SCORING IN <Dan Lebowitz - Tiptoe Out the Back>
Avishay Artsy: Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Cantor Zvi Aroni>
Avishay Artsy: Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement, is considered the holiest day in the Jewish year. It falls in the month of Tishrei and is the final day of the 10 Days of Awe. This period of introspection and repentance follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, atoning for personal sins, and reflecting on how to do better. Just before sundown on Erev Yom Kippur, Jewish houses of worship begin the Kol Nidre service.
Judah Cohen: For me, going to Kol Nidre services was a moment in the Jewish calendar that was seen as a key point of reflection.
Avishay Artsy: This is Judah Cohen, a professor of music at Indiana University.
Judah Cohen: This was heightened by everybody having to stand, by the kind of majesty of the moment itself, that is when the ark was opened, and then to have everybody continue to stand while this was recited three times. So it required you to be present and to be reverent, to be able to hear and to be able to introduce a time of significant reflection. And of course also the beginnings of this long fast.
Laura Lieber: I think it's a really beautiful balancing of sorrow and hope, I think are the two dominant tones. Those punctuate all of Yom Kippur.
Avishay Artsy: This is Laura Lieber, a professor of religious studies and classics at Duke University. She’s also a rabbi.
Laura Lieber: It's such a short text, but it has such a fascinating history, you know, and the fact that it survived despite persistent opposition from rabbis and lay leaders and civic authorities, as well as religious authorities.
Avishay Artsy: Kol Nidre serves as the dramatic and emotional opening moment for a highly-charged spiritual day. The words and melody of Kol Nidre connects Jews to each other and to their history. There’s a reason Jews who otherwise stay away from synagogue the rest of the year show up early so they don’t miss it.
And yet, Kol Nidre, arguably the most recognizable piece of Jewish liturgy, is not a prayer. It is a legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows. Over the centuries it has been maligned, ridiculed, and even banned by eminent rabbis, who rejected the idea of a blanket annulment of vows. And it’s even been used by enemies of Jews to justify anti-Semitic attacks and to paint Jews as untrustworthy.
In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’re going to look at what Kol Nidre says, where it comes from, and how it has persevered.
Avishay Artsy: So what does Kol Nidre actually say? The title comes from the first line, which means “All vows.” It’s sung three times. Why three? One explanation is that it’s repeated so that anyone arriving late would hear them. It’s sung softly at first, as if the cantor is hesitant to ask God for a favor. It is sung more loudly and with more confidence with each round.
Laura Lieber: Kol Nidre is actually, it's more of a legal text. It's certainly not a prayer in any conventional way. It's a legal formula for the nullification of vows. And it's generally understood as nullifying personal vows, the individual vows that a person would make to God. It doesn't negate interpersonal vows, vows that you make to other people. It's sort of a capstone of the 10 days of repentance. where you've been trying to make everything right between yourself and all your fellow human beings. And it sets a stage for the intense encounter between the individual and God that is the centerpiece of Yom Kippur.
Avishay Artsy: Even though the oldest known reference to the text dates back to the 9th century, some historians still claim that the use of Kol Nidre dates back to Spain during the 15th Century, when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity and recited Kol Nidre so that they could return and pray with the Jewish community.
Laura Lieber: There's a long tradition of Kol Nidre being associated with the persecution of Jews and the forced conversions in particular. And there's, I think, a sense that Jews who are forced to convert to Christianity or to other religions under duress, that the ritual of Kol Nidre granted them a sense of absolution, because it’s a betrayal of God, more than your community in a theological way, to convert to another religion.
Avishay Artsy: This is explicit in the opening stanza of Kol Nidre, which goes:
By the authority of the Heavenly Court and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.
