for our lives.” That’s a lot to ask of one Jew: “It’s a highly imaginative process, but a melody like that might be just the thing to help make that happen.”
Have a listen for yourself, and see if you’re motivated to part ways, greet a Queen, repent before a king, or just to learn the melody and sing along: