Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Simon and Garfunkle at Beth Israel

At Beth Israel we happen to have the greatest chazzan in the universe, Ari Dembitzer.  When not in Omaha he works for the organization chai lifeline which runs programs for kids with cancer and other life threatening illnesses.  I am not sure if it is the nature of his work or something innate about his soul, but Ari is able to elevate our entire congregation with his beautiful voice and his obvious passion.

Ari very carefully chooses the tunes that everyone at Beth Israel has come to love.  Some of the melodies are from contemporary sources while others are more obscure tunes that Ari found by listening to old records of chasidic songs or songs that he heard in his various encounters with different chassidic sects in North America and Israel.  Each tune that he chooses is meant to reflect an aspect of the acompanying prayer and serve as a sort of commentary to the words that he sings.  The davening therefore can be appreciated on many different levels. 

One of the tunes he uses is the Simon and Garfunle classic 'Scarborough Fair' which fits perfectly with the poem 'Biyom Din' - on judgement day.

On the question of using secular tunes for traditional prayers, many Rabbis maintain that it is inappriate to do so.  On the other side of the debate however are equally great halachic authorities that maintain that it is a great thing to take a secular tune and elevate it to a level of holiness by using it for the purpose of bringing deeper meaning to davening.  I have many colleagues who do not allow the use of secular tunes for davening in their shuls.

But 'Scarborough Fair' is an interesting case because there is a Jewish Urban Legend that Simon and Garfunkle, both Jewish, learned that tune from their Orthodox grandfather who sang it every Shabbat to the words of the classic Zemer, "Dror Yikra'.  If that is true then the question of secular tunes is not relevant in this particular case. 

A quick Wikipedia search seems to refute that Urban legend, attributing the tune of Scarborough Fair to an old English folk song.  But as we all know, just because it is on Wikipedia does not mean its true.  I would love to have a more definitive source.

In any event, at Beth Israel I know that people look forward to 'Biyom Din' every year on Rosh Hashana and yom Kippur.  The haunting melody seems so perfect for the awe of the poem that paints the picture of standing before the omnicient, all powerful, and merciful God on the day of judgement.  But even the allusion to 'Scarborough Fair' always struck me as appropraite.  The song tells the tale of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. 

While Ari sings I have often applied this understanding to 'Biyom Din'.  We stand before God humbled as the former lover in the song.  We have sinned.  We feel that we have caused a rift in the relationship with Hashem that cannot possibly be repaired.  We plead before God who we love so much and long to be close with that were we able to we would accomplish the most impossible tasks if it would help to repair the lost relationship that we once had.

As for the question of secular tunes, the tune is as much ours as it is Simon and Garfunkle's.  I was once with a kid from Beth Israel and the song Scarborough Fair came on and he said - "hey, isn't that Ari Dembitzer's tune?"  Classic!


  1. Could it not be both? Could we not have adopted an old English folk tune for zemirot? After all, a lot of the melody for the Grace After Meals is lifted from German folk songs.

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