Laura Lieber: And the preface to Kol Nidre, which goes back to the 13th century or so, which grants permission to pray with sinners, the Bi'shiva shel mala prayer. It opens the doors as wide as possible. And I think that that association, that Yom Kippur, that Kol Nidre, opens those doors to the entire community, no matter what you've done in the past year. And those doors, in a way, stay open until Ne’ila, the closing of the gates at the end of Yom Kippur. I think there's a deep emotional affinity for that sense that no matter what you've done in the past year, the community constitutes itself for you in that moment. And Kol Nidre really sets that tone. It begins that time of deep introspection, but in the presence of the largest community you're likely to have of the year.
Avishay Artsy: The text of Kol Nidre is a mixture of some Hebrew and mostly Aramaic, the language that Jews in Babylonia and Palestine spoke during the Talmudic period. Hebrew was reserved for holy texts and prayers, and Kol Nidre is a legal text. In fact, Kol Nidre is recited before Yom Kippur actually begins, because we’re forbidden to engage in business or legal dealings during a Jewish holiday. Here is the English translation, read by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein:
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein: All vows, obligations, oaths or pledges of all names which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, we repent beforehand. They shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void, and made of no effect. They shall not be binding nor have any power. The vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.
Avishay Artsy: A few things to note here: even though repentance is a central theme of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre makes no direct statement about repentance. There’s also no mention of God.
The text also changed over time. Originally it encompassed the preceding year, “from the last Day of Atonement until this one.” Then, in the 12th century, Meir ben Samuel, the son-in-law of the medieval French rabbi Rashi, changed the wording to reflect the year to come. He argued that preemptively annulling vows was more in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on vows. His version has been taken up by most Ashkenazi Jews, while Sephardic Jews continue to use the old text that only annulled vows that had already been made.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Sonia Wieder-Atherton>
Avishay Artsy: Kol Nidre has no effect upon vows or promises between people. And yet, it’s fed into anti-Semitic views of Jews as untrustworthy. Those misconceptions led medieval European judges to create special forms of oaths specifically for Jews. In part for that reason, rabbis condemned Kol Nidre and forbade its recitation.
Laura Lieber: The first actual text we have that's identifiably the Kol Nidre text is from the ninth century in the first compilation of Jewish prayers, the seder of Rav Amram Gaon. And he includes it, but he refers to it as “minhag shtut,” a stupid custom. There's, I think, some concerns expressed that Jews will make vows more casually if they know they can be forgiven. Sort of a version of what we see in the Mishna about, you know, “one who says ‘I will sin and repent and sin and repent,’ his sins are not forgiven.” That idea that you can't just be casual about something like an oath, even with the existence of Kol Nidre. There is one theory that the early opposition by the rabbis had to do with the fact that it reflected a superstitious belief in sort of the magical power of oaths and the need to nullify them in a special way. There were those who were concerned that it was simply not a valid legal procedure. And then there, I think the most persistent one, especially in the last couple of centuries was the use of Kol Nidre as sort of a slander against the Jews that you couldn't trust Jews to keep their word because they had this prayer that they said every year, that meant they didn't have to keep their promises.
Avishay Artsy: Fears of misunderstanding led to Kol Nidre being removed from the Reform Jewish liturgy in the 19th century. A revised form was reintroduced in 1945. There were also efforts to keep the melody but change the words, perhaps replacing it with one of the psalms. But ultimately it was decided to stick with the Kol Nidre text.
Laura Lieber: The text is seven different kinds of promises and seven different verbs for nullifying them. It's not a particularly evocative text on the surface, but that is the text in the end that people gravitated back towards.
Avishay Artsy: But there were some prayer books that didn't print the words. They just said “Kol Nidre is chanted.”
Laura Lieber: That was the Union Prayer Book, the late 19th and early 20th century prayer book of the reform movement. But I think by the 1960s, the traditional text was being printed again in the book for people to follow along with. And now, we're in a period, the late 20th century and 21st century, where the different prayer books by the reform and conservative movements, as well as ArtScroll and other prayer books with commentaries in the vernacular, often include discussion of the history of the text in some way that makes the nullification of vows a little clearer.
