The Sacred, the Secular, and the Great American Songbook
I was invited to present a musical performance piece in conjunction with the traveling exhibit based upon David Lehman's seminal work, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. Flattered, I hesitated, at first, to accept the invitation. Since childhood I had lived and breathed the Great American Songbook, with much of my early professional life devoted to its interpretation. But my current sacred calling is to support members of my community as a k'lei kodesh (sacred vessel). Through Jewish liturgical musical experience they can encounter the Divine, and as part of a clergy team, I provide deeply-connected pastoral care to our community. The world in which I choose to live and work is decidedly non-secular.
My reluctance to participate surprised me. What was it that I didn't want to face? As I began to revisit the works of the Jewish composers that shaped me, I began to assess my life's journey.
I was drawn to the work of Harold Arlen (Hayim Arluck) as a young, solitary child. The Wizard of Oz was one of the soundtracks of my early life, and the culture of the film and its cast created a welcome fantasy for me.
Years later, I discovered that Hayim Arluck's father was the longtime cantor of temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, and that from the age of seven, Hayim sang in the choir and "listened in awe to his father's improvisations on old liturgical chants." (David Lehman, A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken Books, New York 2009, p.70)
This fact resonated powerfully in me. David Lehman writes, "not only did Shmuel Arluck tolerate his son's defection from the orthodox camp but―so proud was he of the young man's music accomplishments―he would adapt the Saturday prayer services in shul to the songs written by his son." ( A Fine Romance, p. 70-71)
As I began to select pieces for my performance, it was songs like "Blues in the Night," "The Man that Got Away," and "Over the Rainbow" that struck a deeper, different chord within me. How far had I strayed from my roots since my early years of Jewish self-discovery?
I was always drawn to songs by Irving Berlin. Was it something in his life experience that translated unconsciously to my secular but searching young adulthood? Maybe I had something in common with the composer of "God Bless America," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun," "Easter Parade," and "White Christmas." According to David Lehman, next to Arlen, "Irving Berlin (Israel Baline) had the most Jewish background of the major songwriters, yet it was he who went the furthest in assimilating to American social norms." (A Fine Romance, p. 79)
We opened the show with "Swanee" by George Gershwin (Jacob Gershowitz). In 1919, "Swanee" was at #1 for six weeks, Gershwin's biggest pop hit, when he was just twenty years old. A favorite of mine, I had included "Swanee" in my reviews and cabaret since I was a kid. But I never included the opening verse. In his phenomenal study, Jack Gottlieb writes,
The [first] verse to the Gershwin-Irving Caesar 1919 hit "Swanee" yearns for a kind of promised land. Did Gershwin subconsciously recall a synagogue tune that asks God to 'renew our days as of old'? (Jack Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, SUNY Press, New York 2004, p.152)
Given the correlation between the opening verse of "Swanee" (I've been away from you a long time. I never thought I'd miss you so.) and the "Hashiveinu" (Help us to return to You, O Lord. Then truly we shall return), I planned to close the performance with a piece that had another surprising and important basis in Jewish liturgical chant, "It Ain't Necessarily So" from Porgy and Bess. With such an interesting character as Sportin' Life introducing this song, "how could the Gershwins not resist making reference to the Bible via the Torah Blessing!" (Jack Gottlieb, Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish, p. 218)
A story is told that Jerome David Kern was also well aware of his Jewish identity. "At a poker game somebody made a crack about Jews, and it was Kern, one of several Jews present, who rebuked the anti-Semite." (David Lehman, A Fine Romance, p. 48)
With the inclusion of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" from Showboat, I became even more aware of the symbolic nature of these works, related to themes of overcoming challenge and oppression, while furthering cultural blends and trends.
Jeffrey Melnick defines 'sacralization' as "essentially the conflation of cantorial singing and jazz playing [which] forms the secret heart of the conversations linking African Americans and Jews." (A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1999, p. 166)
All in a moment I could see a full circle. The musical influences of a lifetime seemed to truly bring me to a place where I was meant to be both personally and professionally.
When Harold Arlen, composer of the Wizard of Oz, wrote a birthday poem for the seventy-seven year old Irving Berlin, composer of "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas," Arlen incorporated the Yiddish phrase Svet gornisht helfin ("It's no use") and signed his Hebrew name. Deep down it was still Chaim Arluck communicating with Israel Baline, one cantor's son schmoozing with another, two Yeshiva buchers [students] on a secular holiday in Hollywood or New York. (David Lehman, A Fine Romance, p. 187)
Svet gornisht helfin ―this cantor would have to respectfully disagree. It is through the passing of our Jewish cultural heritage, infused with the knowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us, that we will continue to pass our rich traditions to a new generation.