Al Naharot Bavel

In the spirit of Av, spent some time exploring music for Psalm 137 and share here some of the links, with related notes scheduled for next week. We plan to discuss some of these pieces and their backgrounds, as well much more about the psalm, at Psalms Study Group at Temple Micah (DC). All are welcome. Come if you’re in the neighborhood, Tuesday, August 20, 1:30 – 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, some music for the season:

From “Bible Songs”

Paul Robeson singing Dvorak‘s setting for Psalm 137:1-5.

To help in following this, here is a Czech translation of Psalm 137 from BibleHub.com:

1) Při řekách Babylonských tam jsme sedávali, a plakávali, rozpomínajíce se na Sion.
2) Na vrbí v té zemi zavěšovali jsme citary své.
3) A když se tam dotazovali nás ti, kteříž nás zajali, na slova písničky, (ješto jsme zavěsili byli veselí), říkajíce: Zpívejte nám některou píseň Sionskou:
4) Kterakž bychom měli zpívati píseň Hospodinovu v zemi cizozemců?
5) Jestliže se zapomenu na tebe, ó Jeruzaléme, zapomeniž i pravice má….

Rivers of Babylon

The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
1970, Composer credit: Brent Dowe (1949-2006) and Trevor McNaughton (1940-2018); more next page.

Jimmy Cliff (Melodians’) “Rivers of Babylon” (“Rivers” starts at 2:56)

Sweet Honey in the Rock (Melodians’ version, minus the Rasta-infused lyrics)

Waters of Babylon

Don McLean tune for 137:1, “Waters of Babylon, from 1971 “American Pie”

Closing scene of Mad Men (S1, E6), using McLean’s tune anachronistically and to good effect

Hebrew version of the McLean tune (Anyone have information about “Shooky & Dorit”?)

Choral Babylon

Three choral pieces, versions of which were performed as part of “The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem” concert from Kolot Halev in 2009:

Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon) — Salamone Rossi (Hebrew)

Super Flumina Babilonis – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestina (Latin)

Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from Nabucco) – Giuseppi Verdi (Italian)

Teapots in Babylon

“This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey.” This week, I’ve been hearing Psalm 137 among these lines from Cynthia Osick’s “The Shock of Teapots” (Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1989). The result sounds like this:

How is that we have a teapot,
symbol of normalcy, and even comfort,
amidst all this confusion and fear?
Are we to enjoy and share
cups of tea here
in this strange, oppressive land?

The opening lines of Psalm 137 are primarily about the challenge of expressing joy, and making music in particular, distant from Zion, mocked and alienated from oppressors. But I think we also hear something like the “shock of teapots” — normalcy, even comfort, or celebration here!?

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There, upon the willows, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us words of song,
and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
–Ps. 137:1-4, translation sort of a mishmash based on Old JPS
Complete Old JPS and Hebrew here

MicahNext12Of course, many people, in the US and elsewhere, have long been conscious of living in Babylon. So the puzzlement and shock expressed by so many in this past week is a little surreal to some.**

My personal connection to the language of “Babylon” has been growing for some time as the central liberation story of Judaism — being freed from Egypt — seems unsuited to circumstances where Jews, as individuals often profiting from White privilege, and as a people are too often Pharaoh. See, e.g., “April 22: 1968 and 2016” (Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?). The “Trouble to See” series from which graphic at right is taken, was published over the summer. And a few years back, “A Mountain Called Zion,” offered thoughts on “Zion” and how close/distant it is, as well as a nice link to Jimmy Cliff’s “Waters of Babylon.”

Most importantly for further exploration, this blog welcomes comments and guest blogs from Jews and non-Jews.

Normalcy on Good Hope Road

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:

OK, so I’m walking down Good Hope Road in Southeast DC and there’s this guy standing on the sidewalk with his car doors open blaring that song “FDT” — the one which goes, “…I like white folks, but I don’t like you…” with a chorus of “[expletive deleted] [president elect].” Cheered me right up.
#AnacostiaUnmapped #LoveDC #NotmyPresident

One friend, not a DC resident, asked “why?” and it took me some time to come up with a response other than “maybe you had to be there.” What warmed my heart, I now think, was the normalcy of the scene for Good Hope Road, although the place is undergoing gentrification. Moreover, the song was not something written in a flurry on election night. Folks had been playing the piece, from the rapper/writer YG, for some time:

“You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours.”

They were playing it on November 7 and they were playing it on November 10.  The sentiments — which are to the point, if crude (“FDT“) — hadn’t changed with election results. It was a little like discovering a teapot at the end of a journey.

Time to Go!

In one common cycle of Torah readings, this is the week of Lekh Lekha [“Go!” or “Go (to/for yourself),” often transliterated Lech Lecha]. And so, whether this week was a shock to, or a confirmation of, your reality, events are calling us to embark on a new journey, toward better individual and collective selves…maybe even out of Babylon.

**NOTE

Many posts on this blog are “political” in plenty of ways, but direct attention to electoral politics is a rarity. There is no getting around it this week, though. And, here is a powerful and cogent exploration of what was meant by “surreal” above:

 For a lot of people of color, this election was really about trying to find the lesser of two evils. America asked us: “How do you prefer your racism — blatant or systemic?”

— “On ‘Woke’ White People advertising their shock that racism just won a presidency

BACK

A Mountain Called Zion…

“Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion…”

These messianic words startled me when the congregation was asked to recite this unfamiliar passage the other day:


The good in us will win…
….
Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion,
and that all of the sufferings will gather there and become song,
ringing out into every corner of the earth, from end to end,
and the nations will hear it,
and like the caravans in the desert will all to that morning throng.
— p. 241 Mishkan T’filah (“Hugh Nissenson, adapted“)

The Shabbat morning services I regularly attend ordinarily skip this passage. Moreover, our siddur study group has noted numerous Reform liturgy revisions to avoid messianic vision, and we had recently discussed early reformers’ aversion to “Zion” language. (See, e.g., David Ellenson’s commentary on p. 159 in My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, The Amidah.) So this very specific, if metaphorical, reference definitely caught me by surprise:

“…beat with certainty”? How rarely do our prayers insist that we, as a group, are certain of anything! And the thing we’re certain about is a future vision centered on a specific, dangerously contested, location?!

I like change of pace in the worship service, and I do not expect every word we read to be in concert with my own beliefs. I’m even in favor of an occasional jolt: better to be awake and a little disturbed than to sleep-walk through prayers. But this reading did prompt me to further consider the whole idea of “Zion” and what it means in prayer.
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