Story and/vs song, aka thoughts on “Hassidic Music” (Israel, 1994, 28min)

Screenshot of Hassidic Music

Hassidic Music is a 28 minute Israeli documentary from 1994, part of “Israel Music Heritage Project” made fully and for free available online by The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive on the YouTube channel of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is in English although some of the songs are in Yiddish with English subtitles. It is part of the “A people and its music” series.  Here is my page about the film with synopsis.  You may want to watch the film first, at the end of this post, as my post below contains spoilers. 

Great songs are often telling great stories. Great songs often have a great story behind them. Great stories can often be told in great songs. This documentary is an excellent example of this symbiotic relationship. If you just listen to it you can hear one story after another, intertwined with the songs. Hasidim tell stories and sing songs when they get together Most of the songs here are origin stories in the sense that they explain the origins of a certain song. At the same time they also give insights in their role in the life of the Hassid communities. Altogether they make up a meta-story about the development of Hassidut. Each paints a different aspect of their lives with vivid pictures making up a complex painting.
Here are some of my favorite the key points: 

  • At the creation all creatures could sing, but later only birds and humans. Humans’ role is to emulate the birds’ songs, which is only devoted to praise God.
  • A key theme is the yearning back to freedom and to the high mountains after we didn’t resist temptation and got captured. I was surprised to hear that this idea was exemplified by  a Cossack who was arrested by the Tzar. Cossacks after all were not the best friends of Jews. So I checked out the story. Turns out it is much more interesting than it was made out in the video. The real historical figure behind this story was Shamil, 3rd Imam of Dagestan, who was a tribal leader and a Sufi sheikh. At the end of the linked wikipedia page is how his story made it into Jewish lore. 
  • A drinking song became a Hassid song and got filled with new symbolism where vodka is the spiritual elevation we long for. 
  • The melody of La Marseillaise is used at the height of Yom Kippur, because both declares that “victory will be ours”
  • Borrowing melodies from other cultures, eg. the waltz, is not considered assimilation, because–according to their belief–all music originates from the Holy Temple. It got dispersed when the temple was destroyed and the Jews are just gathering the pieces again. Nice ideologization.
  • Hassidism originated after the false Messiahs of the 18th century, including Shabbati Zvi, showed that new ideas can enter religion. God can be approached not just by great scholars, but by everyone through prayer, piety and song.
  • Jewish song activates the music of celestial spheres, of the song of angels, of the divine presence.
  • Just like the musical scale goes and starts with “do”, men go higher  and higher up. As he–yes, “he”, as no women can sing in presence of men in this subculture– ascends he must always remember the first “do” the origin, from whence he came and to which one returns.

If you like stories and songs and doesn’t have preconceived negative associations against Hasidim you will enjoy this documentary. More for the songs and less for the visuals, which mostly consists of bearded men sitting around interspersed with nature shots. 

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