The Eileh Ezkerah with which most Reform Jews are currently familiar does not bring to mind familiar melodies. While thematically, Eileh Ezkerah fits well with Yom Kippur, it does not hark to the sounds of the High Holy Day melodies we typically quote. What, then, is to be done with its text? Often, the “From Creation to Redemption” segment found in the CCAR’s Gates of Repentance is simply read aloud. Traditionally, the Eileh Ezkerah would be chanted briefly. In this example, Hazzan Leibele Waldman is heard chanting a dramatic and morose recitation of the beginning of the text. While listening to the first minute or so, bear in mind that Waldman here chants the liturgy in its entirety (and this is only the first half of a twenty-minute-long musical selection). Compare this with the simple chant which begins the version by Hazzan Israel Alter. LISTEN The 34 seconds of Alter’s much longer chant is the entirety of the excerpt of the long piyyut (or poem) found in Gates of Repentance. Such few words leave little room for interpretation or word painting.
Some congregations have chosen to replace Eileh Ezkerah with an alternative. As was discussed in the first installment of studying Eileh Ezkerah, Rabbi Richard Sarason notes that replacing the Eileh Ezkerah piyyut with excerpts and additional thematically similar material is not new; it was removed from some machzorim before the Holocaust due to its content, and reintroduced following the war in various versions.
One of the additional texts found in newer machzorim is “Eli Tzion.” LISTEN to This familiar melody, here arranged for choir, brings out the mournful feel of the day by setting the words to a plaintive tune: “For Zion and her cities I mourn like a mother in her anguish, like a woman who mourns the husband of her youth. I mourn the exile of God’s servants, makers of sweet melody, their blood poured out like Zion’s streams.”
True, this portion of Yom Kippur finds us at our lowest depths. Yet hope is provided: as the pages are turned we come to “Mi Ma’amakim”: Out of the depths I call to You, O God. Eternal God, hearken to my voice. The following listening example is in a “round” form: one voice echoes the next, forming a web of harmony as the text and music repeats again and again. The harmonies created are both meditative and anxiety-producing, but as the voices sway through the parts, the dissonance which nearly makes one flinch disappears as quickly as it arrived. LISTEN We again sink down to remember the darkest times of our people but our commitment to survival with “Zog Nit Keynmol.” A Yiddish song also known as Partizaner Lid, which was sung to show resistance to the Nazis, also tells of not giving up hope and that redemption draws near. It ends, “There our courage and our faith will rise and stand.”
The text of the Eileh Ezkerah and the potential we have to supplement it with modern poetry leads one to wonder how the musical selections will evolve with the updates. Will Mishkan HaNefesh include references to recent trials and suffering of the Jewish people? Will its editors continue to excerpt briefly from the original text or reintroduce more of the traditional wording? The afternoon service in Gates of Repentance now ends with “VeYe’etayu,” better known as “All the World Shall Come to Serve You.” The traditional hymn I sang all through my childhood holds fond memories. From my limited observations, it seems as though few congregations stick with the hymn, just as the original Eileh Ezkerahhas been omitted from the Reform tradition for these last decades. While it was difficult to give up singing the words which still bring me nostalgic joy, it is also comforting to know that our Reform Judaism continues to evolve with the world around us, both introducing and omitting that which is most fitting for our 21st-century lives.
Eile Ezk’ro, Israel Alter. From The High Holy Day Service: The Complete Musical Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for The Hazzan. Cantors Assembly, Inc., 1971. Performed by H. Kobilinsky.
Trad, arr. Adler, S. Eli Tsiyon. From Yamim Noraim Highlights – Days of Awe. Transcontinental Music Publications, 1995. Track 18.
Translations of Eli Tzion, Mi Ma’amakim and Zog Nit Keynmol: From Gates of Repentance, CCAR Publishers, ed. Chaim Stern.
Mi Ma’amakim. Performed by H. Kobilinsky.