THE KADDISH OF LEVI YITZHAK
Courtesy: Ed Remler
I came across the following story in an article entitled Observations and Reflections on the History and Meanings of the Kaddish in Judaism magazine, Winter Issue, 2001, by David Blumenthal. It concerns a poem called the Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak The story is stirring in itself, and even more so if you transpose it to today, replace the nations it refer to, with the great nations of today, and replace the Jew in the story with Israel, the Jew of the nations.
Blumenthal begins,referring to the excellent book on Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810), [by Samuel Dresner who] cites the "Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak" which mixes vernacular Yiddish and liturgical Aramaic. Dresner, [....recounts] a particularly stirring rendition of the singing of this Kaddish.
soaring strains of this song of divine dissent sounded far beyond the narrow
confines of Berdichev, echoing in the hearts of Jews scattered throughout
poverty-stricken, persecution-ridden communities in Eastern Europe and, in
time, even in far-off America and Israel.... Nor was the mysterious power
of this song understood only by the jews... Paul Robeson, for example, the
noted black singer, sang it following World War II at the great rallies for
European Jewry and for the State of Israel during the early years of the young
state's struggle for independence and subsistence.
Suddenly he received a note from a member of the sponsoring committee which read: "No one in the audience understands Yiddish. It would, therefore, be out of place to sing any Jewish songs this evening."
Robeson was perplexed. Yiddish had been listed in the last Russian census as the mother tongue of thirty-five percent of the jews, who were well represented in the audience. Granting the assumed ignorance of Yiddish, would the African songs that he would sing in the languages of Ghana and the Congo be better understood?
The Soviet context is important:
Then he boldly announced, "And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berdichev.
So it was that he began to sing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's Kaddish.
Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
Weeping could be heard from parts of the auditorium. Tears flowed freely from dozens of faces. The applause, sporadic at first, reached a crescendo which threatened to shake the walls. The song became a rallying cry among the frightened Jews of Moscow for weeks to come.
Posted by Ed Remler