Sounds of Kaddish

Interview with Cantor Andrew Bernard

Cantor Andrew Bernard is a member of the clergy team at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina and volunteer chaplain at the Levine Children's Hospital. The author of The Sound of Sacred Time: A basic music theory textbook to teach the Jewish prayer modes, he is also vice chair of the URJ's Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living and co-winner of the American Choral Directors Association's 1990 Julius Herford Prize for his doctoral dissertation on Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony and Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. He was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer and managing editor Joy Weinberg.

An in-depth adult discussion and study guide to this article, written by Cantor Bernard, is also available.

When most Jews think of the Kaddish, they automatically think of the Mourner's Kaddish, but we understand there are other forms. Could you tell us about them?

There are actually five forms of Kaddish.

Originally, Kaddish was used to conclude a time of study. This first form, known as Kaddish d'Rabbanan or the Rabbis' Kaddish, probably dates from the Second Temple period and includes prayers for the blessing of scholars and their disciples, as well as praise of God.

The next two forms of Kaddish serve as prayer markers, telling us where we are in our liturgy. The Chatzi Kaddish-also known as Half Kaddish or, in our Reform prayer book, the Reader's Kaddish-marks the conclusion of a particular section of the service. Kaddish Shaleim or the Full Kaddish marks the conclusion of the entire service. In this way, Kaddish migrated from the house of study to the house of prayer.

It wasn't until much later, possibly as late as the thirteenth century, that the fourth kind of Kaddish, Kaddish Yatom or the Mourner's Kaddish, came into the service, probably in response to the severe persecutions of Jews in Germany at the hands of the Crusaders.

The fifth form is the little-used Kaddish l'ithad'ta or Burial Kaddish. Written at the beginning of the Middle Ages, it is recited at the graveside at the time of burial. Interestingly, it is the only form of Kaddish that includes any reference to death or to resurrection.

Do these five forms of Kaddish have musical components?

In general, two of them do and three do not. The two forms that serve as service dividers, Chatzi Kaddish and Kaddish Shaleim, are normally chanted. Traditionally, the Rabbis' Kaddish, the Mourner's Kaddish, and the Burial Kaddish are read. With that said, the Mourner's Kaddish has nonetheless inspired a number of musical settings.

Why is that?

Particularly after the Holocaust, the words yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabba, or "magnified and sanctified be the great Name," became endowed with such an intensity of emotion for the Jewish people that they inspired contemporary composers to write musical settings. Some composers have quoted directly from liturgical texts, some have used Kaddish in the title of their works but referenced other texts, and some have created works without text. Probably the quintessential work of this genre is Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony.

What was Bernstein's inspiration for the symphony?

Bernstein wrote the piece in the early 1960s, a period of great tension and fear of a nuclear holocaust, which reached its height during the Cuban missile crisis. It was also composed in the aftermath of the Shoah and two world wars, when some theologians were asking out loud, "Is God dead?" In listening to the piece, you begin to wonder, "For whom is Kaddish being said?" Is it for humanity, which is about to annihilate itself, or is it for a deceased God?

Musically, the symphony includes a prologue, an epilogue, and three primary musical statements of Kaddish with spoken English text woven in between. In the first statement, a Din Torah, God is called to judgment for the terrible things going on in the world, while the choir and orchestra present the strident, atonal theme (Track 1). Next comes a serene and expansive lullaby in which the words of Kaddish comfort God, who suffers, too, in witnessing the current condition of humanity (Track 2). In the third statement, marked by a broad, sweeping tonal melody, the chaos is resolved, in part through a vision of a future in which God and humanity reassure each other and vow to walk together in mutual praise (Track 3). Bernstein describes the musical transformation from fury to faith beautifully: "All our great Judaistic personalities of the past, including Abraham…Moses and the prophets, all argued with God. You know how the more you love someone, the more you can get angry with them, and when you have a reconciliation, the…close[r] you two become than ever. Something like that happens in the course of this piece."

It's a haunting composition.

