This s the sixtieth anniversary of one of the most unusual, one of the most obscure, and one of the most significant moments in American cultural history.
I am referring, of course, to Perry Como’s recording of "Kol Nidre."
Nostalgia warning: I am about to mention records. Record albums, to be exact. Ten inch LPs, to be even more precise. ("Teach this diligently unto thy children.....")
In 1953, the popular singer Perry Como recorded an album of traditional religious hymns. The album was called "I Believe," and it was subtitled "Songs of all Faiths Sung by Perry Como." It was released in a ten-inch LP format on RCA Victor Records in November, 1953 – exactly sixty years ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY6i6SobW6M
On that album, there were two songs in Hebrew.
The first was "Eli, Eli," a Hebrew/Yiddish cry of anguish to God.
And the other song that Perry Como recorded on the album “I Believe” was not exactly a song. Neither can we rightly call it a prayer. It is a declaration, actually – Kol Nidre.
Perry Como not only recorded Kol Nidre; he also sang it every year around Yom Kippur on his television variety show, The Chesterfield Supper Club.
Perry Como was a man of deep faith, a pious Catholic. He would sit in a side pew in his home church on Long Island because he did not want to distract from the sanctity of the service. He was apparently enchanted by the Aramaic words to Kol Nidre – in Aramaic, which a Jewish member of the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra taught him to pronounce – and perhaps even more so by its melody.
If we were going to continue our cultural history of Kol Nidre, we would, of course, have to mention that Al Jolson sang it in "The Jazz Singer", the first "talking" movie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTufuWn3jv8Neil Diamond sang "Kol Nidre" in the 1984 remake of "The Jazz Singer." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IEDLZayfdU
And, in the category of “you cannot make this stuff up,” in 1958 -- five years after "Perry Como" recorded Kol Nidre -- Johnny Mathis also recorded it on his album “Good Night Dear Lord.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGJ4WS1h9YI
And, then in the category of obscure musical renditions of sacred texts: in 1968, an all-but-completely forgotten British rock band, The Electric Prunes recorded an album called “Release of an Oath.” It featured an English translation of Kol Nidre, with some semblance of the traditional melody. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pVUkQbcO4o
So, what do we learn from the odd American history of Kol Nidre?
First of all, this was not the first time that a song in a Semitic language jumped to the top of the charts. In 1950, The Weavers, whose leader was Pete Seeger, recorded the Israeli popular song, “Tzena Tzena." It was the B side of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” "Tzena Tzena" was subsequently recorded by such stars as Mitch Miller, the Smothers Brothers, and Connie Francis.
“Tzena Tzena” comes out of the immediate post-independence American romance with Israel. It is about Israeli girls in a moshav running out to greet soldiers, which must have been ironic, as Pete Seeger is a life long pacifist. “Tzena Tzena” went to Number Two on the music charts – which means that it is the most popular Hebrew song ever recorded in the United States.
In 1953, there was far more anti-Semitism in America than there is today. There were still restricted neighborhoods, restricted professions, and the gates of Ivy League universities were still not completely open to Jews. It was the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy -- not a good time for American diversity.
And yet, Perry Como, one of America’s most beloved recorded what is arguably the Jewish people’s most sacred piece of music. And it was a hit – in Aramaic!
I submit to you that Perry Como’s recording of "Kol Nidre" was a watershed moment in American Jewish history. It was a crucial, though underappreciated, part of the process by which American Jews became accepted in America – and by which Judaism became accepted as part of the American religious landscape.
I suspect that few people these days still listen to Perry Como. Musical tastes have changed, which is an understatement.
But when Perry Como recorded Kol Nidre, it was not just a recording of a beautiful and haunting melody. It was the opening of a musical and cultural gateway.
We could stretch this walk down Liturgical Nostalgia Alley a little bit further – and mention that Barbra Streisand recorded the majestic Janowski version of "Avinu Malkheinu." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YONAP39jVEAnd the rock band Phish, my sons hasten to remind me, performed the jazzed up folk version of "Avinu Malkheinu," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUw4TY9H4-g Odd little factoid here: they once gave a concert on Yom Kippur and included the song in the concert. Sacred or profane? Discuss.
And then, of course, you have Mattisyahu playing to sold out crowds, singing Hasidic reggae. And you know that those crowds are not all Jewish. No way.
Thanks, Perry, for making it happen. In the yeshiva shel maalah, the academy (or concert hall) on high, I hope that you'll be singing it to God this Friday evening -- on Kol Nidre itself.