The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook

The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook
(David Godine 7992, $35.00 Hardcover. $19.95paperback.)

This elegant songbook, designed with headbands inspired by Italian-Jewish printers of the 16th century, and illustrated with Jewish woodcuts and engravings from the Middle Ages is, in a nutshell, very Harvard. It’s also, if you know publishers, very Godine. The one hundred tunes are transcribed impeccably, with Hebrew titles set by hand in “Hillel'” (a font created especially for this volume, based closely on a 10th century northern European manuscript). The songs come with studious and occasionally fascinating historical introductions, and meticulously crafted translations and transliterations. (A note on the transliteration bookishly explains, “the sh’va na is represented by an apostrophe, except in the middle of past tense verbs.'”)

Guitar chords, full piano notation and even four-part harmonic arrangements accompany many of the melodies. Vihuda I’olam teshev, is. for example, transcribed formally as a “canon in two parts,” and some classic lyrics (like Yah ribon and Tsar mishelo) are presented with three different melodies. Besides traditional Ashkenazic tunes, there are modern Hebrew folk numbers, Yemenite and other Sephardic songs, and even occasional nigunim from songwriters like Shiomo Carlibach. Baruch Chait. M. Warshawsky and the Yiddish theater. There is also an extensive section of blessings for Shabhat. The volume is. in a word, gorgeous—it is also terribly conservative, chokingly “tasteful.” God is “He,” there are no feminist revisions at all, no West Coast “renewal Judaism” melodies, and no Ladino. There are also a fair number of yawny chestnuts like “Hevenu sholom alechem.”

What this volume doesn’t convey at all is the passionate spirit of Sabbath chanting—that is, the feeling of glee, abandon, tribal (and even cosmic) rhythm-making, energy and high mischief with which z’miros [Sabbath hymns] have been sung probably since the time of the 16th century mystics of Safed. Sabbath singing is, after all, a supremely spiritual practice— the point being that sacred song helps move us beyond our personal preoccupations and open us to deeper levels of connection and contentment; it alters our consciousness, induces our ordinary minds to dissolve, wakens our spirituality, and profoundly brings us to rest in that warm, safe space called shabbos. To be fair, the Sabbath Songbook does convey some of the holiness and spiritual renewal that characterize the Sabbath—but wow is it dowdy and solemn, with none of the ecstasy, relaxation and fun that really distinguish great nights at Hillel. Still, would 1 buy this highly imperfect volume as a gift? Absolutely.

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