For centuries, Jewish communities have adopted the music of the surrounding culture and made it their own. Some popular Shabbos zemiros are reported to have their musical origins in Russian or German taverns, and are sung alongside those composed by Chassidische Rebbes at many a table. But for several decades, Roshei Yeshiva have complained that the use of modern rock music is inappropriate — and yet the “market” has moved ever further in that direction, following modern tastes.
What is interesting is that today’s examples of rock excess are for the most part not borrowed, but written from scratch as Jewish rock songs. Meanwhile, the “borrowed” songs are pretty mild by comparison.
Recently adopted is Lipa Schmeltzer’s “Abi Meleibt,” using the tune from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was the #1 hit in the U.S. when sung by “The Tokens” in late 1961, but many people don’t know that the song was originally recorded in 1939 as “Mbube,” in the Zulu language, and released in Swaziland, South Africa. Proof positive that songs don’t retire when they turn 65 — and also, perhaps, the most unusual origin yet for a Yiddish-language recording.
Compare it with, for example, “L’cha” by The Chevra. See what I mean? If a group of yeshiva students were to produce a mock “Abi Meleibt” video during their break, I don’t think it would look like this one for L’cha. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t do a mock video for Abi Meleibt, and that’s the point. If the music itself hardly matches the lyrics (in translation, “to You, G-d, is the greatness, the strength, the splendor, the eternity, and the glory”), the video isn’t even close to what you might imagine accompanying those words.
I mentioned to Ezzie that I was planning to write about this, and he responded: “As long as it’s original (or they think it is), even charedim don’t seem to care. It’s weird – I raised eyebrows at some stuff my cousins loved when I was in Israel.”
I’m not sure he’s right. I do remember the wedding of a fellow yeshiva student in Israel, where our Mashgiach (“spiritual dean”) put a halt to the playing of “Baruch HaGever,” and then had no objection to “Asher Bara” by the Piamentas shortly thereafter. I said at the time that the Mashgiach probably recognized the non-Jewish origins of the former (derived, at least in part, from “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March, 1963), but was in Israel and no longer listening to secular music before Men at Work produced “Down Under” in 1982.
But on the other hand, “Asher Bara” is a hora — the dancing is likely to be less wild than that for “Baruch HaGever” — so there are other reasons, besides the origins, that he might have objected to “Baruch HaGever.” And, at that time, much of the most excessively “rocked up” tunes were the borrowed ones, such as Mordechai Ben David’s “Yidden” — taken directly from “Dhenghis Khan,” Germany’s 1981 entry in the Eurovision song contest.
So is the problem the borrowing, or the spirit (or lack thereof) of the tune?
P.S. See my brother-in-law’s note about the harmony between Ma’oz Tzur and a certain other tune from roughly this time of year. It’s true…