Contemporary Music in Contemporary Hebrew for Contemporary Jews
By Jonah Rank
One of my favorite parts of Talmud Torah, the lifelong commitment to Jewish study, is studying Jewish language. Today, Jewish language is more than the poetic language of rabbis; it is also the spoken language of the Jewish State. Today, it is just as important for us to be literate in the Hebrew we sing aloud or read in a siddur as it is to learn the Hebrew we’d speak in Israel.
Since 1948, many North American Jews have chosen to pronounce Hebrew the way Israelis pronounce Hebrew – no longer how 18th century Europeans would: many of us now say “Shabbat” (not “Shabbos”), “B’rit” (not “Bris”), “Etrog” (not “Esrog”), “Shavu`ot” (not “Sh’vuos”), and so on. Deciding to pronounce Hebrew as Israelis do also meant that we, like Israelis, now strived to understand the language of our ancestors.
Today, many of us now pronounce Hebrew more like Israelis than 18th Century German Jews, and many of us agree that we want to know what we sing about in shul – regardless of our level of understanding Hebrew. In spite of this changed frame of mind though, many of us still pray with tunes that, though we might not realize it, might no longer jive with a modern Jew’s attitude towards Hebrew prayer.
Many tunes we use for prayer today might make it hard for us to accent a word the way an Israeli would. For example, most tunes I know for “Lekhah Dodi” force me to sing “SHA-bat” (instead of “sha-BAT”, how Israelis pronounce “Shabbat”). These tunes were written for Jews who sang “Shabbos” (like “SHA-bos”) and emphasized that first syllable anyway, or these tunes were based on older tunes written for such Jews. In fact, this problem comes up with a good number of words in just about every other prayer – where we might sing “MIZ-mor” instead of “miz-MOR” or “le-HO-dot” instead of “le-ho-DOT” or all sorts of words that we unconsciously sing in an old-fashioned way.
Another pet peeve for the modern Jew: many of the tunes we use don’t reflect the prayers’ sentence structures. Take for example Psalm 29 (“Mizmor Ledavid: Havu Ladonay B’ney Elim…”). Nearly every tune I know for it has musical phrases that end in the middle of a sentence. In these tunes, the words “yecholel ayyalot”, for example, which are often connected to the next few words or marked with a comma, are sung as one would sing the end of a sentence. Though I always find the end of the musical phrase kind of catchy here, if the musical phrasing should match the phrasing of the actual words, then I have to admit that this music does not go with the flow of the language.
This past summer, in the midst of playing with my sound recording equipment (when I should have been doing work for summer classes), I decided that I would like to take up the prayer-language issues that I had only become aware of in the past few years.
In fact, I have begun composing new tunes: tunes where the words fit when pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew; tunes where the musical and the grammatical phrasing match; and – most importantly – tunes that I hope the modern Jew would find catchy but not campy, didactic but not demeaning, and spirited, spiritual, and inspiring.
I have so far composed and written out sheet music for “Lekhah Dodi” and Psalm 29 (plus a few other prayer texts). My current plan is to finish setting all of Kabbalat Shabbat to new, modern tunes and, after recording them (to be released on CD by December 2008), to offer these modern tunes to all modern Jews interested, and to share the tunes with all of my own personal Tefillah communities.
Jonah is a sophomore at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he studies music and Jewish music (respectively). Jonah’s debut CD, Loud and Dumb, is available on iTunes. Jonah also prates at www.jonahrank.com almost daily.