Name That Tune
I am often asked, at a Kiddush or Oneg, “where did that tune come from?” This question arises with many congregational tunes, and with some tunes more than others. Many tunes have been so well ingrained in not only liberal (Conservative and Reform) Judaism, but the western Jewish world as a whole–tunes like Maotzur and Adir Hu– that they are considered “Mi Sinai,” or from Sinai; thought of jokingly as so old and well accepted that Moses himself must have taught them to the Jewish people at the foot of Sinai.
There are also the tunes that are just so widely accepted and entrenched within our weekly davening that they might as well be classified as “Mi Sinai” as well. For example, Michakeyl Chayim from the Amidah has a very recognizable tune, and it is generally accepted throughout the Conservative Movement that if a cantor does not use this tune, he or she better have a very good reason. The melody was written by Chazan Max Wholberg sometime in the middle of the 20th century and was published in his book The Next Generation. His intention was to write simple tunes in order to teach t’filah to children. He never expected this tune to take off as it did. Today, it is used widely throughout the Ashkenazi world in Orthodox and liberal congregations alike.
Another widely accepted tune within the world of Conservative and Reform Judaism is that of the Aleinu. This prayer is actually split into 3 tunes. The beginning section is widely attributed to the composer Sabel. However, once we get to sh’hu noteh shamayim, that is where the fun begins. I’m sure many of you, even while reading this, can hear this tune in your heads. I have to apologize; there is no deep and exciting source of this tune. Its origins actually reside within the mouths of your children and grandchildren. The “Itsy Bitsy Spider” crawls up his waterspout every Shabbat morning. Or those of you of the 1940s generation may recall the Johnny Horton song, The day they sank the Bismarck. Finally, everyone’s favorite part at the ending, bayom ha hu y’hiyeh adoshem ehad, invokes The Farmer and the Dell, and is credited to Rabbi Israel Goldfarb of Shalom Aleichem fame.
So next Shabbat, as we’re singing along, consider where these tunes have come from, and even ask yourself when chanting other melodies, “I wonder where this tune comes from?”