April 7, 2014
SHARING THE PLEASURE:
'Go Down, Moses': Engaging With My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover : As a black classical singer, I avoided singing negro spirituals--until Yiddish music helped me hear them in a new way as a Jew (Anthony Russell, April 7, 2014, Tablet)
The first time I heard a live rendition of "Go Down, Moses" was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by "O Freedom," another classic negro spiritual.A feeling of bewilderment and paranoia began to steal over me: Why are they singing these songs? Are they looking at me? Do they expect me to know these songs?That was six years ago, before I converted. Now that I've formally been a Jew for a couple of years, being the only black man in Jewish spaces has lost some of its initial awkwardness. Still, when a black man decides that he is going to attend shul regularly, he doesn't have to look for awkwardness--it will find him. There was the time I unwittingly stood on the wrong side of the mechitzah while visiting the Carlebach Shul; it was the only section with any room, so I thoughtlessly went there. Oftentimes other Jews, well-meaning and otherwise, are the source of awkwardness, like the time a synagogue greeter stopped me to request that I wear a kippah before entering the sanctuary with a stern statement: "This is the custom of our people." I was somewhat embarrassed to have to show the greeter that I already had a kippah on my head--my own kippah, in fact.At that first Seder, I was my own source of awkwardness. I wouldn't say I'd been actively running away from negro spirituals, but I'd spent 15 years as an African-American classical singer scrupulously avoiding singing them. That Seder was indeed a "night of questions," implicated as I was by the question of the Wicked Child: What does all this mean to you?I struggled to retain my cool. This is Passover, I told myself. A time to sing songs about Moses. A time to sing songs about freedom. This, for once, is really not about you.Or was it? That question would be eventually answered by another question--in Yiddish.
Posted by Orrin Judd at April 7, 2014 7:03 PM