chagall_praying_jew443x591“A crowd of people slowly streams into the synagogue. Inside the sanctuary, the lights are dimmed to reflect the sun setting outside. A hush falls over the congregation as the clergy, robed in white, open the ark to reveal the white-cloaked Torah scrolls. The rabbi gently hands each scroll to a member of the congregation. Everyone on the bimah turns to face the community. And the cantor begins to sing. The melody is at once familiar, soothing, and chilling. As the music gradually builds, the distance between the current moment and the same moment in years past slowly melts away. The scene is set. The memories of all of our Yom Kippur days swell inside us as we sing the Kol Nidre prayer.” Cantor Elizabeth Sacks

I am not Jewish myself, and neither is the singer of the Kol Nidrei, Cape Town Baritone Mr. Thesele Kemane,  who will act as cantor this week during the High Holidays at Temple Israel in Greenpoint, South Africa. Both of us have been very deeply moved by this piece of music. Kol Nidrei is an Aramaic declaration which opens the Jewish service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is sung by the cantor and its melody is recognised by Jewish people around the globe. Although this text is in fact not a prayer, the musical content of the piece charges the text with great emotional power. Kol Nidrei has had an eventful history, both in itself and in its influence on the legal status of the Jews. Introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbinic authorities, attacked in the course of time by some rabbis, and in the nineteenth century expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe, it has survived as an essential part of the Day of Atonement. The purpose of the Kol Nidrei in the service is to alleviate the congregation’s anxiety about unfulfilled or possibly forgotten vows, so that they can enter into the prayers of the Day of Atonement with a clear conscience. It is not clear exactly where the current ritual and text of Kol Nidrei originated. The first references to Kol Nidrei as a collective declaration are found in the writings of the Babylonian geonim (8-10th century scholars); the geonim vigorously opposed the practice of chanting the declamation, which they claimed originated in unspecified “other lands.” Although Palestine is an obvious candidate, none of the surviving ancient Palestinian prayer texts include Kol Nidrei.

Cantor Sacks of the New York Central Synagogue makes very interesting points about the relationship Jewish people have with the music of their culture: “Jewish music is infused with memory. Just as a particular scent or visual cue arouses specific memories, the music of our tradition links us to our Jewish experiences. A favorite tune can remind us of the camaraderie of Jewish summer camp, or the awe of a first trip to Israel, or the familiar warmth of Shabbat services. However, in addition to inspiring powerful individual memories, Jewish music also furthers our collective memory – the memory of our history and traditions as the People of Israel. This concept of collective memory manifests itself most clearly in our liturgical music through a series of melodies known as the MiSinai tunes. MiSinai tunes, melodies thought to have come down from God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, unite Ashkenazi Jews of all denominations. We sing them consistently, year after year, and though the arrangements may change, the essence of the melody never dies. Mainly heard during High Holy Day and Festival services, examples include the High Holy Day Mi Chamocha, the Great Aleinu, and the opening paragraphs of the N’ilah Amidah. The tunes are exceedingly simple yet profound. They are moving because they have endured and they have endured because they are moving. For many people, it is not a complete holiday until they have heard these melodies. The MiSinai tunes are our collective musical memory. We have named them such because no one can remember a time without them.” (Cantor Sacks)

Kol_Nidrei autograph 1825Many different versions and arrangements of this piece exist. While Reform Judaism does allow women to sing the Liturgy, it is traditionally performed by a man. Temple Israel’s choir includes wonderful female singers such Beverly Chiat – a superb musician whose talents have been appreciated across the globe even more than they have in South Africa. Yet even she insisted that it would feel more “authentic” if this was sung by a man. One would think that a central part of the service, beloved and known by so many, could be found easily in printed form. But there are so many variants and arrangements of it that it is quite bewildering. The version I am currently using is an arrangement by Henry Russotto (Born Russia 1871; Died New York 1928) an arranger and publisher of a large number of liturgical settings, translations and arrangements. The present arrangement is for Male Voice Choir and Cantor. Which is ironic, since technically, Temple Israel have neither. The G minor setting appears to suit a baritone, but parts of the original embellishments go into the higher tenor range, which the choir takes up, in some cases splitting into 4 or 5 parts. Temple Israel uses the female choir to take these parts. So in effect, our Kol Nidrei is an arrangement of an arrangement of a chant that has been passed down orally though thousands of years. The music itself alternates between emotional states, occasionally heroic and ceremonial with march-like associations, and at other times painfully introspective and intensely personal. The rhythmic freedom within a tightly controlled structure reminds one of Puccini’s rubato and flexibility of the rhythm is key to a successful performance. Flexibility in the ornametaion is key to performing this work.