Avishay Artsy: So that’s what Kol Nidre says, and how it came to be recited just before the start of Yom Kippur. Where does its haunting melody come from? It’s surprisingly hard to answer. There is, in fact, not just one Kol Nidre melody, but a collection of musical themes which came together and settled in a permanent order at some point during the 15th or 16th centuries.
Judah Cohen: And then beyond that, there's a lot of speculation as to where it comes from.
Avishay Artsy: Judah Cohen says that some historians trace the melody, with its plaintive, mournful quality, to traditional German music.
Judah Cohen: Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, who's considered one of the key researchers of Jewish music in the 20th century, tries to connect it back to central or southern German folk song.
Avishay Artsy: Other historians reject this idea, arguing that it’s clearly of Jewish origin.
Judah Cohen: You have someone like Johanna Spector who tries to connect it back to ancient Babylonian chant, in order to try and give it more of a Jewish background. It's really hard to be able to determine where in fact this tune actually comes from except to try and trace it through descriptions that we might have heard about the tune or ways that people talk about how the tune has been used. Even then, it's not easy to follow that history.
Avishay Artsy: Over the centuries, Jews have come to think of Kol Nidre as a Jewish melody, imbued with a particular sadness that evokes pogroms and persecution, as well as resilience and rebuilding. But we can’t know for sure if the melody is original to the Jews.
Judah Cohen: When we're looking at, or trying to make claims as to, origin, that's where things get pretty tough, unless we have a specific creator that we can point to. A lot of the time we're looking at combinations of notes that can exist in many different populations.
Avishay Artsy: What’s worth noting, says Cohen, is why we choose to connect Kol Nidre to a long history of Jewish identity and Jewish religious practice.
Judah Cohen: Where it comes from and the way that histories then get created about this tune, that becomes just as interesting. And in some ways, the idea here is that the tunes’ origins end up somehow being reflective of the way Jewish populations like to view themselves in society and in history.
Avishay Artsy: Thinking of the tune as an ancient melody connecting us across generations adds resonance to the spiritual aspects of the service. Whether it is that old or not, is hard to say.
Judah Cohen: The idea that I see here is that the tune itself then becomes a kind of a container for Jewish spirituality and one that then can be brought to bear upon a deep sense of spirituality and the meaning of Yom Kippur in the present day.
SCORING IN <String Quartet Op. 131 - Beethoven>
Avishay Artsy: The musical notes to Kol Nidre were first printed in Berlin in 1765, thanks to a cantor named Ahron Beer.
The great Ludwig van Beethoven quoted from it in the sixth movement of his String Quartet Opus 131, which he completed in 1826.
Jewish leaders in Vienna had asked Beethoven to compose music for the inauguration of a new synagogue. They gave the composer examples of Jewish music, including Kol Nidre. The commission was never completed, but this is thought to be how Beethoven came upon the melody.
Avishay Artsy: In 1871, Louis Lewandowski, one of the greatest composers of Jewish liturgical music, published the standard modern version of the melody.
Judah Cohen: He was a choral director and composer who also trained cantors in Berlin in the mid-late 19th century. He has his version with organ accompaniment that we can also see as being used in various different versions later on.
Avishay Artsy: That version spread to Ashkenazi Jews around the world.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre, Op. 47 - Max Bruch>
Avishay Artsy: What really made the Ashkenazi melody famous was composer Max Bruch using it in 1881 as the basis for his celebrated variations for cello. Bruch was not Jewish, but his friend Abraham Jacob Lichtenstein was the chief cantor in Berlin and encouraged the composer’s interest in Jewish folk music. Bruch wrote in an 1889 letter to cantor and musicologist Eduard Birnbaum, quote, “Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement.”
