'I ran out into the night; my spirit torn and purified'

How the haunting Kol Nidre melody harnessed the power to convert

The ancient Ashkenazi musical setting of Aramaic vow renunciation has shocked and transformed thinkers from Heine, Herzl and Rosenzweig to non-Jewish artists and intellectuals

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Romanian Jews, seen through a glass door, attend a religious service ahead of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest, Romania, September 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru/Mediafax)
Romanian Jews, seen through a glass door, attend a religious service ahead of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest, Romania, September 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru/Mediafax)

Squeezing himself into the corner of a local synagogue, 19th century Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau bowed his head, joining the men dressed in flowing, snow-white robes as the cantor began the opening strains of “Kol Nidre.” It was the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, an annual day of fast and prayer.

“I struggled with an inexplicable emotion,” Lenau later recounted in an 1843 diary. “I sobbed convulsively while hot tears poured from my eyes. Then I ran out into the night; my spirit torn and purified. I believe in that never-to-be-forgotten hour no single stain remained upon my soul!”

Jewish history is replete with influential, secularized thinkers who were “converted” back to Judaism by this prayer, which is basically a disavowal of all oaths and vows made to God. They include German poet Heinrich Heine, French writer Edmond Fleg, Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, and theologian/philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, perhaps the most famous of all to have a significant spiritual awakening following the Yom Kippur prayer.

But poet Lenau, who later described the prayer as “a song draped with the veil of grief; a night song dying away in the innermost recesses of penitent, contrite, repentant human hearts,” was not Jewish. Neither was Leo Tolstoy, who once described the prayer as “one that echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.”

Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (public domain, via wikipedia)

Reminiscent of the current fad of Jewish Israelis who flock to midnight mass in Bethlehem for the beautiful liturgical music, many Christian European intellects of the 18th and 19th centuries attended the Jewish Kol Nidre service to hear the foundational tune.

“Long before the advent of the ecumenical age, it had become routine for Christians to visit synagogues on Kol Nidre night to hear the melody,” wrote Jewish Theological Seminary Prof. Hayyim Herman Kieval in a 1968 Commentary magazine essay called “The Curious Case of Kol Nidre.”

There are several non-liturgical settings of the melody: Even Beethoven quoted from it in the sixth movement of his 1826 String Quartet Op. 131.

But its most famous instrumental setting was written by German Protestant composer Max Bruch in 1880. Bruch, a Romantic composer who in the same year also wrote his “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra, viewed the melody as “folksong.”

“Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement… As a young man I had already …studied folksongs of all nations with great enthusiasm, because the folksong is the source of all true melodics — a wellspring, at which one must repeatedly renew and refresh oneself,” wrote Bruch in an 1889 letter to cantor and musicologist Eduard Birnbaum during correspondence about Kol Nidre.

A portion of a signed, original Bruch Kol Nidre manuscript is currently on show through November 4 at Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel as part of its High Holy Day exhibition, ‘Our hearts responded in ancient prayer.’ (courtesy)

A portion of a signed, original Bruch Kol Nidre manuscript is currently on show through November 4 at Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel as part of its High Holy Day exhibition, “Our hearts responded in ancient prayer.” The manuscript is part of the Avraham Schwadron autograph collection, one of the largest in the world, which is housed at the library.

Bruch may not have been converted to Judaism by the emotional melody, but when early Jewish psychoanalyst Theodor Reik heard a chance performance at a German dinner party, he wrote in his 1919 “Ritual Psycho-Analytic Studies” that he was transfixed and transported back to Kol Nidre services he attended with his grandfather as a child in a small Hungarian town.

“I remembered the mysterious trembling that possessed the congregation when the cantor began the Kol Nidre. I remembered the visible signs of deep contrition exhibited by all these serious men, and their emotional participation in the text, and, how I, child as I was, had been carried away by that irresistible wave of feeling,” wrote the secular Reik.

Reik, an early disciple of Freud, was so moved that he delved deep into the reasons behind this almost archetypical response, eventually writing a chapter on this prayer alone in his 1919 work.

What is it about Kol Nidre that captivates penitents — Jews and non-Jews? The answer is many-layered, and begins with the tune itself.

Oral — and sung — Torah from Sinai

To reach the National Library’s Music Collection and Sound Archive, visitors must pass by the remarkable stained-glass windows created by Mordecai Ardon to commemorate Isaiah’s vision of eternal peace. The music collection is housed in a secure, climate controlled vault just past a listening room where the public can enjoy the library’s massive sound collection — or watch YouTube videos like most of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students using the public computer stations were doing on that Sunday afternoon.

Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department of the National Library of Israel. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department of the National Library, pulled several versions of Kol Nidre from the vault for The Times of Israel, and discussed its various incarnations. The song is one of a set of some 10 foundational liturgical Ashkenazi melodies which are grouped under the label of “Mi-Sinai” or “From Sinai” tunes, she said.

There are religious Jews who believe that along with the Oral and Written Torah, Moses also received from God musical prayers, as well as the trope marks to read the Bible. Scholars such as Flam do not subscribe to this belief, but do see the label as a mark of the melodies’ significance to the Jewish community.

But does that significance explain its emotional pull?

Another explanation could be found in its musical structure, said Flam. The melody employs musicologists call a “sighing motif.” With its half-step descent, one syllable on each note, the tune innately evokes a musical lament.

“But every explanation is only an explanation. It cannot be proven by science. Music is an abstract language,” Flam said.

What is interesting, however, is that there is evidence that the Kol Nidre melody was generated in the 12-13th century by a troupe of German troubadours called Minnesingers who sang about courtly love. The music, composed on secular themes, said Flam, was then taken by the Jewish community and “made holy.”

One of the several Kol Nidre manuscripts found at the Music Department of the National Library of Israel. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“Musically, the Mi-Sinai tunes are among the finest achievements of Jewish music. They represent a thorough integration into traditional Jewish music of elements borrowed from European music,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The composer of the tune is “anonymous,” but as Flam clarified, “Anonymous creations were always originally created by a person. We just don’t know who he or she was. But once it is written down, the music is frozen.”

The first to record the melody was Ahron Beer, head cantor of the Heidereutergasse Synagogue, the Orthodox Alt-Shul in Berlin where he worked until his death in 1821. Beer went into the field and collected some 1,200 Jewish melodies. According to the Hebrew University’s Jewish Music Center, his motivation was twofold: preserving Jewish musical heritage and discouraging his congregation from singing along with him through the use of fresh tunes in each service.

“If a person hears a tune but once a year, it will be impossible for him to sing with the cantor during the service, and therefore he will not be able to confuse the chazzan [cantor],” he wrote on the title page of his compilation of 447 festival melodies.

German composer Max Bruch (public domain)

Beer’s collection was passed down from cantor to cantor until it was inherited by Bruch pen-pal Birnbaum, who donated it to the library of the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

One of the inheritors of the Beer collection was composer Louis Lewandowski, who was choir director at Berlin’s Liberal Neue Synagogue, and who wrote an arrangement of the Kol Nidre tune that became the benchmark version. It was in Berlin that Lewandowski worked with cantor Abraham J. Lichtenstein, who eventually exposed Kol Nidre to composer Bruch.

But why would a non-Jewish composer spend time on a “Hebrew” melody during an era of increased nationalism?

According to conductor and music historian Leon Botstein, “Bruch’s choice of Jewish subjects and even Jewish materials was a reflection of the extent to which Jewish assimilation into Germany was successful, our retrospective post-Holocaust history notwithstanding.

“Jews were a crucial part of German culture. They were eager participants in amateur musical societies, and they represented a disproportionate share of the audience for concerts,” writes Botstein in a Forward essay.

Indeed, Bruch himself appears to have counted on the Jewish audience in his decision to arrange Kol Nidre in a “mash-up” with a setting of Byron’s “O weep for those that wept on Babel’s stream” by Jewish composer Isaac Nathan.

“I got to know both melodies in Berlin, where I had much to do with the Children of Israel in the Choral Society. The success of Kol Nidrei is assured, because all the Jews in the world are for it,” Bruch wrote in a January 31, 1882, letter to leading member of the choral society Emil Kamphausen.

Out with the old, in with the cacophony

At the same time that Bruch attempted to capitalize on what he assumed was the Jews’ connection to Kol Nidre, many leaders in the Reform Jewish community were battling to have it taken out of circulation.

The reasons are manifold, but since the Middle Ages Kol Nidre — because of its “oath-breaking” nature — has been used to illustrate the duplicitous nature of the Jews.

“Accusations were constantly leveled against the ‘perfidious’ children of Israel whose religion permitted them to perjure themselves in their dealings with Christians and then — on the holiest of festivals — clear their consciences simply by reciting the Kol Nidre. It was on the basis of such accusations that the notorious ‘Jew’s-oath’ [that questioned Jews’ trustworthiness] was instituted by Christian courts,” wrote JTS scholar Kieval in Commentary magazine.

