Have you heard the story about the Chelmite who yearned to see the big city? Once on the road, he laid out his shoes pointing in the right direction, so that when he awoke the next morning he would know which way to go. As things happened, while he slept, a tramp came along, saw the shoes, tried them on with a disgusted "Ouch," and threw them back on the ground. Only now they pointed in the direction whence the Chelmite started out. You can easily figure out the rest of the story. He arrived in the "big city" and fell in love with it because it uncannily looked just like his own hometown. With his newfound "wife and children" in an identical house on an identical street, he lived happily ever after.
I am not a Chelmite (although sometimes I wish I was one, for silly reasons), but I yearned to find out why it's been said about Safed (Palestine)--that the road through Safed leads everywhere. To Chasidus? To chasidic niggunim, too? That is what is said.1
In writing Niggun, I didn't travel to Safed, but my first essay begins there. I was hoping. Who knew? Maybe I'd find the strong connection between the kabbalistic movement of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) and chasidic music. I wasn't that lucky, but I found out other things. For one, "The Neo-mystics in Safed, Palestine ... made singing their duty and counted it a condition of inspiration and devotion."2 For another, as Velvel Pasternak notes, "melody stood at the cradle of Kabbalah and surrounded it with the mystical yearnings that have touched the hearts of its followers to this day."3 The third thing I found was an old friend, "Lechoh Dodi," and you can read all about it in my essay, appropriately called, "The Road Through Safed Leads Everywhere."
The only thing that I still can't figure out is how I got myself transported from Safed into chasidic territory. What I do know is that Kabbalistic niggunim went over big in Safed, but didn't play too well in Peoria (or the Jewish city equivalent to that). In its way Kabbalistic music was very limited, or lost something in translation along the way, and most oppressed Jews elsewhere were not ready for it.
What Eastern European Jews were ready for was music that lit up their dreary lives. Enter the Baal Shem Tov.4 For more than 200 years since, countless Jews have been reclaiming their heritage, thanks to this one Jewish man, As it is said, for every mile the Baal Shem Tov walked through Eastern Europe to rouse the Jewish people to great spiritual heights, there was a niggun to accompany him.
I did not bring up the Chelm story for silly reasons. Here too it applies. Jews in ever-burgeoning numbers found their old Judaism ever more beautiful, satisfying, and happy. Why? Blame it on the songs, those happy wordless songs (and some not so wordless) sung by rebbes and their followers that lit up the way, and are still lighting up the way of returnees to Judaism like me.
In his charismatic manner, the Baal Shem Tov started out on a path to the "big city," but, unlike the Chelmite, he deliberately "turned his shoes in the direction whence he came," and millions of Jews, loving what they saw and heard, have followed him ever since.
Path One takes you along that path, but don't expect a travelogue. What you'll experience, through a series of essays, is stopping off at many quaint places, many chasidic courts where rebbes and their chasidim sang their melodies to G-d. Here you'll find, for example, why a Gerrer Rebbe counted his blessings that he had great composers/chasidim like Rabbi Yankel Talmud around him. Why one Rebbe claimed he was a niggun from head to toe. Where the music of conductor/music composer Leonard Bernstein can be found--alive and well forever--as never before! Find out why tears unlock gates, but songs tear down walls! Why it's a Jew's privilege to take secular melodies from foreign cultures and incorporate them into the body of chasidic song. Why there were once strong-arm battles and heated words between Jews. How one rebbe surrounded himself with an ostentatious display of wealth to raise the standards of Torah and Chasidus. You'll also ask yourself, who or what can explain the healing process of a niggun? And finally (but hardly last) you'll know why, since the days of Moses, every Jew continues to travel in order to come home.
Now, I've "laid out the shoes" and you're on Path One. Need I say more? I think not. So, please turn the page, and live happily ever after.
Back to "Niggun"