Hassidic Sabbath Eve Service
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In the early 1950s no one in America could have imagined that by the end of the century, Hassidic song, along with a relentless eruption of pop-infused pseudo-Hassidic tunes and bizarre fusions, would have become entrenched in the religious and cultural mainstream of American Jewry as a fashion, with no signs of dissipation. Nor could anyone have foreseen the infectious but selective fascination with Hassidism that would span the various branches of Jewish affiliation, from Reform to orthodoxy, and even attract the interest of nonreligious elements. Any prediction that Shlomo Carlebach would sing his original but superficially Hassidic-tinged songs to wildly receptive patrons only a decade later at the Village Gate—a nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village—would have been dismissed as a hallucination.
In 1954, the year Isadore Freed completed his Hassidic Service for the Sabbath Eve, Hassidic song, and for that matter anything reminiscent of Hassidic life and folkways, was utterly foreign to Reform congregations—for whom Freed primarily intended his service. Perceived or even genuine Hassidic melos—mystically infused devotional as well as spiritual tunes—could be a symbol of much that the Reform movement and its congregants repudiated as alien to modernity, inconsistent with American sensibilities, inappropriate to the desired dignity of American worship and liturgical expression, and altogether anachronistic. In their sermons, Reform rabbis in those days might occasionally cite a universally applicable maxim of some famous Hassidic rebbe, reinterpreting it with contemporary relevance. But those references always safely concerned a Jewish past, with no suggestion of replicating any aspect of Hassidic culture in their services. As late as the 1960s there were some Reform rabbis who dissuaded choirmasters from introducing even contemporary, formally composed settings that incorporated or were based on original animated melodies, for fear that they could be misunderstood as Hassidic in origin and therefore beneath the prized liturgical standards and decorous ambience.
There were also Conservative movement rabbis and others among its leadership at the time who had similar reservations or objections, though perhaps less consistently so. In the 1940s one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis and liturgists once rejected the engagement of a young Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical graduate as his congregation’s supplementary cantor for the High Holy Days because, at his audition, the applicant had swayed unintentionally back and forth in a mildly Hassidic manner while he intoned the liturgy—a mannerism known colloquially as shokling. “Young man,” the rabbi explained with a bit of contempt for such Old World habits, “your are in New England now, and in New England we do not shokl.” That incident, minor as it was, is illustrative of a contemporaneous attitude toward Hassidic affectations or even their appearance (pious non-Hassidic Jews in eastern Europe could also shokl as a function of being absorbed in prayer, although there are rabbinic views in opposition). Hassidism and its accoutrements—which included its musical style and substance—could be viewed as artificial in any modern American settings, even those in which traditional hazzanut in all its European resonance was beloved.
Mainstream orthodoxy of the 1950s featured (as it does now) an abundance of mirthful tunes that could appear to betray Hassidic flavor, but most had no basis in Hassidic custom and many were adopted in America. There was not a conscious effort to promote what would later come euphemistically to be called “spirituality” by invoking authentic Hassidic melodies—and certainly not niggunim and their mode of rendition out of context. Such attempts could easily have been unwelcome. For one thing, the memory of antagonism between Hassidim and their religious opponents in Europe was still fresh. Then, too, mainstream orthodoxy of that era (viz., outside the circumscribed enclaves of piety, Hassidic or not) sought its own version of Americanization, as long as it did not—or could be shown not to—conflict with orthodox requirements. Orthodox rabbinical graduates of Yeshiva University in those days, for example, were routinely clean shaven. (Electric razors had been ruled by some orthodox authorities to circumvent prohibitions against actual shaving.) Typical orthodox men, including many rabbis, sported the same type of fedora—in the same variety of colors—as that of any properly dressed men of the time, rather than distinctive hats designed specifically to identify them as orthodox. Hassidic or even adaptations of Hassidic headgear would have been nearly as much an oddity in those orthodox circles as in the rest of American society.
Eastern European hazzanut, however, seemed perfectly appropriate to traditional worship in America because it was understood not as an exotic tangent or tributary historically attached to superstitious aspects of an insular movement, but as an aesthetic, artistic, and liturgical continuum that had thrived even in the most cosmopolitan and modern European orthodox synagogues. But outright adoption or integration of Hassidic musical approaches to prayer would have crossed a line as incongruous mystical vehicles superimposed on a major artery of American Judaism that had little use for mysticism.
