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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

OD AVINU CHAI - Niggun [from the Parsha] of the Week

Reb Shlomo Carlebach davening in Leningrad, Russia

In last week’s Parsha, Miketz, we find the following:
“And he asked them about their welfare, and said, ‘Is your elderly father, that you told me about, well? Is he still alive?’ They responded, ‘Yes, your servant our father is well, he is still alive [Avinu odenu chai].’ ” Breishis, 43:27-28].

And in this week’s Parsha, Vayigash:
“And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive [ha’od Avi chai]?’ ” [45:3]

And in the Gemara [Ta’anis 5b], we find the following:
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “Thus said Rabbi Yochanan: Yaakov Avinu [our father] never died…I learn this from a verse [Yirmiyahu 30:10]: ‘And now, my servant Yaakov, do not fear, says Hashem; and do not be dismayed, O Israel. For I will you save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity.’ He [Yaakov] is compared to his seed. Just like his seed are still alive, so he is still alive.” Rashi explains that Yaakov was brought to Egypt so that he could see his children redeemed before his eyes, and that the verse [Shemos 14:31] that says that “Israel saw the Great Hand that Hashem extended against Mitzrayim [Egypt]”, refers to Yisrael Saba, Yaakov our Forefather.


Just about everybody knows the tune, Am Yisrael ChaiOd Avinu Chai. (Please note that there are two links here. The first is a clip of the intro, the second of the song itself. A longer version, but sung by Sam Glaser, is here.)
And many of us know that the words are based on the verses [and Gemara] cited above. And probably most of us also know that this song was composed and sung by Reb Shlomo Carlebach zt”l. But perhaps you didn’t know that it was composed for the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry [SSSJ] in the early 1960s. And even if you know that, the exact story of how it was composed – well, that you probably don’t know. So please read on.


Okay – here’s the story we’ve all been waiting for. Please note that from here on are the words of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, [as I’ve transcribed from a tape] - with the exception of some [mostly brief] explanations that I’ve inserted in brackets [ ].

You know friends, I'm sure all of you...You know how many niggunim I made up before I was playing guitar? I made up niggunim all the time, but it was clear to me - no one was gonna sing them anyway. So...I'm sure all of you are making up niggunim, little melodies that come into your head.
But then there are great moments, I have to tell you one of the great moments when I made up (without sounding commercial) one of my best niggunim, "Am Yisrael Chai," you know. Really, they're mamash playing it all over, right?
I wanna tell you the story. You know music is just so good, right? For me, you know, if you want to know who a person is, ask him what kind of music do you like? Simple as it is. Then you know what they're longing for - 'cause music is not what you have, music is what you're longing for. You know what Chassidishe music is? -- touches you so deep! Suddenly it's clear to you - you're longing for something so much deeper, so much holier!
[NOTE: This concept is straight from Modzitz. The first Modzitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Yisrael, said, "When I hear a song from the mouth of a Jew, I can ascertain how much fear of G-d there is within him, and whether he is wise or foolish." -- Melodies of Modzitz, p. 20]
Anyway, I want you to know, in the year 1964, two days before Purim, I gave a concert in Frankfurt [Germany]. And on Purim itself, by the feast of Purim, I was supposed to give a concert in Lyon, in France.
And suddenly I had this crazy idea - why shouldn't I go to the Reading of the Megilla in Prague? You know, some of you - a lot of people today are - but my family also - we are descendants of the Maharal of Prague, the one who made the Golem. And I thought, gevalt, I gotta be there! The only thing is, people tell me in Frankfurt, it's not so simple. At that time, 1964, to go to Prague was the heaviest thing! Even more heavy than Russia. You need a visa at least two months in advance. And, I'll take a chance, it's Purim, right? The Ribono Shel Olam's performing miracles. So I said, "Ribono Shel Olam, what do You care, one more miracle?"
Anyway, listen to this. If some of you know Yankeleh Birnbaum, you know, Yankeleh Birnbaum began working for Russian Jews when it was not the style yet. You know, other people - after there's something happening, they're jumping on the [band]wagon, right? Today, teshuva is the big business, so suddenly everybody is into doing teshuva, right? Not doing teshuva, but making others do teshuva to make money from it. Oh, that's something else, but anyway...
Now, at the time, the Russian Jews were not a money-making business yet. It was mamash for real! [19]64 was the first demonstration for Russian Jews in New York, before Pesach. Anyway, I had a letter in Frankfurt in the hotel, and I'm boarding the plane to go to Prague. When I boarded the plane, they told me, "Do you have a visa?"
I said, "No." They said, "Listen, the plane is there for two hours. If they don't let you in, you [can] come right back." Good.
And on the plane, I'm opening up all my mail. It was stupid. I have a letter from Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Oy vey! Next to me, you could smell the little KGB man sitting there. And before long he has his nose in my letter. So, I put the letter into my pocket and I walked out to - you know, where the stewardesses, where they serve coffee - and began reading the letter.
In the letter Yankeleh says, "We need a new niggun for this demonstration. I think you should make up a niggun for 'Am Yisrael Chai'."
[NOTE: For the sake of thoroughness, I include here Yankeleh Birnbaum’s side of the story: After initiating the grass-roots movement for Soviet Jewry with the creation of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in April 1964, I strove to generate movement songs (now assembled in "Songs of Hope for Russian Jews", originally "Songs of Protest for Russian Jews"). Our dear friend Cantor Sherwood Goffin became the first troubadour of these songs, sang some of them in the Soviet Union in 1970 and recorded some of them in the record "The New Slavery".
I was determined to get one from Shlomo Carlebach. We knew each other and our grandfathers had become acquainted in 1897 at the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. His zaide, Rabbiner Arthur Cohn, was Rabbi in Basle and my zaide Dr. Nathan Birnbaum was elected to be the first Zionist Secretary-General.
Shlomo was constantly on the move and hard to pin down. His mother Rebbetzin Paula Carlebach was most helpful in forwarding my requests for a song "Am Yisrael Chai". The request began to resonate with him when he flew to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. Later he told me that he had washed my letter, typed on "Student "Struggle" stationery, down the airplane toilet in some trepidation.

