I thought about this most recently on May 6th, when I was leading the first part of the service, and in my mind was a tune I’d heard the previous day at the Cambridge Friends School. We were there for Significant Elders Day, once called Grandparents Day, and the school music teacher taught a parting tune, the text of which began, “Go now in peace.” I liked the tune very much, it stayed in my mind, I was casting around for a text it might fit, and finally I saw, or heard, that it could be fitted to odeh ani, the prayer we begin with. So that’s the tune I used that day. I was, I imagine, the only person present at that moment who knew the source of the tune, and the text it had been written to set. It worked well, I thought, and though “Go Now in Peace” is a parting song, and odeh ani a beginning song, the resonances between the two texts felt happily synergistic.
I’ve had other, equally happy senses of synergy with other tunes drawn from other traditions. Take the text immediately after the odeh ani, the ma tovu – “how goodly are thy tents, O Jacob.” The tune we use most often is a round (so is “Go Now in Peace,” by the way). It too has a non-Jewish source. The original text is secular and comic: “Hey ho, nobody home/ no meat no drink no money have I none/ yet I will be happy [or sometimes “merry”].” I myself first heard the tune at a Quaker meeting, the Quakers having fitted an edifying text to it: “what a goodly thing/ if the children of the world/ could dwell together in peace.” The secular text is present for me as a comic undertone, the Quaker text a happy accident – it’s always a pleasure to think of the children of the world dwelling together in peace, and in places as beautiful as the tents of Jacob and the habitations of Israel.
Some other examples, no doubt among many. There’s a wonderful round that we sometimes use for singing the last verse of Psalm 150, kol haneshama tehallel yah, hallelnayah, let every soul praise God, hallelnayah. (A tricky tune to lead, because you have to remember set it high; the opening phrase is the highest, and from then on it goes pretty consistently down, ending an octave below where it began.) The tune was written by the 16th-century German Christian composer Michael Praetorius, and its original text is “jubilate deo, alleluia,” rejoice in God, hallelujah. The two texts are in harmony, and – for this moment, though heaven knows, alas, that this moment is unusual – so are the two traditions. Or the round we sing sometimes for sim shalom, at the end of the Amidah. I don’t know the composer, but I do know the original text: dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace.” I learned it when I sang one year in the Christmas Revels, and the late Jack Langstaff, a light to the world, taught us not only the tune but the belief, still strong in me, that the closer you get to the winter solstice, the more the power of the song will contribute to peace. Sim shalom indeed!
Further afield, I think of one wonderfully comic, zestful case, not part of our current practice. I have in mind Hav alum David Roskies’s singing, during a talk on his history at the Havurah, of adon olam to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Unforgettable, irresistible.
But I’d also note that however much I savor these synergies of tradition there are, I think, limits to how far we can go, and tunes that bring with them too much baggage to be usable. I have in mind not anything I’ve led or participated in at the Havurah, but something that happened once at the davening of Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study minyan. I wasn’t there, but people were telling stories about it for a long time. A learned and musically gifted leader had chosen, one Saturday, to lead adon olam to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” and the reason people were telling stories about that choice for a long time was that so many people were scandalized by it – it was, for them, beyond the limit.
I love the tune myself, I still remember what is was like when President Obama led that tune at the service for those murdered at Mother Emmanuel Church. But it’s a stretch to incorporate the theology of the text into our davening – “grace,” though sometimes we speak of it, is not so central a doctrine for us, neither is belief, neither is the process of sudden and total conversion as the song describes it. And though the author of the text, John Newton, had indeed undergone a conversion, and after having been a slave-trader became an abolitionist, he wrote hateful things about Jews; imagining, as the musicologist Michael Marissen puts it, “the resurrected Jesus, sitting at the right hand of god, unleash[ing] his anger on the Jews by having the Roman armies lay waste to Jerusalem and its temple in 70 of the Common Era.” Unbearable.
I love the synergies our singing reveals with traditions not our own. But I think there are limits to what we can use.