Song for a Plagued Passover

Image: Meir Ariel’s portrait on the jacket of his “Best Of” collection

I have discovered an Israeli song that really speaks to me – my modern Hebrew is rough, so I hope that the translation below isn’t too far off. Avarnu et Paro – Na’avor Gam et Zeh is a song about things that wear at our humanity, and the impulse in Jewish tradition to persevere anyway.

There is an expression in Hebrew: gam zeh ya’avor — “this too will pass.” In this song, the singer, Meir Ariel (1942 – 1999) sings about all the things that annoy and discourage him, and finishes each verse with “We passed over Pharaoh, and we shall pass this too.”

Passover this week calls up our communal memory of slavery in Egypt, and of our deliverance from that terrible situation. We are now in the midst of what I can only describe as a plague, a miasma of disease and in some places, mismanagement as well. It is one of those terrible times in history in which many individuals do not survive, and it is a struggle to retain our humanity. Still we can survive it as a people, if we persist.

This is my mantra for Passover of 2020 / 5780: “We passed over Pharaoh, this will pass over too.”

Income tax, they made me pay extra
Value Added Tax, they got me with that too,
The electric company has cut me off,
The Water Administration shut me off -
I saw that I was deteriorating into a crisis, I started hallucinating ...
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

A computer error cost me a million, ATM swallowed my account balance, 
An electronic secretary denied me an interview, 
The DMV denied me a license 
To a mechanical lawyer, I dropped a token in the mouth slot ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I learned a useful and necessary profession 
So I don't get pushed and pressed, I persevered, 
I was diligent although the system was failing, 
I found myself with the work getting sparse ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sometimes I am trapped on a crowded bus 
Or coming out of an exit, I am tense and urgent, 
Sometimes in the street jostling and rubbing, 
In demand for some relief, 
In the back, in the ribs, sometimes in the face, that elbow ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I turned aimlessly for a while, Without definition and without compromise, 
I lost height and consciousness, I thought maybe that defined it, 
To give an sharp and clear answer - I was torn about it. 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.
And now I'm stuck in the cutting edge, 
And to be honest I'm pretty indifferent. 
The situation is bad but I don't feel, 
I have no heart for all the stuff the screen presents. 
And the people's government goes down the road again - to my disgust ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

What Does a Cantor Do?

Image: Three Cantors: Allan Michelson z”l, Nathan Lam, and Ilene Keys

A cantor, or chazzan, is an expert in Jewish liturgy and dinei hat’filah, the laws concerning prayer, who leads services and teaches.  In the Reform Movement, that means that the cantor has completed a grueling five year postgraduate course of study in Jerusalem and New York. You will find cantors on the bimah in larger synagogues.

From the view in the pew, cantors lead services and sing service music, and they may seem indistinguishable from a cantorial soloist, who may also do those things. Both may have very good singing voices, and both may have had extensive musical training.

The cantor, however, has something extra: a deep background in Jewish worship and Hebrew language, knowledge of both present and past liturgies, and training in leading and teaching a wide variety of Jewish musical forms. A cantor is clergy, qualified to officiate at all lifecycle events (weddings, funerals, namings) and to provide pastoral support.

Cantors are teachers as well as service leaders. Here’s an account of an adult who learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai, Oakland. What I love about Ilana DeBare’s account is that she gives a good description of how that process works, how many different ways of approaching the texts her cantor provides. Cantors teach all ages and abilities, from the talented youngster to the devout Jew who wants to learn to leyn (chant) Torah but can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Cantors are part of the shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, the means by which Torah is handed down through the generations. I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys. She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam. Cantor Lam learned from Cantor Allan Michelson z”l. According to his obituary in the LA Times, Cantor Michelson learned from his father, also a cantor, in Latvia. Beyond Cantor Michelson’s father, the chain continues back all the way to the Masoretes, who found a way to safeguard the Torah text by inventing vowels and cantillation marks for it, and the Levites in the days of the Temple, when they sang to accompany the worship in the sacred enclosure:

There were never less than twelve Levites standing on the platform and their number could be increased into infinity. No minor could enter the court of the sanctuary to take part in the service except when the Levites stood up to sing. Nor did they join in the singing with harp and lyre, but with the mouth alone, to add flavor to the music.