Yes, and very evocative of the many emotions associated with the Mourner's Kaddish. Another favorite of mine in this genre, titled simply Mourner's Kaddish (Track 4), was written by Jack Gottlieb, who was Bernstein's personal assistant during the late 1950s and early 1960s; in addition, he's served as an HUC-JIR faculty member. Gottlieb uses an English translation of the poem "Autumn Day" by the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke as spoken text. To many readers "Autumn Day" is a metaphor for waning life, and Gottlieb punctuates the emotional power of the poem by adding the words "yitgadal v'yitkadash…" at the end. Underlying the recitation is a slow, solemn, and chromatic organ solo. Gottlieb then quotes the melody to the Carl Sandburg poem "Mill Doors," written by his beloved teacher Max Helfman, of blessed memory. In a liturgical setting, the names of the deceased are read over this melody.

You said earlier that the Mourner's Kaddish has also inspired purely instrumental compositions.

Yes. For example, there's a wonderful piano work titled Kaddish by the composer James Raphael. Raphael is not as well known as Bernstein or Gottlieb, but his Jewish roots run deep: his maternal great-grandfather, the kabbalistic rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, helped finance the building of the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem and was believed to have been a maker of miracles. Raphael himself grew up in England in the 1950s and later studied with Arthur Rubinstein and Nadia Boulanger. His Kaddish was composed after his visit to the Salzburg Jewish cemetery in 1996. He would later write: "I leave this composition as a small stone upon your tombs, a musical Kaddish prayer for you [the cemetery] and my own beloved departed mother, Henriette Raphael."

Musically, Raphael takes the listener on a journey from mournful lament (Track 5) through the pain of the Nazi persecution, with a reference to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (Track 6); to, finally, a resolution in the Romantic piano style of Franz Liszt-the vision of the eternal covenant embodied by souls being ushered up to heaven (Track 7). As Raphael explains, it's as if "souls who left their earthly bodies in this piece of holy ground [are] being elevated toward heaven by a myriad of Kaddishes uttered by faithful families."

That's quite a range of settings.

And there are many more contemporary settings-including some terrific works composed by non-Jews.

Such as?

There's the American composer and conductor Thomas Beveridge, who serves as artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale in the Washington, DC area. His Yizkor Requiem (1994) is unique in its bridging of both Catholic and Jewish traditions: Beveridge includes liturgical elements from both the Jewish memorial service and the Catholic Requiem Mass. The piece opens with Chatzi Kaddish and concludes with what Beveridge calls "Mourner's Kaddish/Lord's Prayer." Some people may disagree with me, but I think the Kaddish/Lord's Prayer is an apt connection because the two texts reflect a common origin: both begin with praising God's name-"Magnified and sanctified be the great Name" in the Kaddish and "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name" in the Lord's Prayer. Also, the idea of "Thy kingdom come" in the Lord's Prayer is reflected in "May He establish His kingdom during your life" in the Kaddish.

Beveridge seems to have a good understanding of Kaddish. The first three paragraphs of Mourner's Kaddish, which are a doxology or praise of God, are set to a major declamatory triumphant melody (Track 8) as the entire Lord's Prayer piece is chanted simultaneously; the last two paragraphs evoke the traditional style of the chazzan imploring God to grant peace to the world ( Track 9). And the piece concludes with an English rendering of part of the Kaddish text from the Union Prayer Book: "The departed, whom we now remember, have entered into the peace of life eternal…."

Do other non-Jewish composers come to mind?

In 1914, before World War I, the French Impressionist master Maurice Ravel wrote an important setting of the Chatzi Kaddish text called Kaddish, which plays off one of the traditional Jewish prayer modes and includes musical themes from the High Holidays and festivals. One of my favorite recordings is by Cantor Roz Barak of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco (Track 10).

But let me clarify: although Ravel's Kaddish employs one of the traditional Jewish prayer modes and includes themes from our liturgy, it is not in and of itself a liturgical setting.

How do liturgical settings differ from Ravel's and other such settings?

Liturgical settings use nusach, which essentially is the musical atmosphere characteristic of a particular service. Perhaps the best way to explain it is through the saying that you could blindfold a Jew and lead him into the synagogue, and by listening to the melodies he could tell you what day, time of day, and time of year it is. In other words, there's a particular musical atmosphere that has a direct association with a particular service, and when it's recognized, it allows you to have an immediate visceral response that enhances the quality of worship. Think about what you hear over the speaker system when you go to a shopping mall in the middle of December. Positive, negative, or otherwise, you're going to have an emotional reaction to that music. For me, whenever I hear the end of the Ravel Kaddish-which uses a very clear motif from the High Holidays-an image always flashes in my mind of sitting next to my grandfather at High Holy Day services; I can almost taste the pickled herring my grandmother and I used to share at the end of our Yom Kippur fast. That's the power of music-it can evoke associations above and beyond our understanding of the theological or liturgical significance of a particular service or holiday. And that's, in essence, what the nusach of the service will do.

