April 7, 2014


'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 at April 7, 2014 7:03 PM

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