Mishnah Arakhin 2:6

Cantors, like rabbis, strive to be klei kodesh, sacred vessels transmitting Torah from one generation to the next. They do this by first putting in years of study, filling themselves with skills and with Torah, and then by devoting their lives to the faithful transmission of tradition and to service to the People of Israel.

Holy Earworm, Batman!

Image: Actors Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin (Photo from the Independent, 8/24/16)

An earworm is a tune that gets stuck in your head.

Recently a student asked me why, every time she goes to services, she comes home with one of the tunes playing over and over in her head.

According to psychologists, over 90% of people experience earworms. There’s something in the wiring of our brain that “catches” certain songs and plays them on repeat. A new study in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts offers insights on why this happens. According to music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski, her team identified three main reasons why they occur: pace, the shape of the melody and a few unique intervals that make a song stand out.

  • Pace: Earworm tunes tend to be upbeat, and to encourage movement.
  • Musical shape: The tunes tend to be simple and somewhat repetitive.
  • Unique intervals: While the tunes are simple, they have something that makes the tune unusual, often an interval (distance between notes) that is unexpected and catchy.

It’s a very effortless form of memory, so we’re not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it’s very often very veridical, meaning it’s a very good representation of the original tune that we’re remembering.

So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying. – Kelly Jakbowski interview reported on CNN, 5/8/17

Not all Jewish service music sticks in our heads, but the tunes that do can serve a wonderful purpose: they are a memory aid to learning the words of prayers. For example, if I said to a non-Hebrew speaking person who is regular at services, “Recite for me the first lines of the Song of the Sea in Hebrew,” they’d probably panic and protest that they don’t speak Hebrew. But if I were to say, “Do you know the first few lines of Mi Chamocha?” they would be able to sing it, likely with correct pronunciation of the Hebrew, which is fairly tricky!

This is why I tell beginning adult students of Hebrew that regular attendance at services will help their studies immensely. Tunes and fragments of tunes will stick in their heads, anchoring bits of Hebrew grammar in a completely painless process. Even if you are not consciously trying to learn Hebrew, you’ll be surprised how much prayer book Hebrew you will learn by letting the earworms play in your head!

This phenomenon is not limited to pop or “camp” tunes. One of the most powerful service earworms for me is Helfman’s Shma Koleinu [Hear Us,] a very dignified High Holy Day setting for the prayer. I cannot read the words to that section of the daily Amidah without triggering Helfman’s beautiful tune in my head.

I no longer need help learning the Hebrew words of prayers, but earworms still have a function for me. Now, when I get a service tune and its words stuck in my head, I use it as a meditation on that prayer. I assume that there’s something I need in that prayer, and I let it play over and over in the background of my mind.

When it gets tiresome, I go for one of two common earworm cures: I play the tune all the way to the end (YouTube is good for this) or I sing a verse of “America the Beautiful” very slowly and loudly. That generally does the trick!


“And They Will Keep” – V’shamru


Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from

If you attend Shabbat services in a the synagogue, sooner or later you will notice these lines, either sung or spoken:

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat,
la’asot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.
Beini u’vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi l’olam,
ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai
et hashamayim v’et haaretz,
u’vayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash.

It’s actually a quotation from the book of Exodus:

The children of Israel will keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath in every generation as an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day [God] ceased work and refreshed God’s self. – Exodus 31:16-17

Reading this in the context of a Shabbat service, we remind ourselves why we continue this ancient practice. We keep it because our ancestors were commanded to keep it. We keep it because it is our custom as a people. We keep it in remembrance of our unique Creation story.  We keep it because it keeps us.  We have many different ways of keeping it, but when we do, our lives are fuller.

Jews have had a special place in our hearts and in the liturgy for these verses from Exodus because they express our love affair with Shabbat. We love them so much that we often sing them.

