One of Jewish music’s most venerable traditions is that of borrowing love songs from popular culture and repositioning them in a religious context. Yisrael Najara took Turkish love songs from the alleys of Damascus and Gaza and set them to holy words. Yehuda Halevi borrowed the imagery of Saharan shepherds and used them to describe the longing of the forsaken Jewish people. It is said that Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef can only write his halakhic responses if Umm Kulthum is playing in the background.
As Yom Kippur approaches each year, I find myself searching for an alternative playlist of songs to supplement the traditional ones, hoping to crack open my cynical heart with a surprising connection or two. Each songs includes its own answer to Leonard Cohen’s immutable question: “When they said: ‘Repent, Repent!’ I Wonder What They Meant?”
Bruce Springsteen, “Pay Me My Money Down”
Repentance is the Latin term often used for the Hebrew word teshuva, but they actually mean vastly different things. In the metaphor of repentance, atonement is achieved by paying back. Our sins are debts, accrued throughout the year. As the New Year approaches, our debtor demands of us: “Pay me my money down.” On Yom Kippur, unable to repay all our bad deeds, we admit bankruptcy and request a bailout from the powers that be: another year of life.
Tracy Chapman, “The Promise”
Teshuva, on the other hand, means returning. It has nothing to do with the financial, it is wholly spatial. Sin is distance, from truth, from God, from ourselves. The distance is understandable, a logical outcome of a year of journeying. What is required now is a return. Luckily the Jewish people have a promise: no matter where they go, God will be waiting for their return. Tracy Chapman promises the same, and her words could easily be a stand-in for a later Prophet or a Medieval Spanish Jewish poet singing about God and the Jewish people, recalling that old love affair one more time.
Idan Raichel, “Im Telech—If You Go”
Yom Kippur is the day of closeness, the day on which the High Priest enters the innermost sanctum, the most intimate place in the Temple. Yet these moments of intimacy also raise anxiety: what happens if you leave? How will I handle being alone again? Israeli musician Idan Raichel memorializes this feeling most poignantly in his Hebrew song “Im Telech—If you go”:
If you go / who will hug me like that / who will me hear at the end of the day who will comfort and soothe / only you know.
Ibn Ezra, “Lecha Eli”
Before Kol Nidre, Sephardic Jews will recite a poem of deep desire: “To You My God, is My Desire” by Abraham Ibn Ezra:
To you my God is my desire / in you is my pleasure and my love to you is my heart and my kidneys / to you is my spirit and my soul
They will mention each of their limbs and organs one by one, reiterating how much they all aspire, desire, and long for God’s proximity. At the same time, traditional Ashkenazi Jews will also be referencing their limbs and organs—but in the Ashkenazi version, called “Tefillah Zakah,” it is to lament how each limb has sinned this year, how each organ has betrayed the Lord. Despite my European roots, the Sephardic embrace of life and desire is the gate through which I hope to enter Yom Kippur this year.
Nina Simone, “I’ve Got Life”
Here is a third alternative, rebellious and heretical, but life-affirming in a way that’s reminiscent of the lust for life of the High Holiday poetry. In Nina Simone’s version of this Hair classic, there is a deep spirituality to the freedom of the body. Some might find that freedom in a release from religion. I find it by reclaiming the divine roots of life, seeking freedom from the way society and corporations try to define my body for me. Either way, the cry of life is the basic cry of Yom Kippur: “I’ve Got Life!” “Seal us in the Book of Life!”
Leonard Cohen, “If It Be Your Will”
No playlist for Yom Kippur is complete without this song. As I’ve written elsewhere, Cohen brings us back to human fragility, letting go of the desire to be an angel and embracing the fact that we are a broken hill. It is for our fragile humanity that God created us, and while we spend most of the year denying it, on Yom Kippur we embrace it. While this song has yet to make it into the mainstream Yom Kippur prayerbooks, it certainly deserves to be there.
Related: Yom Kippur FAQ
Rabbi Mishael Zion is co-director of the Bronfman Fellowships and the author of A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices. He blogs at Text and the City.