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Are Hymns Treyf?

Lift up your voice and sing, kosher soul

Howard Jacobson
August 01, 2019
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
This article is part of Kosher Not Kosher.
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Another day, another funeral. Wrong word. Another day, another “memorial service.” It used to be that you were interred and then remembered a year or so later, when people were beginning to forget all about you. Now the burying and the remembering are elided, partly, I suppose, to save time and money, but more by way of euphemism. How long before we start throwing memorial services for the still-alive in order to skip the nastiness of death altogether?

So here I am, sitting on the back row of a little urban chapel, giving thanks for a life that ended only last week. But at least the service isn’t taking the humanist route. No breezy gathering of accidental mourners wearing cardigans in a room resembling a bridge club and everyone desperate not to mention God. Instead, a real vicar in a real surplice; a reading from St. John’s Gospel; many in the congregation wearing black; and proper hymns instead of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Even so, the hymns make me feel uncomfortable. They always do, though there’s often no discernible religious difference in sentiment between a hymn and a psalm, unless the hymn happens to be one of those that ends with an invocation of the cross. The mourners, I notice, move without any sort of spiritual jolt between “Guide Me, O, Thou Great Redeemer,” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” though the first is unmistakably theirs and the second definitively ours. So if the Anglicans make no distinction, in the face of bodily dissolution, between Old Testament and New, why must I?

Let’s rephrase the question: Am I right in thinking there’s a qualitative difference—religiously speaking, and poetically speaking as well—between a psalm and a hymn? How desperate the gravity of Psalm 77: “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.” How jaunty, by comparison “Be Thou My Vision”—Thou my best thought, by day or by night;/Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.”

Isn’t a psalm a more elevated form, as different from a hymn as a hymn is from an ironic song in a Monty Python movie?

Not as elevated, in the English translations by which we now largely know the psalms, as they were in their original Hebrew, Adam Kirsch has argued. Even in the King James version some unwarranted Christianizing was afoot. But if that means essential distinctions between psalms and hymns were elided, there remains difference enough for a Jew to feel that hymning is a species of trespass.

And then there’s the singing itself. I don’t join in even though I know most of the tunes and the words are written out in a little pamphlet marked Order of Service. Singalongs have never been my cup of tea, whether at a memorial service or a football match, and I go to more memorial services than I go to football matches. I am very much a Jew in this. Traditional Jewish funerals eschew singalongs.

We are fastidious in the matter of the feelings we unloose, and hymns open the gates to the forbidden. Separate, separate! Hymns are treyf. Our souls are kosher.

As with all aspects of Jewish death—and Jewish life, come to that—there is much to be said for this separatist austerity, and there is much to be said against it. “Is this all there is?” asks the wicked son. “Of course this is all there is,” replies the wise one, wishing his brother long life, warning against any resurrection nonsense and offering to drive him to the shiva house.

I have some feeling for both their positions. What mush the gentiles go in for with their crystal fountains and crosses shining through the gloom. On the other hand, is there to be no healing stream for us? Must all light be forever extinguished by those cruel slabs of unresponsive stone?

The first funeral I ever attended was my grandmother’s. I was 19, and easily brought to tears, and she was a woman I’d loved deeply. When she held me to her and comforted me in Yiddish I was back in the Old World. Now that she was gone I felt alone in the new.

How much the more callous, therefore, seemed to me the banter of my uncles as they climbed out of the big black cars at the cemetery gates and stood waiting for the arrival of the hearse. Was this a place for exchanging jokes and checking football scores? I could hardly accuse them of being too austere, but their matter-of-factness served the same purpose of turning emotion from its course.

The womenfolk had not been permitted to attend. They were at home, preparing the bagels and pouring out the glasses of kummel. Had my mother been at the graveside with me we’d have dissolved into each other’s arms.

The company of men permitted no such solace or indulgence. Their demeanor, the stony ground, the absence of ornament or decoration on the graves, the solemnity of Hebrew prayer—all froze my tears. But had anyone started to sing “Abide With Me” I’d have thrown myself howling upon my beloved grandmother’s coffin.

D.H. Lawrence wrote a fine essay describing the pull that the most commonplace of hymns exerted on him throughout his life. “It is almost shameful to confess that the poems which have meant most to me, like Wordsworth’s ‘Ode to Immortality,’ and Keats’s Odes and pieces of Macbeth … all these lovely poems woven deep into a man’s consciousness, are still not woven so deep in me as the rather banal Nonconformist hymns that penetrated through and through my childhood.”

At one level Lawrence is saying no more than the television dramatist Dennis Potter used to claim when he described the power of cheap, popular music to arouse emotions in us which are not in themselves cheap. But Lawrence is saying something else about the power of memory and language, too. Those hymns that are woven more deeply into his consciousness than his favorite poems are the hymns of his childhood, and thus are consecrated by memory and old affections.

No such memory explains why “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” awakens associations in me. I grew up in no colliery village. I attended no chapel that was “tall and full of light,” with an organ loft that had the words O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness inscribed above it.

I did, though, catch hold of the hymns sung during school assembly every morning. From this, the small number of Jewish pupils at my school were excluded, as much in deference to our supposed sensitivities as anything else. We were tucked away into a room on the gallery that ran around the hall, where we turned boisterous under the weak guidance of a trainee Hebrew teacher who taught us nothing.

“Will the Jewish boys have the consideration to shut up,” the headmaster would call out between hymns. Then, when the singing was over, we would troop out to hear the secular announcements, gazed upon by the rest of the school, more than ever conscious of our alien status.

Nothing here, you’d think, to explain why hymns would weave themselves into our consciousness. But think again. Our very separateness—the simple physical separateness of being in another room through which the sound of singing penetrated like the calls of shepherds from distant mountains, and the psychological separateness that made us feel that whatever beauty there was in this mawkishness it was not a beauty that was made for us—found a path into our hearts.

Music you can’t quite reach; music that makes you feel a long way from home; music that causes you to long for a wholeness and integration that must always be denied you; music whose potency you cannot ever fully account for; music that calls you in and then shuts you out; music whose sentimentality you despise and yet which plays you like a stringed instrument—what resistance can even the most guarded of us put up against music of this sort?

For a Jew of my complexion, for whom observance is both irrelevant and threatening, obedience a degradation, and all ritual a species of mental illness, the self-indulgent emotionalism I describe above is doubled. Not only am I exiled from gentile liturgy I am exiled from Jewish liturgy as well.

A cantor who can hit the high notes like Pavarotti is no more my brother than the Anglican vicar presently leading us in “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer,” but the sound of his singing, like the invisible God of Whom he sings, still reaches me from afar. I feel it less of a sin to be moved by the cantor than the vicar, but isn’t the source of my dolorousness the same in both cases? For it cannot be that I have a chamber of my heart reserved exclusively for gentile sentiment and another for Jewish.

Which brings me back to the question of whether it is right we should die quite so differently. Must our stern refusal of sickly sentiment, trite tunes, and hand-me-down devotion, consign us to the cold irrevocability of the Jewish burial ground wherein the parched soul is left to wander between rows of unforgiving stone like a homeless ghost, without the solace of beauty—music, trees, a solitary daisy? Must finality be quite so final?

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.