Zmiros Project
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Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg and Rob Schwimmer
The Zmiros Project
Traditional Crossroads (www.traditionalcrossroads.com)

cd cover Writing in 1926, Joseph Roth, a dedicated chronicler of Jewish life, had this to say on Zionist debates of the era: "Some look to a future in Palestine, and some, rightly believing that the earth belongs to everyone who treats it with respect, have no national aspirations" (The Wandering Jews, Granta, 2001). Roth was deeply suspicious of "the deadly, antiseptic boredom of [Western] civilization," and the individualistic ideology that he saw as the unacceptable price of Jewish cultural assimilation. "Zionism and nationhood are by their nature Western European ideals," he wrote, and are thus contrary to the historical legacy of Jewish faith.

Roth's interests were spiritual, not political, and he wrote prophetically: "If there can ever be such a thing as a just history, surely the Jews will be given great credit for holding on to their common sense in not having had a fatherland in a time when the whole world launched itself into patriotic madness." Against all that, Roth reminds us of Jewish music's manifestly spiritual character, particularly as expressed via the unadorned human voice, a medium of divine praise. Eastern European Jewish singers, Roth notes, enjoyed a more elevated status than their accompanists did:

Artistic fame... attaches to the singers - the precentors, or cantors as they are known in the West - know professionally as hazanim. These singers tend to fare better than musicians, because their appointed task is a religious one and their art is sacred and liturgical... the synagogues like to invite one of the celebrated singers and cantors from the East every year for the High Holy Days. Then the Jews attend prayers in the same spirit as one might attend a concert, and have their spiritual and artistic needs satisfied at once... I have never been able to verify whether those Jews were right who insisted to me that such and such a hazan was better than Caruso.

Listen!
Comparisons with Caruso are perhaps best left to students of the opera, but Lorin Sklamberg has the markings of a magnificent hazan. As such, he does not so much perform these songs as inhabit them, in the chanted, metrical, cyclical expression of spiritual longing, ecstasy and surrender to the mercy and wisdom of the divine.

Zmiros (zemer is the singular) are Shabbat songs of praise and celebration. The artists developed the CD as a supplement to an illustrated Shabbat book project, Ain Sot: There Is No End, produced at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life: Hillel, New York University (see www.ainsof.org).

The extensive liner notes, by ethnomusicologist and Jewish scholar Jim Loeffler, call zmiros "both loftily spiritual and concretely earthy... full of melodies and literary figures borrowed from medieval German taverns and Turkish coffee houses... found in virtually all Jewish communities... a baffling Jewish creation: religious drinking songs for the holy, communal postprandial sing-along." Traced to Ashkenazi communities of eleventh-century Germany and northern France, zmiros are sung around the table during the three ritual meals. Drawing on diverse secular and sacred sources over the centuries, these songs express a mixture of piety and delight, projecting a passionate creative spirit dedicated not to Mammon, but to feeding, celebrating and sharing the joys of strangers, lovers, family and friends.

The opening text, "Sholoym Aleykhem" ("Peace Be Upon You") is sung to two quite distinct melodies, the first a sedate Galician (western Ukraine) tune, the second a loping Hungarian setting with a distinctly Middle Eastern coloration. Recited before the Shabbat meal, prior to the Kiddush (a ritual blessing chanted over wine), it welcomes the good and bad angels alike to come, be blessed, and go in peace, to which they must reply, "So be it." If only humans had such integrity of conduct.

From Exodus, "Veshomnu" is technically not a zemer but a component of the Shabbat liturgy, a call to the faithful to keep the Shabbat, sung at the Friday evening meal and again with the Saturday morning Kiddush. Done in waltz tempo, it reflects the tune's German-Jewish roots.

"Azameyr Bishvokhin" ("The Bride's Song," the metaphor of the Shabbat as bride), sung before the Friday evening meal, is here rendered in a theremin-trumpet duet whose quavering bowed-saw vibrations invoke the song's mystical Kabalistic origins, traced to sixteenth-century Venice, and thence east to Palestine. Sung during the Saturday Shabbat meals, "Mizmoyr Ledovid" is set to a tune apparently originating in Galicia, with the sprightly, driving tempo of a folk dance. The text comes from Psalms 23, the Lord's Prayer.

"Omar Hashem Leyakoyv" dates at least to the sixteenth century, a mystical post-Shabbat Yiddish song of faith, built on the recurrent phrase, "Fear not, my servant Jacob." Against an endlessly looping muted trumpet and dissonant keyboard arpeggios, Sklamberg sings with a sweetness and desire that lifts the simple, evocative melody into another realm.

One of the most widely encountered zmiros, "Tsur Misheloy" has a distinctly Macedonian sound (Salonika was, after all, a center of Jewish mysticism). The melody comes from a sixteenth-century German annotation, a song of thanksgiving for material and spiritual nourishment extended by the divine.

In a change of pace, Rob Schwimmer interprets "Eyliyohu Hanovi" ("Elijah the Prophet"), the beloved zemer sung at the Shabbat's close, as a brooding solo piano instrumental, a beautifully impressionistic largo improvisation upon a lingering Eastern European waltz.

True to the spirit of the continual renewal of zmiros by assimilating other cultural influences, "Az Nisht Keyn Emune" sets a late nineteenth-century Yiddish text from Latvia to a ska-like figure, a muted trumpet, and some pulsing R&B organ riffs. It poses an age-old question with contemporary resonance: "Without faith, understanding, loving deeds, patience, virtues, charity, mercy... what value is all your money and toil in the world?" In the spirit of Tikkun (the process of refining, restituting and rehabilitating the materiality of this world), the closing zemer, "A Gute Volk," offers a simple blessing and communitarian vision of universal peace and mutual regard, worthy counsel for discordant times: Oy, God should give to everyone
What they need, what they wish for,
Oy, bread to eat, clothes to wear,
And wine for the Kiddush of havdole.

Joseph Roth could have been describing the various Klezmatics projects when he wrote of "Jewish melodies from the East... I can best describe [them] as a mixture of Russia and Jerusalem, of popular song and psalm. It is music that blends the pathos of the synagogue with the na´vetÚ of folk song. The words, when you read them, would seem to demand a light and jaunty melody. But when you hear the song, it's a sad tune, 'smiling through tears'. Once having heard it, you remember it weeks later... [These poets have] the wrath of the old prophets and the sweetness of the crowing child." And to the joys of friends and strangers may they sing. - Michael Stone

The Zmiros Project is available from cdRoots


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