Religious Life

Song as Protest

“Song as Protest”
15 Shevat 5777 • Beshalach • Shabbat Shira • February 11, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis and Cantor Audrey Abrams

AD: This past week, I was watching a Facebook video of a bunch of people gathered on the streets of New York. And what struck me most was… that they were singing.

AA: Well, New York kind of does that to you…

Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it, New York, New York

AD: Cantor Abrams, I know you are excited for your Hazamir concert in Lincoln Center. But that’s not was I am referring to. These were protesters in front of Trump Tower protesting the refugee ban. They were a group of Jews, dozens of rabbis among them who marched, sat down in the middle of the street and eventually got arrested, including Rabbi Olitzky’s brother, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky. In any case, all the while they sang. It struck me as a powerful combination this act of protest and song.

AA: It’s not so surprising. We sing for all kinds of reasons. We sing because we are happy (Don’t Worry. Be Happy). We sing to show gratitude (Modeh Ani). And sometimes we sing to express our blues (House of the Rising Sun). And this morning, on this Shabbat Shira, we add singing and chanting as a form of protest and resistance.

AD: You mean like, “more kugel, more kugel.”

AA: Not that kind of chanting.

AD: Well, you say song as protest. But the truth is, we don’t know if the Israelites in Egypt sang.

AA: That’s true. Moshe sings the Torah’s last song just before he dies. And in our parasha, he sings the Torah’s first song, Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea. It is a song of celebration sung after the Israelites cross over to the shores of freedom. We don’t have evidence of the Israelites singing songs of resistance while they were slaves. But we know that others sang about the Israelites to give themselves strength and hope.

AD: Right, like the Negro spiritual:

AA: When Israel was in Egypt’s land:
Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand,
Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

AD: In the song, “Israel” represents the African-American slaves while “Egypt” and “Pharaoh” represent the slave master. One historian claims that Harriet Tubman used the song as early as 1850 as one of two codes that fugitive slaves used to communicate when fleeing Maryland. Others say that the song was as a rallying anthem for slaves who had escaped and joined the Union Army.

Jump ahead a hundred years to 1945 to tobacco workers on strike in Charleston where a turn-of-the century gospel hymn was rearranged and sung for the first time…

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

AD: The song was later picked up by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez so that by the 1960s, it had become the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Dylan and others added to the genre with songs like this one about peace and war:

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can really see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

AD: Beginning in the 70s, movement songs took a back seat as the civil rights movement gave way to growing individualism and as the music industry became ever more driven by commercial interests. Even the Beatles “So you say you want a Revolution” was turned into a Nike ad.

Today, as we see the birth of a new civil rights movement, we are also witnessing the rebirth of movement songs. Rappers, hip-hop artists and others are speaking out through their music.

So what about us as Jews? We have our own repertoire of resistance songs. Perhaps you know this one…

zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!

AD: The song was written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a young Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto. Hirsch was inspired to write the song after hearing news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was adopted by a number of Jewish partisan groups operating in Eastern Europe and became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis.

That song is a vehicle of protest shouldn’t surprise us. Many of us turn to music for comfort, solidarity and strength. It lifts us up. It energizes us. It gives us hope. It does all of those things and more in the midst of struggle. For the act of singing is itself a form of protest. It is a refusal to be silenced. And turning words into music plants the message in the heart and soul.

Of course, whether a song is a song of protest depends on context. The same words sung by different people in a different setting have different meanings. With that in mind, I want to teach you a relatively new song on this Shabbat Shira. Composed in the aftermath of 9/11 by a colleague and friend, Rabbi Menacham Creditor, it has become the unofficial anthem for Jews working for social justice. In fact, the group of rabbis sang it this week as they were being arrested. The song is called, “Olam Hesed Yibaneh.”

AA: (teaches tune)
olam chesed yibaneh…

I will build this world from love… yai dai dai
And you must build this world from love… yai dai dai
And if we build this world from love… yai dai dai
Then God will build this world from love… yai dai dai

AD: Olam Chesed. The phrase comes from Psalms were we read, “I will sing about God’s chesed forever chadei hashem olam ashir”… “For I said, ‘the world is built on chesed.’”
Now, we could be more precise, for the verse might be better translated, God will “establish chesed l’olam forever.” It is about building chesed, not building the world with chesed. For now, though, let’s just focus on this word, chesed.

We generally translate chesed as loving-kindness. But the commentary in our parasha offers more nuance explaining that chesed is “a crucial term in the Bible expressing intimate relationship and covenantal obligation.”

Thus, when Moshe breaks out in song having crossed the sea he sings, “nachita v’chadecha am zu kanita. God led the people with chesed.” Commentators debate the meaning of the phrase. Some say it refers to the past- don’t view at the plagues as a show of power and might but an act of love that brought about salvation. Others say it refers to the future- to the fire and cloud that will guide the Israelites through the desert. For us today in a world of confusion and fear and brokenness, we are reminded not just of the chesed we Jews have known but of the chesed we must embody.
Chesed/lovingkindness: it is the essential aim of our covenant, our responsibility to each other and our duty to God. And that moves us to sing.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we all share the same politics or the same protests. But as a Jewish community coming together on Shabbat, we all share the prayer and we all make the same promise: to build a world on chesed, a world of compassion and care, of kindness and of love.

AA: olam chesed yibaneh…