No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Joshua Breitzer

This most iconic and instantly recognizable sacred Jewish song has had a lot of treatments over the many centuries it’s been around. While the Aramaic lyrics are quite a mouthful even for a native Hebrew speaker, a surprising number of mainstream pop singers have tried to make the prayer their own, including Al Jolson, Neil Diamond, Perry Como – and Johnny Mathis! In this revealing interview, he describes Kol Nidrei as “…so emotionally driven that I got, I would say, 95% of the words correct.” As I do my best to make this prayer my own tonight, together with cantors all over the world, I will try to remember what inspired Johnny to do the same.




 |  Joshua Breitzer

One of my resolutions this year is to think more about the “other”—the other person, the other point of view, the other side of the world. As you might imagine, Judaism has a lot to say about it. The great rabbi Hillel, who lived in the earliest days of the Common Era, wondered “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”




 |  Joshua Breitzer

At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I think becoming a father has made me a better person in every way. It has also given me new insight into all the father figures I’ve known, and, especially at this time of year—to use appropriate prayer book parlance—into the notion of a Heavenly Father.




 |  Joshua Breitzer

We like to think of Irving Berlin as one of the most quintessentially American songwriters, but like so many of them, he had his roots elsewhere. He wrote this little-known tune for Fanny Brice in 1925, soon after legislation had been passed placing quotas on immigration. In this live recording by the incomparable Judy Blazer and NYFOS’s own Michael Barrett, listen for lyrics like “There’s millions of people on the shore / Why can’t you make room for just one more” and marvel at how relevant Berlin’s piece still is.




 |  Joshua Breitzer

The High Holy Days have arrived yet again, the busiest time of a cantor’s year. I find that a song without words (Hebrew: nigun) puts my heart and mind at ease more than any other. When composing this one, my friend and teacher Joey Weisenberg was inspired by the famous phrase in Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort ye” (Hebrew: nachamu).




 |  Joshua Breitzer

Jews liken the oral and written tradition to an ever-living, ever-flourishing source of inspiration. The text of “Eitz Chayim” is always sung when returning the Torah scrolls to the ark, along with a prayer to “renew our days as of old.” The late composer, teacher and scholar Dr. Jack Gottlieb wrote his setting of it for the 1970 New Year’s Service for Young People and dedicated the piece to Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, the first woman to be ordained a cantor.




 |  Joshua Breitzer

A vast canon of what Israelis consider to be “folk” songs were actually composed in the last 80 years by real people. Eliyahu Gamliel’s famous setting caught the attention of none other than Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1962 from the piano with her band and, fortunately for us, the cameras were running!




 |  Joshua Breitzer

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the 20th century’s most renowned teachers, philosophers – and, as it turns out, poets! Heschel’s early Yiddish poetry inspired the contemporary cantor and performer Basya Schechter to compose Songs of Wonder, an entire album set to it.




 |  Joshua Breitzer

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we recount how Abraham bound Isaac to an altar and nearly sacrificed him. Sephardic Jews precede the Biblical chanting of the story with this 12th century piyyut (liturgical poem) expressing the same story through dramatic imagery and cantorial/choral call and response. Each stanza ends with the refrain oked v’ne’ekad v’hamizbei’ach, “the binder, the bound, and the sacrifice.”




 |  Joshua Breitzer

Shanah tovah umetukah! I’m honored to be curating this week’s NYFOS Songs of the Day as Jews all over the world welcome the new year 5777 today and tomorrow. The great Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen drew inspiration from the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy to write “Who by Fire,” here performed in 1989 by the composer together with the incomparable jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.