Many different musicians and cantors have set it to music: search YouTube with the string “v’shamru” and thousands of recordings will pop up. One version you will hear in many Reform and Conservative shuls is a tune by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum:

One of my favorites is this one by Cantor Jacob Goldstein:


And the meditative Debbie Friedman z”l setting:

What is your favorite prayer in the Shabbat service? If you tell me in the comments, I can either direct  you to an article I’ve written on it, or I will be inspired to write one!

Jewish Music Resource Online! (Guest Blogger)

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I’d like to welcome another guest blogger to Coffee Shop Rabbi. Laurie Rappeport grew up in Detroit Michigan and made aliyah in 1983. She lives in Safed, a northern Israeli city known as the “City of Kabbalah.” Laurie worked in the Safed Tourist Information Center for 13 years and continues to remain active in the city’s tourism. She teaches about Israel and  Judaism online to American Hebrew School students

The evolution of the American Jewish community from the 17th century till today can be followed at the Lowell Milken Archives where the development of American Jewry is documented in a wide-ranging series musical and liturgical recordings.

Up until the mid-1800s the majority of America’s Jewish community was Sephardic. These were Jews whose families originally came from Spain and Portugal. They made their way to the New World via Holland. The first American synagogues, including Sherith Israel in New York, the Touro synagogue in Newport Rhode Island and the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston South Carolina followed Sephardic liturgy and musical traditions. These synagogues were given names with deep messianic and kabbalistic meanings that reflected the prevalent belief that the upheaval in the Jewish world that had been brought about by the Inquisition and expulsions heralded the coming of the Messiah. The name of the first synagogue in Philadelphia, Mikve Yisrael, was taken from the name of Dutch Rabbi Ben Israel’s book of Kabbalah which reminded the Jews of Yirmiyahu’s promise “O Hope of Mikveh Israel, it’s deliverer in the time of trouble.”  Sherith Israel — the remnants of Israel — was named for the prophet Micah’s prophecy “I will bring together the remnant of Shearith Israel.” The formal name of the Touro synagogue is Yeshuat Yisrael which is based on the verse of psalms “the deliverance of Yeshuat Yisrael might come from Zion when the Lord restores the fortunes of His people Jacob will exult and Israel will rejoice.”

Several years ago researcher Edward Kritzler published an account of 16th century Jews who fled the Inquisition of their native lands to South America. The book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge chronicles the riveting history of Sephardic Jews who settled in South America. When the Spanish and Portuguese governments brought the Inquisition to the New World they were forced to flee to areas which were controlled by the Dutch Republic and English crown. Many of these Jews settled in the Caribbean where they turned to piracy, both for economic reasons and as a strategy that allowed them to take revenge on the Spanish fleet.

Portuguese Jews who had managed to flee Portugal’s Inquisition established new communities in Holland. The Dutch Jewish leadership encouraged these people to immigrate to the New World and many of them did so, sailing to Brazil where, until 1654, Jews enjoyed the right to live and worship freely. In that year Portugal wrested control of the country from Holland and the Inquisition began to forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity. A group of 23 Jews fled and sailed from Recife, Brazil to New York where, over governor Peter Stuyvesant’s objections, were allowed to stay. They were soon joined by other Dutch Jews and in 1729 they established America’s first synagogue, Sherith Israel, which continues to serve the Sephardic Jewish community of New York.

By the mid-1800s German Jewish immigrants formed the majority of the American Jewish community. During this time the Reform Movement began to strengthen  in America and many of the old Sepharadi synagogues adopted German and Reform liturgy and customs. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston was the first synagogue to make this change and its classical Reform traditions continue till today.

By the late 1800s the immigration of the Eastern European Jews began. Between 1882 and 1924 it’s estimated that 2 million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Most of these immigrants began to acculturate to their new home and to American society while maintaining many of their original prayer customs and synagogue liturgy. This era also saw the expansion of hazzanut — cantorial singing — and even those Jews who were no longer strictly observant loved the Ashkanazi hazzanut. Hazzanut that developed during these years continues to influence cantors of all streams of Judaism till today.

To learn more about the development of American Jewish music, visit the Lowell Milken Archives website. There you will find a treasury of musical recordings of all kinds.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by @Doug88888