Communal Singing

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These days, when only the mentally ill, the professionally hired and the irrepressibly Welsh have the nerve to do it, it’s easy to forget there was a time when public singing was as much a part of daily life as public drinking and public moaning about public transport. Students crooned the anthem of their academy, factory workers lullaby’d their shift away, pubs rattled to the rafters with cryptic lyrics involving sailors (I am basing this largely on Ken Loach films: although of the right age to remember such things, I’m also Jewish, with about as much experience of singing in pubs as I have of abseiling down the Alps). My wife’s grandfather serenaded her grandmother beneath her window through the cruel Transylvanian winter. And while not everyone could be a nightingale, even the croakiest crow knew whether he was tenor, alto or baritone. But say serenade or baritone to my teenage Zak, and he’d assume it was new medication for his attention-deficit disorder.

So what’s happened? Have we got so carried away with portable music players that we’ve lost our own voices? A clue lies, perhaps, in the only areas where it is still deemed acceptable to seek choral pleasure in public: places of worship and football matches (to be succinct, then: places of worship). Is it any surprise that song still embraces us where we are closest to collective transport, to the merging of many minds into one transpersonal being? It is significant that both Jews and football fans took to singing in response to a constraint: in the case of Jews, the prohibition against use of instruments, in the case of fans, the prohibition against physically smashing each others’ heads in.
So what can the music of synagogue and stadium learn from each other? Certainly, some football chants have felt the influence of religious hymns. Some of you may remember the awed, haunting paean to George Best that used to drift around Old Trafford like a mist: Geeooooor-giiieeeee. Anfield today resounds with a similarly dirge like: Liiiii-verpuuule. Liiiii-verpuuule. On the chirpier side, fans all over the country regale their rivals with a delightful ode to the rumoured complications in their family relationships: ‘Yer mum’s yer dad, yer dad’s yer mum, you interbred [insert regional name here] scum.’ Though the tune has been mistakenly ascribed to the Addams Family theme, the alert ear will pick up the clear influence of Adon Olam — in tune, if perhaps not lyrical content.
What, then, of influence in the other direction? Although the hymns of the siddur are replete with the yearning, the mourning, the passion and the joy familiar from the terraces, it could be argued that they are lacking the element of bile. For instance, though we rabbis are regarded merely as teachers, not holy men — eminent, perhaps, but eminently human —  congregations tend to treat us with a respect out of proportion to our station. Yet some of the irreverence meted upon football referees might be healthy. We would become more assiduous in our scholarship, as well as less prone to hubris, if, for example, the incorrect pronunciation of a rare Aramaic word was met by rowdy chants of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ or ‘What a load of rabbis’.
Beyond this, the obvious place for the injection of banter lies in ethnic and denominational rivalry. For instance, Ashkenazis could hang around outside Sephardi shuls, chanting things like, ‘Down with the Armada, you’re going down with the Armada.’ The Sephardim might respond with: ‘You’re supposed to be at Heim.’ Liberal and Reform Jews would adapt the perennial ‘You’re so sh*t it’s unbelievable’ to taunt the Orthodox: ‘Your whole scripture’s unbelievable!’ The frummers, meanwhile, would respond by turning up mob-handed on Yom Kippur, when synagogues swell with once-a-year day-trippers, chanting, ‘Where were you, where were you, where were you on Tu Bishvat?’
Still, the Torah reminds us that it is the aesthetic quality of song, not its lyrical content, that God is really interested in. ‘Lord of deeds, who chooses songs of song,’ we say every morning in the Pesukei Dezimra, the daily prayers. Many commentators have been struck by the phrase translated ‘songs of songs’.  Why use the two words — shirei and zimrah? Avery Lehtflagg, in his always stimulating Mayel Zof Sa’id, points out that shirayim is also the popular pronunciation of sh’yarim — crumbs, remains, leftovers. The shirayim from a rebbe’s meal were prized symbols of sanctity, eaten with relish by his disciples. What, then, are the shirayim zimrah — the ‘crumbs of song’?  Perhaps, Lehtflagg argues, they are the song’s aftertaste, the reverberations that remain in your head when the communal singing ends, the shadow of the transpersonal self you shared for a while with your fellow-worshippers. Good to know they are still in there somewhere, always part of us… aside perhaps from the sociopath with the gold tooth and the passionate views on immigration who sat next to me at Walsall-Swindon the other week. I like to think I left my commonality with him at the turnstile.
To close, a chant for a High Holy Day, to the tune, appropriately enough, of ‘Any Dream Will Do’, from Joseph:

The Ner Tamid (the Ner Tamid)
Shines above the bimah
(whoa-oh)
But it’s getting dimmer (whoa-oh)
Everlasting? Sure…And turnout’s
low (and turnout’s low)
In my opinion (whoa-oh)
Call that a minyan? (whoa-oh)
I make it four…
The rabbi’s lost. (The rabbi’s lost)
His strange oration (whoa-oh)
Bears no relation (whoa-oh)
To the siddur…
And Tekiah (and Tekiah)
Is proving quite a struggle
(whoa-oh)
I’ll never get my kugel (whoa-oh)
This Yom Kippur.

Having spent twenty-one years as a rabbi in his native Morecambe, and a brief spell as inside-right for Preston North End, Rabbi Savage is now a freelance Talmudic Scholar.

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