Avishay Artsy: Here is that arrangement, performed by cellist Jacqueline Du Pré with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
Judah Cohen: Max Bruch himself did not identify as Jewish, but he certainly saw this tune as important. And one could say that it's connected with his work with another one of his students, last name Hiller, who was Jewish. And so we see this kind of interesting moment of cross-cultural experience and one that's still used today. There are still a number of congregations that use Bruch’s Kol Nidre as one of their three renderings of Kol Nidre during the Kol Nidre service.
Avishay Artsy: The melody was later used as a basis for other musical compositions, and in efforts to modernize Kol Nidre.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre, Op. 39 - Arnold Schoenberg>
Judah Cohen: There have been a number of art music attempts to update Kol Nidre and you can see that in, for example, Arnold Schoenberg’s version of Kol Nidre.
Laura Lieber: Schoenberg, the composer, whose fairly avant-garde rendition of Kol Nidre was partly a product of his own reclamation of a Jewish identity from which he'd been estranged. And he's someone who had converted to Christianity and then returned to Judaism.
Avishay Artsy: Schoenberg wrote his version of Kol Nidre in August 1938, shortly after the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria and just before Kristallnacht. His mind was on his close friends and family still trapped in Europe, many of whom perished. In a 1941 letter to fellow composer Paul Dessau, Schoenberg wrote that, quote, “One of my main tasks was vitriolising out the 'cello-sentimentality of the Bruchs, etc. and giving the DECREE the dignity of a law, of an 'edict.'”
Contemporary composers continue to draw inspiration from Kol Nidre, evoking its mood and exploring its motifs while radically reimagining its melody.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre, String Quartet in D Minor - John Zorn>
Judah Cohen: You can also see that more recently in John Zorn's string quartet version of Kol Nidre. At the same time, what we're talking about in terms of the high holidays and the new melodies that are associated with the high holidays, that has a very specific set of people that might wish to revise it. One of the situations now with Kol Nidre is that at least in many Ashkenazi synagogues, or at least in many synagogues that continue to use the melody, it is beloved to the point where you don't wanna mess with it. That is one of the things that people who go to the synagogue will want to hear. And so to be able to make significant changes, of course, that could be problematic.
Avishay Artsy: Sephardic Jews use their own distinct melodies. Here is Broadway actress Sharone Sayegh singing Kol Nidre in the Iraqi Sephardic tradition.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Sharone Sayegh>
Avishay Artsy: Many influential, secularized Jewish intellectuals claim to have been “converted” back to Judaism by Kol Nidre, among them German poet Heinrich Heine, French writer Edmond Fleg, Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, and theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig.
Laura Lieber: Franz Rosenzweig decided not to convert to Christianity after all upon attending Kol Nidre, which he'd intended to be his farewell to Judaism, but it turned out to be harder to leave than he expected.
Avishay Artsy: But Kol Nidre has plenty of non-Jewish fans as well. Such as the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, who described the prayer as “a song draped with the veil of grief; a night song dying away in the innermost recesses of penitent, contrite, repentant human hearts.” Leo Tolstoy was not Jewish, but he once described the prayer as “one that echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.”
In fact, many Christian European intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries attended the Jewish Kol Nidre service to hear the tune.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Al Jolson>
Avishay Artsy: Of all the different ways that Kol Nidre has circulated, one of the most famous is the 1927 movie “The Jazz Singer.”
Laura Lieber: The movie The Jazz Singer is really just a fascinating artifact of American Judaism as well as cinema. And it's, I think, significant that it has Kol Nidre as its bookend. It begins with Jack Robins, Al Jolson's character, his father is the cantor. And then at the end, when his father is dying and then dies, the Al Jolson character is on the bimah singing Kol Nidre. And I think it has to do with, you know, sort of a way of reflecting the anxieties and the tensions of not a forced conversion, but I think sort of navigating the assimilational pressures of the American Jewish experience, which is why the film is so caught up in that scene of the blackface, where the idea of the layers of identity and passing as someone you're not, and then reclaiming the Jewish identity in that moment.