Arriving in Prague, two days before Purim, and you know in Prague - you think [it's] like today, when you come to the border, you show the passport and you go through. No, the person who's supposed to look at the passport is out, and you end up sitting there for two hours doing nothing. It wasn't the "good old days" in Prague. And we, of a modern kind of society...and you wait. Finally he comes. The man looks at me, he says, "Do you have a visa?"
I say, "No."
"Well, why do you want to go to Prague?"
I don't speak Czech, but they all speak German. I said to him, "I want you to know something. I don't know if you know this, but, about 400-500 years ago, this big Rabbi, in German they call him the High Rabbi Loeb [the Maharal]. And I'm one of his descendants. You know in Prague, in the middle of the city is the monument of the High Rabbi Loeb."
He looks at me and says, "What?! You are a descendant of the High Rabbi Loeb? Do you know something? We're not Jewish, but from the earliest age, from the age 2,3,4,5 - whenever my parents put me to sleep, they would tell me stories of the High Rabbi Loeb." He says, "Here, I'm giving you a visa for five days." Not so simple.
I'm going into Prague, and you know, sometimes people don't tell anybody they're Jewish, but then when they see you, they come out of their hole for a minute. I'm checking in to the Intercontinental Hotel, a good hotel, and the girl at the desk - looks at me about five times - I have a feeling she wants to tell me something. So, I'm hanging around in the lobby, and finally she comes up to me.
"I want you to know that my name is Miriam Levy, and I'm Jewish. I'm so glad to see you, so glad to see you." I wasn't addressed like that in many years.
Anyway, the next morning I'm going to the Alt-Neu [the Maharal’s] Shul, which is now a museum. And everybody knows that the President of the Jewish community is simply a KGB man. Not so simple! I walk in there and I say to him, "I want you to know, I'm a singer. And is it possible that [on] Purim night to get all the young Jewish people in Prague together?"
He looks at me and he says, "First of all, they're not interested. None of our young people are interested in anything Jewish. You seem to forget where you are. And besides, who knows where they are?"
You know, I'm a little bit commercial. I have my [business] cards with me, I put [out] my cards. He sees, "Shlomo Carlebach." He says, "Shlomo Carlebach?!" He got up, came over and mamash hugged me and kissed me. He says, "For nobody in the world - but for you, I'll do it!" I don't know how my cassettes [NOTE: maybe records?] got into Prague. He says, "Do you know that my children play guitar? They're playing your songs day and night. You're their favorite singer!" [At] that time, I had only maybe four or five records.
"And for you I'll do it. My son is at the university - he knows every Jewish student. My daughter is in high school - she knows every teenager. Good, tomorrow night after the Megilla," he says. "Nine o'clock." But he says, "I'm telling you now, the young people are not going to the synagogue." You know why, because in those days, if any boy or girl goes to the synagogue, the next day they're put two classes down. Nebich! Or they don't make it. So they're afraid to go to the synagogue, but he didn't tell me why. "But they'll wait for you outside and take you to a hall."
Okay, I listened to the Megilla reading in the Alt-Neu Shul, and coming out - I don't know, I'll be lying if I [say I] remember exactly - let's say maybe, between forty and eighty young people, aged between 16 and 25.
Okay, listen to this. I was not that much "in tune" yet. There was one boy, his name was George. He's their spokesman. And, a little bit naively, I said, "Why didn't you come into the synagogue?"
So he said, "We're not interested." Good. Then he walks me and he says to me, "Do you know what's going on in America? You may not be aware of it. Young people, completely undereducated. They watch television all day, do nothing, chew gum. The only place for young people really to learn is in Russia, [or] Czechoslovakia."
And I was a little bit stupid, I began arguing with him. I said, "Do you know why you don't have a television? Because you don't have money to buy it! As simple as it is. If you would have enough money, you'd also watch television! And besides, what do you know?"
I argued with him. And he had a big mouth and he says, "There is only one way for the world. Communism is the salvation of the world." He talks very big. Finally, I gave up on him. I walked with other kids.
We come into the hall. And they had a little choir. So it was one song me, one song them - it's Purim night. Do you know something? We sang till 12 - and there were 2,000 walls between us! 2,000 walls! Then I said, "Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World, it's Purim night. And I'm here to be with them. Ribono Shel Olam, have Rachmanus [mercy] on me."
Suddenly, the door opened. And at that time, there was still an Israeli embassy, before the Six-Day War, there was an embassy. And the Ambassador walks in. And he has with him a bottle of kosher wine. He says (I knew him from before), "Shlomo, I know you're here; L'kavod Purim, I'm bringing you a bottle of wine."
And I was really at my end, I realized that without that - with my head - I won't make it. Mamash I took a big glass of wine, I gave everyone a little bit, I got on the table, and said, "Chevra, I'll tell you something. You know what Purim is all about? That Mordechai is not afraid of Haman. Tonight, I'm not afraid of anybody. I'm not afraid! And I want you to know something. You know what I'm dreaming about? Do you know what you're dreaming about? There's only one thing we're dreaming about - Uvnei Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh. Every Jew is dreaming about Yerushalayim." And I start singing "Uvnei Yerushalayim" like crazy!
And suddenly, all the walls were gone! All the walls were gone. The kids got up, I want you to know, we danced until 4:30 non-stop. [NOTE: the next sentence was unclear, perhaps it was: I'm crying my eyes out, because none of the kids knew their pain.]
I want you to know, this boy who had such a big mouth before, made his way to dance with me. And he whispered in my ear and he says, "I hope you didn't believe me - what I said. But I want you to know a KGB man was walking with us."
And afterwards I thought, "Oy gevalt, am I far! Gevalt! I know nothing! I know nothing."
We danced like crazy, and it was maybe the holiest night of my life. After that, all those eighty kids walked me to my hotel. I want you to know, until this moment, I still don't know how we did it....I had one pair of tefillin, all the eighty kids…they all put on tefillin, fast: on-off, on-off, on-off, all of them!
You think it was Yom Kippur for me? Hundreds of Yom Kippurs. 'Cause who knows if those young kids will ever have G-d's Name on their forehead? It was awesome! And you know, to put on tefillin on eighty people, it should take a long time? It didn't - it was so fast! 'Cause they had to be [at] 7:30 in school. [At] 6:00 they all left.
I'm here, I was just left in my room. I said to myself, "I can't believe it! I can't believe it! Those kids don't know one word of Hebrew." Just remember, [19]64! And mamash, one Yiddeleh like me comes and they're on fire! So I think I said, "This is a time to make up a song. I gotta make up a song."
It just hit me - Am Yisrael Chai is beautiful, everyone's alive. But Israel without G-d? What's Israel without G-d and what's G-d without Israel? And while making this niggun my tape recorder was working. So I start singing, "Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael Chai..."