One of the several Kol Nidre manuscripts found at the Music Department of the National Library of Israel. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“Thus in 12th-century Spain, R. Judah ben Barzillai declared the recitation of Kol Nidre to be dangerous, since ignorant Jews might erroneously conclude that all their vows and oaths were annulled through this declaration and, consequently, would take obligations upon themselves without due caution,” wrote Kieval.

Kieval cited the 17th century example of a famous defense of the “ethical nature of Kol Nidre” by Amsterdam Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel to Oliver Cromwell during negotiations to allow Jews to return to England, hundreds of years after their expulsion in 1290.

“Against this centuries-old background of controversy, it is not surprising that Kol Nidre was one of the early targets of the Reform movement which arose in 19th-century Germany. In 1844, the first conference of Reform leaders decided to expunge the ancient ritual entirely from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and several attempts were subsequently made by both German and American Reformers to substitute an acceptable prayer in its place,” wrote Kieval.

The Reconstructionist movement added it back into its holiday services in 1941, but the Reform movement restored the full Aramaic text to its Union Prayerbook only in 1961.

It was because of this ambivalence over Kol Nidre within Liberal Jewish movements that modern composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre (op. 39) was commissioned by Rabbi Jakob Sonderling for the 1938 High Holy Day services in Los Angeles.

In this photo made December 5, 2011, artifacts from 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg are shown during a tour of the University of North Texas Music Library in Denton, Texas. Schoenberg’s grandson has donated his collection of artifacts relating to his family, including photographs, letters and compositions. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Schoenberg, born a Jew, converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church in 1898, reportedly as “self-defense” against anti-Semitism. Witnessing the rise of Fascism in his beloved Germany, Schoenberg eventually returned to his Jewish roots and completed a bizarre and unnecessary “reconversion” ceremony at a Paris synagogue in 1933, with the attendance of painter Marc Chagall.

Schoenberg poured his conflicted soul into his Kol Nidre and, departing from the traditional haunting melody, created a distinctive piece that, to the untrained ear, may be labeled as narrative text and choir over orchestral cacophony.

In an essay on Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre by Jewish Music scholar Neil W. Levin, artistic director of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, he writes: “Difficult as it may be to imagine now upon hearing the work, both Sonderling and Schoenberg believed that this radical departure, with its poetic-dramatic speaking role for the rabbi in place of any cantorial solo part, and with orchestral accompaniment as well as a full chorus, would resonate sufficiently in progressive circles as to be performable in the context of modern American Reform services.”

Composer Arnold Schoenberg discusses some of his controversial music at his Santa Monica home, October 1, 1944. (AP Photo)

According to Levin, Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre was fueled by his desire to ameliorate his temporary conversion to Christianity, as well as his guilt and obsession with saving the Jewish nation as Europe went up in flames. (Savage Kristallnacht occurred two months after the work’s premiere.)

Schoenberg’s artistic but difficult Kol Nidre was not adopted by liberal Jewish communities, who increasingly had little connection to the actual text of the prayer, written in Aramaic legalese.

Marsha Bryan Edelman, a professor of Music and Education at Gratz College in Pennsylvania, was asked in a Reform movement publication why there is such a “lofty” melody for such a “pedestrian” text.

“The reason lies less in the actual text than in the significance of the moment. On Yom Kippur, we have reached the last lap in our spiritual marathon: it’s now or never. There is a certain electricity in the air as the synagogue fills — usually to its full capacity,” replied Edelman.

Freudian psychoanalyst Reik also connects the tune to the moment in time and the deeply primitive instincts it triggers.

“The deeply affecting melody, to which has been set this apparently prosaic formula, is justified, since it is not related to the present wording, but to the secret feelings which have become unconscious. This music brings adequately to expression the revolutionary wish of the congregation and their subsequent anxiety; the soft broken rhythms reflect their deep remorse and contrition. Thus, the song is really full of terror and mercy, as Lenau has observed. The high mental tension, the contrition and bewailing of the congregation during this prosaic ceremony, do not refer to the actual formula they are repeating, but to its latent content,” wrote Reik.

“The Kol Nidre is the acknowledgement of forbidden wishes of pious people expressed in a distorted and unrecognizable form,” he wrote.

Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department of the National Library of Israel. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Perhaps. Or, maybe the secret is that Kol Nidre is simply “an outstanding melody.”

“It caught the attention of so many — Jews and non-Jews. If only we could explain it, we’d write a thousand more like it, because then we’d have the recipe,” said the National Library’s Flam.

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