Judah Cohen: In that situation, Kol Nidre becomes this moment where Jakie or Jack has to make a decision as to which side he's on. And ultimately, as you kind of see it, he ends up choosing both sides. There ends up being a kind of a way to be able to make these two things somehow work together.
The Jazz Singer was remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond, in his acting debut, playing the cantor’s son.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Neil Diamond>
Laura Lieber: I think it's a place where the complexities of Jewish identity can work themselves out, and the prayer seems to have emerged in Babylonia, the text of Kol Nidre and the melody that’s so well known is from medieval Germany. And it doesn't seem to have any historical direct connections to the experience of the conversos in Spain. But at the same time, we know Jews who experienced forced conversions, including the conversos in Spain, found the words very healing. They may not have been the reason it was written, they're part of the reason that it endured. And in the 20th and 21st century American context, I think there's a sense that every individual is always choosing to affirm their identity. And so the melody of Kol Nidre has been sort of imbued with this power to assert a claim on someone's identity in a way that I don't think really any other text or melody has.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Moishe Oysher>
Kol Nidre also took center stage in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory.” In that film, the cantor of the Vilna Synagogue, played by the great real-life cantor Moishe Oysher, leaves the synagogue to become an opera singer. He struggles to balance his newfound fame with feeling guilty and responsible for leaving behind his family and community. When he learns his son has died, he loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally comes back to shul for one last Kol Nidre before he dies.
Avishay Artsy: Kol Nidre ended up on religious albums released by two very popular, non-Jewish singers of the late 1950s.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Perry Como>
Avishay Artsy: Perry Como, a Catholic who came from an Italian-American background, offered his take on Kol Nidre on a 1953 album of traditional religious hymns called “I Believe,” and subtitled “Songs of all Faiths Sung by Perry Como.”
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Johnny Mathis>
Avishay Artsy: In 1958, Johnny Mathis added his version of Kol Nidre to “Good Night, Dear Lord,” an album of African-American spirituals recorded in homage to his Black mother. Mathis first heard cantorial music growing up in San Francisco, where many of his friends were Jewish.
SCORING IN <Kol Nidre - Electric Prunes>
Avishay Artsy: In 1968 the Los Angeles psych-rock band The Electric Prunes came out with the album, “Release Of An Oath.” The album opens with a rendition of Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre continues to resonate. It is a high point of the Jewish faith for millions of Jews around the world. Despite centuries of opposition, its haunting music continues to entrance us, touching our souls, opening our hearts, and lifting our spirits as we enter the final day of atonement and repentance of the Jewish year.
SCORING IN <Dan Lebowitz - Tiptoe Out the Back>
Avishay Artsy: Adventures in Jewish Studies is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.
If you enjoy the podcast, we hope you'll help support it by going to associationforjewishstudies.org/podcast to make a donation. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization. It features an annual conference, publications, fellowships and much more for our members. Visit associationforjewishstudies.org to learn more. See you next time on Adventures in Jewish Studies!
Laura S. Lieber
Laura S. Lieber is Professor of Religious Studies and Classics at Duke University, where she directs the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Late Ancient Studies. Her primary area of research is in the area of synagogue poetry ("piyyut") from Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period.
Judah Cohen is Professor of Music in Musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture at the Indiana University Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and director of the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. His research interests include music in Jewish life, American music, musical theater, popular culture, Caribbean Jewish history, diaspora, and medical ethnomusicology.
Avishay Artsy is an audio and print journalist based in Los Angeles and a senior producer of Vox's daily news explainer podcast Today, Explained. He also hosted and produced the podcast Works In Progress at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and produced Design and Architecture at KCRW. His writing has appeared in the Jewish Journal, The Forward, Tablet, JTA, and other publications and news outlets. His audio stories have appeared on NPR's Marketplace, KQED's The California Report, WHYY's The Pulse, PRI's The World, Studio 360 and other outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips