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Sounds of the Seder

A Passover celebration makes its own kind of noise, whether it comes from a superstar cantor, a jumble of tone-deaf relatives, or Eugene Levy

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 27, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Tired: Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas

Wired: Hanukkah was actually instituted as a substitute Sukes/Sukkot

Inspired: Passover is actually the Jewish Christmas

I have to credit my friend Ira Temple for this particular insight. Compared to Christmas, Hanukkah is a breeze. It’s not even yontev! Passover, on the other hand, isn’t just stressful, but the over-the-top expectations that come along with it can ruin your mood before Purim is even over. Sure, Christmas is a season of impossibly idealized family togetherness. The Passover Seder is that, too. But Passover also comes at the climax of a marathon cleaning session that, for many, is more like a full-house colonic than anything approaching the genteel tidy up indicated by “spring cleaning.” No wonder so many Seders are tense affairs.

No on-screen representation of a Seder gets this better than the first-season SCTV skit “Match Unto My Feet.” Joe Flaherty plays a priest filming a documentary-style television segment about an ordinary North American Jewish Seder. The premise is a spoof on the long-running CBS program called Lamp Unto My Feet, the title being a reference to Psalm 119. When this skit aired in 1976, Lamp Unto My Feet was still on the air, just a few years from finishing its impressive 31-year run. The show reflected a very earnest, very midcentury “ecumenical,” interfaith perspective, presenting educational material covering all of the then-known American religions, from Protestant to Catholic to Jew. The humor of the SCTV skit spoofing it was sturdy enough that, decades after Lamp Unto My Feet dropped out of pop culture consciousness, audiences would still be laughing at its parody.

SCTV’s “Match Unto My Feet” is notable for being the first appearance of one of Eugene Levy’s many brilliant personas, Sid Dithers, though he’s called Morris here. Nonetheless, even in this first outing we are treated to enduring Dithers-isms such as “San Franciske? Did you drove or did you flew?”—a line I find myself muttering often, especially at those times when nothing else will cheer me up.

Joe Flaherty’s Father Duffy seems unprepared for the emotional chaos reigning at the Dithers household. Harold Ramis, however, understands the assignment, patiently explaining the symbolism of the kharoses and bitter herbs to Father Duffy, while one of the other parents at the table threatens her kids off-screen. Turning to the Dithers patriarch, Duffy then asks Morris Dithers what the salad means. Salad? “It’s just a salad,” Dithers responds, “it don’t mean nothin’.” With just one line, the Dithers character deflates three previous decades of earnest interfaith discourse, so carefully cultivated by the real-life Lamp Unto My Feet.

It’s often been noted that among American Jews, the Passover Seder is one of the most widely kept Jewish rituals, even among those who tend to eschew synagogue attendance and other holiday observances. Seders, however, are held at home, out of sight of the (perhaps) judgmental view of religious authorities. They center on a big family meal, unlike Sukes, for example, which requires the skill, space, and resources to build a suke, or partially enclosed hut, for outdoor meals.

One of the most interesting aspects of SCTV’s portrayal of the Seder is how it gets the sound so right. Even though the home is the site of the ritual, its multilayered sonic landscape echoes that of the synagogue. At a typical traditional shul, the chanting of prayers may be asynchronous among prayer leader and congregation members, as well as between congregation members themselves. Those jumbled prayers may also clash with one or more individual conversations taking place at the same time, in the same space.

Scholars have noted that “sonic unpleasantness” has long been associated with the sound of the Jews. In his review of The Music Libel Against the Jews, for example, Jesse Rosenberg notes that this may mean “innate Jewish unmusicality,” or “shrill, loud, or discordant” sounds or, most deliciously, a “heterophonous texture perceived as chaotic for its lack of the rhythmic coordination characteristic of most Western polyphony …” I understand that to an antisemite like Richard Wagner, the heterophonous sonic texture of a Seder might represent the innate aesthetic ickiness of the Jews. But I think we can all agree that Wagner was also a hater who didn’t deserve nice things and probably didn’t like gefilte fish, either. Indeed, that heterophonous texture conveys the richness of thousands of years of Jewish history, as well as the mundane business of simply being a Jew, as so perfectly conveyed in the SCTV skit. It may sound shrill or chaotic or even, kholile, unmusical, to those who have drunk the (nonkosher for Pesakh) haterade, but to me, it sounds like home. And we haven’t even gotten to the songs.

What is a Seder supposed to sound like? I loved the Seders I grew up with, but they weren’t exactly traditional in the sense of the Yiddish flavor I sought as an adult. For me, the sound of the Seder—the prayers and songs and recitations—the way it’s supposed to sound, is found in the 1956 recording “The Moishe Oysher Seder.” How can you not fall in love with the kids who sing the Four Questions in English, but with the traditional nign? Now, would I love it even more if they sang them in Yiddish? Sure, but there’s that essential sonic texture again. The tune the kids use is just as important (if not more) than the language in which they sing. However, if you do want to hear an absolutely gorgeous recording of the Four Questions in Yiddish, you can do no better than this one by the Malavsky Family Choir, featuring a woman singing the questions, to boot.