Hassidism in practice in the early 1950s was thus strange to American Jewry in general, and it had not yet established a foothold on the American Jewish imagination. The major dynasties had not come to America—and primarily to New York—in any appreciable numbers until after the war, as collective survivors of the Holocaust. They lived by choice, as they do now, in their own neighborhoods—apart from the rest of American Jewry. Moreover, commercial recordings of their musical traditions were not yet available; and in fact their rebbes had not yet approved of such modern instruments of dissemination, which could easily be misused or lead to misuse.
Freed’s Hassidic Service was actually conceived in collaboration with Judah Cahn, the rabbi of the Reform synagogue whose choir and music program he directed: Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York. In planning the congregation’s annual music festival, which was to highlight diverse Jewish musical traditions, they both realized that the music of the Hassidim had an important place, and they decided to celebrate that legacy by Freed’s composition of this new work, written for the occasion and presented at the Sabbath eve service of the weekend festival. In the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion, reticence, and unfamiliarity, they expected some heightened resistance in a Reform context, and the innovation was so risky and potentially inflammatory that Rabbi Cahn felt it necessary to precede the service with a historical explanation that could also pacify anyone who feared a permanent alteration in the synagogue’s musical character. “The seeming paradox of Hassidic music in a liberal American Temple” called for just such an explanation, he announced. And Hassidism, he went on to point out, “originally gave to our people an opportunity to express religious faith with joy and with song.” In a subtle way, his brief remarks aimed at striking a chord with his congregants by reconciling some of the original dimensions of Hassidism with Reform worldviews and orientations—emphasizing the shared importance of transcending Judaism’s legalistic basis:
Judaism was to them more than “the yoke of the Jew.” We in our own day are beginning to understand that Judaism can be for us and our children a never ending source of joy. Could there be a greater fountain from which to draw our inspiration than the musical tradition of those who expressed their ecstatic love of faith in dance and song and prayer?
In the end, Rabbi Cahn and Freed need not have been concerned about the reactions to the venture, although excerpts of those introductory remarks were wisely included in a preface to the published edition. Rabbi Cahn interpreted the congregation’s enthusiasm and warm participation in the premiere of the service as “eloquent proof that the music, which gave expression of religious faith to the generations that have gone before, still finds an echoing response in our time.” Indeed, Freed’s service became part of the congregation’s permanent repertoire, as it soon did in many Reform and some Conservative synagogues across the country after its publication. For a long time afterward it remained the Reform movement’s principal—in some cases exclusive—association with Hassidic song, especially in connection with its liturgical renditions. The melody of Freed’s setting of Mi khamokha became a popular congregational tune not only throughout the Reform movement but in Conservative and orthodox services as well. It was furnished to Freed by Temple Israel’s retired cantor, Harvin Lohre, who remembered it from his own past experience with Hassidic ceremonies.
Unlike many composers and arrangers who subsequently sought to reproduce Hassidic melos but often promiscuously labeled melodies they used or incorporated simply as “Hassidic,” with no basis other than their own guesswork, Freed took his task seriously and was scrupulous about the authenticity of the melodies he employed. Apart from Mi khamokha, his two principal sources were among the only available and reliable notated collections at that time: Sefer Haniggunim: Niggunei asidei abad, compiled and edited by Rabbi Samuel Zalmanoff and published in 1948; and Volume X (Gesänge der Chassidim, 1932) of Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s monumental scholarly anthology, Hebräische-orientalischer Melodienschatz (Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies), the first volume of which was published originally in 1914 in Leipzig.
Freed’s objective was not to preserve any Hassidic connections between tunes and texts, but simply to rely on those melodies as a composite source from which to draw his material. Thus the liturgical texts to which he attached the tunes he found in those volumes are not necessarily so related in any Hassidic traditions; and some of the melodies are wordless niggunim in Hassidic practice. Moreover, this service is no mere renotation or rendition of those tunes, but a series of artistically constructed pieces built on them. Freed carefully harmonized the material for four-part SATB choir, developed some of the rhythmic as well as melodic motives, employed some contrapuntal techniques, and provided judicious organ accompaniment to the cantor’s solo lines as well as to the choral parts. Obviously this work was geared specifically to nonorthodox services and could have no practical application among the circles whose melodies constitute its foundation.