[Now, back to Yankeleh Birnbaum: He [Reb Shlomo] first sang the song to a group of Prague youngsters. I did not know about this at the time but had continued to press Rebbetzin Carlebach that he should have something ready for our great Jericho march of Sunday April 4, 1965. Late on Friday afternoon April 2nd, my phone rang and Shlomo's exhausted voice said, "Yankele, I've got it for you!"
Jericho Sunday dawned bright and sunny. We encircled the Soviet UN Mission on East 67th Street in New York, Jericho style, to the trumpeting of seven shofars blown seven times and marched to the UN. Shlomo was inspired and for the first time publicly sang what was to become a contemporary Jewish liberation anthem. Even Irving Spiegel, the usually kvetchy New York Times correspondent, basked in the pervasive joyful spirit of the moment.
Shlomo had added another phrase "Od Avinu Chai" with which he climaxed the song on a high note of exaltation. He took this from the Biblical Yosef's exclamation about his father Yaakov… I was pleased that I had worked on Shlomo to create the song.


The Arch of Titus

The picture above is of the arch that was built by Titus to celebrate his and Rome's conquest of Israel and the destruction of the Second Temple. The sculpted decorations across the top of the arch portray the Roman soldiers returning in triumph with loot from their destruction of the Temple, especially portraying the Menora which was taken.

