Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kol Nidrei: A sort of a Jewish story

As I believe all of you know, my ignorance on the subject of Jewish traditional practice is profound. For example: The Kol Nidrei prayer, which is recited on Yom Kippur. I knew nothing at all about it except that various cantorial opera singers had left recordings of it. Its function in the liturgical year I did not know at all (since I have never participated in the yearly round).

My good friend Veronika (who left St. Petersburg for New York fifteen years ago) gives piano lessons. She has great musical feeling and one of her Russian pupils, who has a half-grown son who studies the cello, begged her to listen to that son and give him advice. "And what do I know about the cello?" she said. But she knows a lot; she has an ear; she's a musician. So she gives him cello lessons. One of the pieces she had the young man play was the Kol Nidrei, in Max Bruch's setting for cello. And he played it as if it were an exercise, a bunch of notes on the page. His father said to Nika, "How can I get him to give it some feeling?"

So Nika sat down with the boy and told him the story of Kol Nidrei as she knew it, a story I certainly didn't know: That it was the prayer spoken/chanted/sung by the Portuguese Jews when Queen Isabella of Portugal (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain) ordered them to become Christians, entreating forgiveness if they yielded or submitting if they were martyred. "And why is it all in minor and then at the end major?" she asked the guy. "Because they know if they submit and are killed, their souls will be raised up and united to God." By the end of this, the student was in tears, and played the Kol Nidrei, and his father said to Nika, "What did you say to him? It's totally different! It means something now!" So she told him the story, too.

Then she told it to me. I had never heard it. "But how did you know it?" I asked her. Nika's family were Soviet atheists (her grandmother was French), and as far as anyone knew, they were gentiles. "But I have this face, and this attitude towards music – so I think I must be Jewish somewhere back there. And when I was growing up, they would shout, 'Zhidovka morda!' at me [Jewish mug!], so if I don't have the blood, I acquired Jewishness that way. I got to identifying with it."

Then I went home and Googled Kol Nidrei, and it has nothing to do with the Marranos and the forced conversions (though the belief that it does is widespread). The prayer is centuries older than that (and it's in Aramaic, which implies an origin in Iraq), however, si non e vero, e bene trovato: If it's not true, it makes a good story. A really good symbol (like a really good faith) has no absolute meaning, and acquires ever new meanings over the centuries. Kind of like great music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regardless of the non-Jewish reasons for its origin, the Jewish reasons for the origin of the Kol Nidrei are to dissolve one's vows made to G-d in the preceding year, to wipe the slate clean (so we can go out and sin again, perhaps).

To dissolve one's obligations to one's colleagues -- male or female -- one must seek, er, absolution from the colleague in question. G-d can only forgive you for your sins against G-d. And the 10-day period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are particularly set aside for asking one's colleagues for forgiveness. No, I do not know anyone who has ever done this, but that's the official tradition.

You see, on Rosh Hashana, one is written into the Book of...Life? Death? for the coming year. During the time between Rosh Hashana, when one's fate is written, and Yom Kippur, when one's fate is sealed, is the time to avert a negative outcome by asking for forgiveness of those one has sinned against.

The nice thing about the Kol Nidrei prayer, in addition to the fact that it is said three times, is that it seems to be the only prayer in the entire tradition that the modernizers have not gone and rewritten the melody of.