Kol Nidrei – Text and Translation

Text in Aramaic:

Kol Nidrei

Ve’esarei, Ush’vuei, Vacharamei, Vekonamei, Vekinusei, Vechinuyei, D’indarna, Ud’ishtabana, Ud’acharimna, Ud’assarna

Al nafshatana Miyom Kippurim zeh, ad Yom Kippurim haba aleinu letovah Bechulhon Icharatna vehon,

Kulhon yehon sharan Sh’vikin sh’vitin, betelin umevutalin, lo sheririn v’lo kayamin Nidrana lo nidrei,

V’essarana lo essarei Ush’vuatana lo shevuot.

Kol Nidrei text in English Translation

 All vows

 Prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves –

from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good –

regarding them all, we regret them henceforth.

They will all be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing.

Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.


Here follows some versions of the Kol Nidrei in very different performances. Follow the links to Youtube.

Kantor Stephen Saxon and male choir, in a very similar arrangement to that by Henry Russotto –

An almost Jazzy version what appears to be a concert rather than a synagogue, by Mordechai ben David where the piano’s tremolos tries to create an orchestral colour in the absence of a choir.

 I was surprised to find so many Popular Singers taking up this work. Perry Como and Johnny Mathis (in 1958)  do not spring to mind in connection with this very serious part of Jewish consciousness.

Al Jolson's "Tha Jazz Singer" 1927

Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" 1927

Perhaps too melodramatic but in their own way moving are two excerpts from the film “The Jazz Singer”. Firstly Jerry Lewis in the 1959 film  which in itself was a remake of the 1927 original by Al Jolson [né Asa Yoelson] (1886–1950), The story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the rabbi’s son who turned actor against the wishes of his father, became a sensation and remains a motion picture classic. Al Jolson starred in what was the first “talking” film. People came to associate the movie with Jolson’s own life, a myth that he encouraged and had even contributed to early in his career with songs like “Mammy.” This myth of the lonely man who had given up everything for the public was necessary for him – it was indeed reflected in his need for the audience’s love.

Neil Diamond starred in the 1980 remake of the film  in a powerful scene of reconciliation between father and son, which places the Chant in contemporary context. It is a pity that neither the film nor the released soundtrack has the chant in its complete form.Neil_Diamond_-_The_Jazz_Singer_(front)



A work perhaps better known in classical music circles is the Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, is a composition for cello and orchestra written by Max Bruch. Bruch completed the composition in Liverpool before it was first published in Berlin in 1881. It is styled as an Adagio on two Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra with Harp and consists of a series of variations on two main themes of Jewish origin. The first theme, which also lends the piece its title, comes from the Kol Nidre prayer which is recited during the evening service on Yom Kippur. In Bruch’s setting of the melody, the cello imitates the rhapsodical voice of the hazzan (cantor) who chants the liturgy in the synagogue.

The second subject of the piece is quoted from the middle section of Isaac Nathan’s arrangement of “O Weep for those that wept on Babel’s stream”, a lyric which was penned by Byron in a collection called Hebrew Melodies (which also included the famous poem “She Walks in Beauty”). Bruch was a Protestant and first became acquainted with the Kol Nidre melody when his teacher Ferdinand Hiller introduced him to the Lichtenstein family, the head of which served as the cantor-in-chief of Berlin. Cantor Abraham Jacob Lichtenstein was known to have cordial relations with many Christian musicians and supported Bruch’s interest in Jewish folk music.

Du Pre Kol NIdreiWhile some commentators have criticized the dearth of Jewish sentiment in Bruch’s concert-hall Kol Nidrei, it must be remembered that Bruch never presumed to write Jewish music. He only wished to incorporate Jewish inspirations into his own compositions. Nonetheless, it is a powerful work which has remained popular with musicians and public. It exists in different versions as well. Both piano and orchestral accompaniments were done by Bruch .

Janos Starker performs Bruch’s Kol Nidrei with Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra 

 Jaqueline du Pre and Gerald Moore, the famous Lieder accompanist, perform the piano and cello version of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei .

Marc Chagall: "Le Juif a la Torah" c. 1959

Marc Chagall: "Le Juif a la Torah" c. 1959