Again from Yankel Birnbaum: More than two decades ago, I was approached by someone who felt that Titus' Arch in Rome displaying the Roman removal of the ritual objects from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. was a "busha", a continuing shame for the Jewish people, and we should find some way of blowing it up. I responded that the Romans were long gone but we were still here, truly "Am Yisrael Chai". Later, I heard that someone had scratched the term onto the monument as graffiti. I hope it is still there!

From a letter on the Jewish Mailing List, Sept. 2003:
When the Jewish Brigade came to the Arch in 1946, they took red paint and shmeered Am Yisrael Chai on the base of the Arch, again informing the Romans of the past and the present that we were still around. He who laughs last laughs best. We were still laughing at least until about 1970. That's the approximate date of a picture I have in my living room. It's of the Arch of Titus and indeed someone had inscribed, in Hebrew, "Am Yisrael Chai." Whether it's the original Jewish Brigade inscription or, what appears more likely, a continuation of the tradition, can anyone verify if it or a newer incarnation is still there?

PPS: Aish HaTorah’s article about this song, with a quote from Mark Twain.

Yitz: That is truly a wondeful story. I have never heard it before so thanks for sharing it!
Thanks, I remember hearing it when it was new.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Wow, what a story.
Simple, Batya & Genedy,

Thank you all for your encouragement! It keeps me going!
Funny, I distinctly recall being at a demo when Shlomo introduced Am Yisrael Chai for the first time in NY and it was in the evening, in the fall (probably around Simchat Torah) and near the UN. In fact, I was up on the platform. The Geula March was in April during the day. I'm guessing late '64 or even '65. I'm sure I never heard it before that time and I was at all the Soviet Jewry SSSJ demos from late 1963 on in NY.
I don't doubt the Prague bit but I am not sure Yaakov is correct about the NY appearance. I don't think it was that early in the campaign.

Yisrael Medad (the login isn't working)

Rereading the story, I see that Shlomo mentions the year 1964, while Birnbaum mentions the "great Jericho march of Sunday April 4, 1965."

Shlomo could have definitely been off by a year, or didn't meet up with Birnbaum until a year after he composed the niggun.

But since Y. Birnbaum was so involved in such an exciting and eventful activity, I would trust his memory regarding the dates.
Here is the story excerpted from the biography of Reb Shlomo pp. 265-267: The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was founded by Jacob Birnbaum in April 1964. He asked Reb Shlomo to compose a tune using the words “Am Yisroel Chai”: "I vaguely recalled that the song “Am Yisroel Chai” had been an expression of defiance and hope in Nazi Germany, and after the war it had been sung in Displaced Persons camps. As the Soviet Jewish resistance movement developed, the distinguished Yiddish poet Yosef Kerler composed his own version. Birnbaum’s felicitous choice of these simple yet evocative three words was monumentous. After being set to dramatic music by Shlomo the song became the SSSJ anthem. In mid-March 1965, Shlomo sang in Frankfurt, Germany and decided to try and enter Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to celebrate Purim in the hometown of the 16th century Maharal of Prague, to whom the Carlebach family traced their ancestry. On Purim evening, March 18, 1965, Shlomo found a few young Czechs and together they went to a small concert hall. At first, the youth were reluctant to sing and feared the KGB, but Shlomo persisted and finally won them over and they began dancing with him. Shlomo was so enthused that on the spot he composed a tune to the words Am Yisrael Chai which Birnbaum had asked of him. After returning to New York, Shlomo phoned late on Friday afternoon, April 2, 1965, and exclaimed, “Yankele, I’ve got it for you!” On Sunday, April 4, two weeks before Passover, some 3,000 protestors led by seven men wearing prayer shawls encircled the Soviet Mission to “topple the walls of hate” in Jericho style. They blew on seven shofarot seven times. For the first time, Shlomo sang “Am Yisrael Chai.” Shlomo’s inspirational invention was to add three additional words, “Od Avinu Chai” (Our Father is Still Alive), thus providing an exegetical link to both biblical and rabbinic tradition. The biblical verse, “Our father is still alive” (Genesis 43:28), is the brothers’ consoling rejoinder to Joseph’s query about his father (43:7). The rabbinic thematic expansion commentary is that Jacob = Israel still lives on even after his body is interred. By inserting these words, Shlomo created both alliteration and a metaphoric homily. The expression, “Our father is alive,” is a double entendre, i.e., the phrase is understood in its simple straightforward meaning that Jacob/Israel is alive, and also in its theological sense that God, the father of Israel, exists and protects His people. The musical notes reflect the juxtaposition of the two themes.

The simple words, easy to pronounce and repeat, attracted a wide following even of those who didn’t know any Hebrew. The message was an expression of pride, existence, continuity, and solidarity and it became the signature song of the Soviet Jewry freedom movement. It also turned into a quintessential exclamation of hope in the face of adversity and ultimately became a grand liberation song of the Jewish people.
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