So my nusach is not necessarily your nusach.

That's right; there are a lot of variations. The nusach tradition is really an oral tradition. Chatzi Kaddish, passed down from one cantor to another, will vary, just as it does from region to region or between Ashkanazim and Sephardim. The Spanish-Portuguese tradition is one expression of Sephardic nusach-which tends to have a narrow musical range, and is repetitive and antiphonal (call and response) (Track 11). In contrast, Ashkenazic nusach, which comes from Eastern Europe, demonstrates a broader vocal range and a greater variety of musical motifs. In general, most Reform congregations in North America follow the Eastern European Ashkenazic nusach tradition.

How is Kaddish nusach used within the service?

It also varies, because the nusach that's used reflects-and changes with-its liturgical function. So, for example, there are at least a dozen melodies for Chatzi Kaddish, and people who refer to the Friday evening melody (Track 12) as "the" Chatzi Kaddish are greatly mistaken. The Chatzi Kaddish melody that sets up the musical atmosphere of the last part of the Amidah on Friday night differs from the Chatzi Kaddish melody that introduces the Shabbat morning service (Track 13), and from the Chatzi Kaddish melody chanted on the evenings of the High Holy Days (Track 14). There is also a wonderful Chatzi Kaddish with an elaborate tune we use in the fall when we pray for rain (geshem), specifically on Sh'mini Atzeret; and in the spring when we pray for dew (tal), specifically on the first day of Passover (Track 15). These are the two times of the year, other than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we plead with God for our lives. On the High Holy Days we plead for forgiveness; on these spring and fall holidays we plead for water. Remember that in the Middle East water equaled life, so praying for water was a metaphor for asking God to keep the Jewish people alive.

Despite these variations, all Chatzi Kaddish melodies have the same purpose: to signal the conclusion of a section of the service and to let the worshiper know it's time to go on to the next section. It's the liturgical equivalent of "please turn to page 320 and rise for the Bar'chu." And so, the setting of Chatzi Kaddish will always musically anticipate the nusach of the next section of the liturgy.

We've talked about nusach in the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic communities. Can you tell us about other communities' variations of the Kaddish?

There's a famous Chassidic Kaddish (Track 16) that's widely used in Reform and Conservative congregations, though not in a liturgical sense. It's a setting of Kaddish Shaleim, or the Full Kaddish, composed by Jacob Gottlieb (1852- 1900), better known as Yankel der Heisereicher (Yankel the Horse Runner). The story goes that Gottlieb titled the piece Chassidic Kaddish after hearing Chassidim singing the concluding Kaddish of the Rosh Hashanah musaf cheerfully. While neither the principal melody nor secondary melodies in the piece are found in the repertoire of any authentic Chassidic tradition, Gottlieb's exuberant setting nonetheless expresses the joy of the text in praise of God. And if you think about Chassidic tradition, where so many niggunim (wordless melodies) are meant to elevate the soul and bring you to an ecstatic form of worship, then its adapted use for a joyful Kaddish Shaleim at the conclusion of the service makes a lot of sense.

What about American nusach? Has there been a quintessentially American nusach for Kaddish?

Perhaps the best example would be Chatzi Kaddish written by Jack Gottlieb. It isn't nusach in the liturgical sense, but perhaps in the broader stylistic sense. It's a concert piece in an American jazz choir idiom that, like the Chassidic Kaddish Shaleim, also reflects the joy of its text. Commissioned by Congregation Emanu-El in New York City in celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States, it was originally scored for brass sextet and choir; our musical sample (Track 17) features cantorial students from the HUC-JIR School of Sacred Music.

These last pieces really express celebration. That's quite a shift from where we began our musical Kaddish journey.

Yes. The musical possibilities of Kaddish are wide-ranging, depending on whether they evoke the emotional association of Kaddish with mourning, the liturgical function of Kaddish, or the praise of God inherent in the actual words. And regardless of the musical setting, Kaddish remains one of the most poignant expressions of the Jewish faith.