Of course, my own impulse to find sonic “authenticity” in Moishe Oysher’s Seder (not to mention his Hanukkah and Yom Kippur recordings) is itself not so authentic. After all, traditional Seders didn’t usually feature an omniscient, baritone-voiced narrator, or a choir, or full orchestration, as Oysher’s recording does. Even more, the smoothly unified sonic aesthetic of a commercial American recording like Oysher’s “Seder” is completely at odds with the deeply haimish polyphony sketched so well by Eugene Levy and his colleagues at SCTV.

Oysher was a khazn (cantor) sure, but he was foremost, I dare say, an entertainer, a superstar on the bimah, the concert stage, and the silver screen. I can listen to his Seder record every year to get myself in a Pesakh frame of mind, but no matter what, my own Seder is never gonna sound like his. And that’s OK. In fact, if the rabbis had had their own way, nobody’s Seder would sound like that.

Working on something completely non-Seder related, I was recently reading Israel Zinberg’s fascinating volume Old Yiddish Literature From Its Origins to the Haskalah Period. Zinberg notes that the khazn-entertainer was not only not favored by the rabbis, he was the target of intense anxiety and communal sanction. The people, they complained, had no interest in listening to the rabbis’ sermons or reading serious books. All they wanted was to hear “gay tunes.” (Highly relatable.) “Prominent rabbis” of the 17th and 18th centuries deplored the “desecration of God’s name” produced by wandering khazonim and the young choirboys who accompanied them. These khazonim were mere “comedians” singing “impudent songs” alongside “common jesters” in taverns and, rakhmone litslon, entertaining the people.

The panic over the moral hazard posed by khazn-entertainers engendered its own reaction. If the people wouldn’t listen to the teachings of the rabbis’ sermons, then the rabbis would teach the people through song. Zinberg notes that at the time the first hagode was printed, in 1526, two of its now most famous songs, “Khad gadye” and “Ekhod mi yodea,” were not yet included. Indeed, we know that “Khad gadye” was an adaptation of an already existing European text. Zinberg says that it is quite likely that this earlier version of “Khad gadye existed in the vernacular of the “Jewish masses” before it was adapted and translated into Aramaic for religious-didactic purposes. By 1590, “Khad gadye” was included in printed hagodes in both Aramaic and Judeo-German. Rather than being an artifact of Jewish life in ancient, Aramaic-speaking Palestine, the authors of “Khad gadye” were early modern European Jews, propelled by their own motivations toward sonic “authenticity.”

Moishe Oysher’s version of “Khad gadye” is rightly praised and has been widely covered by other artists. It’s also included on the “The Moishe Oysher Seder.” Our very American narrator announces the end of the official ceremony, telling us that “our rejoicing has just begun.” Now it’s time for some “rhythmic Hasidic melodies.” The medieval rabbis would surely not be pleased at Oysher’s showy singing, and khas v’sholem deeply entertaining versions of “Ki Loy Nue” and “Khad gadye.”

Israel Zinberg provides the old Yiddish text of “Ekhod mi yodea (or “Who Knows One”), a typical European “counting song” which was translated into Hebrew for inclusion in the hagode. In the 1920s, Moishe Oysher recorded his own version of the Yiddish “Ekhod mi yodea, also called “Mu asapru” and here labeled as “Gott is Einer.” Curiously, it’s not included on his Seder album from the 1950s. And that’s too bad, because the song is extremely fun to listen to and even more satisfying to sing along with. Could it be the dour hand of the rabbis, reaching across time and space, still trying to squeeze the fun out of Jewish life? Probably not. But just in case, make sure you listen to Oysher’s excellent version as part of your own Passover preparations and see if you can keep up while singing along.

Moishe Oysher, ‘Gott Is Einer’
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Moishe Oysher, ‘Gott Is Einer’

PASSOVER AND MORE: The Workers Circle recently unveiled a fabulous new digital resource, the Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection. The collection brings together digital versions of the Mloteks’ famous song books, along with a wide array of audio and video performances. It’s a priceless resource for anyone interested in Yiddish song. If you want to see what they have in the way of Passover songs, just click hereThe Congress for Jewish Culture and Workers Circle will host a (virtual) Yiddish Cultural Seder on April 9, at 1 p.m. The Seder will be in Yiddish, using the Arbeter Ring Driter Seder Hagode. Register here … 2023 is the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As is tradition, there will be a gathering at der shteyn in Riverside Park “to remember all who fought, all who died, and all who survived.” Wednesday, April 19 at 3 p.m. Riverside Park, between 83rd and 84th streets.

ALSO: Attention Montrealers: Klezkanada and the Museum of Jewish Montreal will present column faves Daniel Kahn and Jake Shulman-Ment in a full day of music, including songwriting workshop, jam session, and concert. April 2. Get tickets here … The Yiddish Book Center will hold its Community Open House on April 16. More information here … YIVO’s Yiddish Club will welcome Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, composer of “The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.” April 16 at 2 p.m. More information here … On June 11, the Yiddish Philharmonic Chorus will present “Chutzpah! Yiddish Songs of Defiance.” The program will feature “a variety of Yiddish anthems, theater songs, a liturgical setting, and even a children’s song, all in some way rallying for solidarity or declaring the need for freedom.” At Merkin Hall, tickets here … Workers Circle will once again offer its wildly popular Trip to Yiddishland lakeside retreat, Aug. 14-20. Register now.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.