Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Jewish Music to the Tune of Peter, Paul and Mary

The Commentator - Arts & Culture Issue: 8/31/05

Jewish Music to the Tune of Peter, Paul and Mary

By Rifka Slurzberg

The exciting day had come! 10 years old and I was on my way to sleepover camp. I even began getting my own mail. Addressed to me was an entire packet from Camp Emunah, Bnos Yaakov Yehudah. This included a packing list, a request slip to use to ask to be in a bunk with other girls I knew (there were none), and a list of rules. Most of the rules applied to modesty. We were required to wear skirts that covered the knee while sitting, standing and walking, shirts that cover the collarbone, elbow and midriff, and socks to the knee. "Absolutely no bobby-socks are allowed." Heck, I didn't even know what bobby socks were. To acquire the appropriate garb my family made a trip into Boro Park and shopped at a very crowded store: Rosenberg's. I fit in quite well with my bow shirts and baby-o skirts but I didn't have knee socks, just knee-highs. Pity me. Nylon is hot in the summer. The bottom of the rules paper said something to the effect of, "Any inappropriate reading or listening materials will be confiscated." Indirectly, this directive referred to non-Jewish books, magazines and music. Being ten years old and somewhat sheltered, I didn't run into too many problems with this rule. It wasn't until I was 14 that it became an issue. As a waitress at the same camp, I was asked not to read my summer reading material during the day in a place where it could be seen. My Australian friend, Rochel Hoffman, encountered more contention in this area. She attended Camp Gan Israel in Sydney at age twelve and was apparently worldlier than myself. Rochel packed her favorite Backstreet Boys CD, but it was quickly confiscated. She got it back at the end of the summer, after much badgering and nudging.Apparently, all Lubavitch camps have similar policy. This year in Gan Israel Detroit I came across similar circumstances. Deli Braffman and Berky Berkowitz, a couple of teen campers who visited my infirmary, informed me of an even stricter criterion."We are allowed to listen to any Jewish music on personal headsets, but public music on a boom box in a bunk house is limited. The artists that they listed as banned are Blue Fringe, Matisyahu (a self proclaimed Lubavitcher himself) and Kinderlach," they explained to me.I've never even heard of Kinderlach, but its mention in this context sparked my interest. In addition, in Detroit's camp, the only music played over the Public Address system is Lubavitcher niggunim. Niggunim are usually wordless melodies written by Chassidic leaders as part of their divine service. I felt quite restrained by this edict and searched the camp for someone with whom to discuss my qualm. Since I value her opinion, I spoke to Mrs. Pershin, the camp lifeguard of 25 years, about the limitations on music in camp. She explained that the camp directors were only attempting to create an intensely Chabad atmosphere in camp, something which many children do not get at home. Many campers already have the popular Jewish rock artists on their shelves at home, but may not have experienced more soulful niggunim. This, she said, is the motivation for camp to expose the campers solely to niggunim, at least for a month. Mrs. Pershin also explained the limitation of public Jewish music. Popular Chassidic opinion is that si many of the Rock and Roll beats in modern Jewish tunes originated from gentile sources, whose original intentions were to provoke seductive dancing, it is better to avoid them.At this point in my analysis of music-related camp experiences, it is clear to me that Lubavitchers intend to distance themselves from popular culture. Precisely because of my personal knowledge of their extreme standards, the following incident was quite shocking. In days immediately following camp, intense detoxification from camp songs and hand motions takes place. All campers, including me, come home overtired, jump onto dining room chairs and sing at the top of our lungs. This is much to our mother's dismay."All my bags are packed and I'mready to go,I'm standing here and I want to know,What will this coming sum mer hold for me?All of those great activities,The sunny skies, the grass and trees,Emunah, you're especially for me," comes flying loudly from my little mouth."That isn't a Jewish song. That's leaving on a jet plane by Peter, Paul and Mary," my mother injects, shocked.I was shocked. I had just spent an entire month enwrapped in Judaic songs, niggunim and prayers, and one of my favorite camp songs wasn't even Jewish? I knew that whoever had permitted its acceptance into the camp repertoire must have been unfamiliar with its origins. But, more importantly, I also wondered who had written it in the first place. Years later and still motivated to find out more about the secular/Jewish song dichotomy, I spoke to friends about it late one night in the kitchen. They were appalled at the thought of someone criticizing their camp, and tried to convince me not to look into it further; definitely not to publicize it. One girl had the gall to tear my notebook from my hands. I got it back, thank G-d, and used the notes to write this article. That night eventually proved productive, as I learned of a few more camp songs with non-Jewish origins.The only song that I can remember that comes from a rock song is the one already mentioned. The others come from folk songs such as, "He'll be stroking his beard when he comes", to the tune of, "He'll be coming round the mountain," that we sing for one of the camp rabbis. Aliza Weinberger went to Raninu, an equally religious camp in which they sing, "It never rains in Raninu," to the tune of, "For he's a jolly good fellow."It's a camp of laughter, a camp of fun.For me, Gan Yisroel is the only one.It's a camp for me; it's a camp It's a great camp after all.We will miss you in the fall.It's a great camp after all.Machaneinu Gan Yisroel."Which is sung to the tune of, "It's a Small World After All."One of the girls who tried to dissdissuade me from commenting on this paradigm, Devorah Leah Cohen, gave a soulful explanation. She claims that the practice of creating camp songs from secular songs is acceptable because we are elevating the tunes into Judaism. After this closer look into Lubavitch camp music -- its restrictions and its origins -- I am still left with a question. It is still unclear to me whether camp is being contradictory, or whether they are simply feeling the effects of acculturation, despite their efforts to avoid it.


yitz said...

Interesting piece. You may be surprised, however, to discover the following fact:

I have this as personal testimony from a Rabbi who learned by Rav Abba Berman, a Lithuanian Rosh Yeshiva who passed away not too long ago.

The song that most of us know, by none other than "Peter, Paul and Mary," called "500 Miles" ["if you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone," etc.] is really an old Litvish niggun [I know, that seems to be an oxymoron] for "Areshes Sifaseinu", part of the Rosh Hashana liturgy.

Rav Abba Berman used to sing it, and he NEVER listened to PPM. BTW, it seems that at least of these very Xian-sounding-named people is Jewish, and perhaps heard it from a grandparent or something.

There is also much talk that some of the old Simon & Garfunkel tunes were originally Jewish niggunim - as they are two nice Jewish boys from Forest Hills, Queens. Many of us, for example, have used the "Parsley, Sage" tune for either "Dror Yikra" or "Shir HaMaalos."

Interestingly, too, someone pointed out [on Blog in Dm] that the intro to S&G's "el Condor Paso" ["I'd rather be a spider than a snail"] is remarkably similar to R. Shlomo Carlebach's intro to his "K'vakaras" niggun [from one of his early albums].

Editor said...

Thanks for your comments Yitz.
I am familiar with DM music blog.

I actually posted a challenge to the blogger there regarding the niggun for "We Want Moshiach".

He must have printed by post and then removed it, because I found a copy of my email to him posted on ANOTHER blog!

yitz said...

If you're referring to the Chabad appropriation of R. Shlomo Carlebach's "Mkimi" for their "We Want Moshiach Now" tune, I was one of the posters on Blog in Dm. It appears that this was an outright theft & never acknowledged.
It was mentioned there that someone may have a copy of a tape of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT"L singing this niggun without any words at a Farbrenghen. If you could inform me of how to get a copy of same, I'd be very grateful.