18 March 2022

Singing songs that
celebrate Ukraine’s
Jewish traditions

The Ukrainian flag and Menorah lit in the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv, during a pre-Hanukkah ceremony

Patrick Comerford

On this Friday evening, I am thinking of the plight – but also the cultural legacy – of the Jewish community in Ukraine, including the traditions and songs of the Chassidic movement.

The early Chassidic movement attributed profound importance to the power of music. ‘If words are the pen of the heart,’ taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, ‘then song is the pen of the soul.’

The regions of Volhynia and Podolia, west of Kyiv, were the birthplace of the Chassidic movement. Throughout history, the Jews of what is now Ukraine have been the victims of successive waves of violent pogroms.

Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred in one of the worst pogroms during the violent peasant uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-1649. Jews of the region were left in despair.

In the wake of these attacks, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov founded the Chassidic movement in the region began to reveal his teachings, to raise the spirits of a broken nation.

Successive generations of Chassidic leaders left their mark on Ukrainian Jewry. Historic Jewish communities in the west, and newer Jewish agricultural colonies in the Kherson region to the east, became home to millions of Jews. These communities have survived pogroms, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Union to form the vibrant Jewish community that is found in Ukraine today.

The songs of the Jews in the region are adaptations of Ukrainian peasant songs. Often, they have been mined for meaning and elevated through application; some are wordless original compositions; all can uplift the soul to profound heights. Cities such as Nikolayev and Kremenchug spawned not only prominent composers of Chassidic melodies, but entire genres of Chassidic music.

On this Shabbat evening, I am listening to Nigun Hakafot, attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson (1878-1944), Chief Rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro), the Rebbe’s father.

This is a spirited rhythmic march in three stanzas, sung on the holiday of Simchat Torah. The melody has its origins in the time of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who lived in what is now Belarus. However, it has become inextricably linked to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and his legacy of sacrifice for Jews in the Soviet Union.

He was fearlessly defiant in strengthening Jewish learning and practice in his city and throughout the Soviet Union. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was eventually arrested, tortured, and subsequently banished to exile in a remote village in Kazakhstan. His spirit, however, was not extinguished, even while his body was broken and eventually gave way to his early death in 1944.

His son, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), known popularly as ‘the Rebbe,’ was the seventh leader of Chabad-Lubavitch, and lived in Nikolayev and Dnieperptrosk (Ukraine), Leningrad, Berlin, Warsaw, Paris and New York. He built upon and expanded his predecessors’ work to revolutionise Jewish life across the world.

Although this song originally associated with the Hakafot of Simchat Torah, the Rebbe would often request that it be sung throughout the year, as it remains popularly sung by Jews of all backgrounds today.

Shabbat Shalom

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
18 March 2022 (Psalms 38)

‘Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips’ (Psalm 38: 16) … footsteps in the sand at Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Following Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations yesterday, today is an additional public holiday in Ireland this year. Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 38:

Psalm 38 is ‘A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering’ or ‘A psalm of David to bring to remembrance.’ The title ‘for the memorial offering’ or ‘to bring to remembrance’ also applies to Psalm 70.

In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this psalm becomes Psalm 37.

This is one of the seven Penitential Psalms. In the English King James Version. It begins: ‘O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath.’ In Latin, it is known as Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me.

This psalm is possibly written late in King David’s life, and some commentators see it as a biography of sorts for David.

The psalm’s two principal topics are:

1, God’s displeasure at sin (verses 1-11);

2, the psalmist’s sufferings and prayers (verses 12-22).

The psalm opens with a prayer. King David felt as if he had been forgotten by God. The psalm then passes intermittently between complaint and hope.

Commentators have noted how the depth of misery into which the psalmist gradually plunges in his complaints, only to then to grasp suddenly at the arm of God’s mercy and omnipotence.

Psalm 38 (NRSVA):

A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.

1 O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.

9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbours stand far off.

12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin,
and meditate treachery all day long.

13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.

15 But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, ‘Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.’

17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.

21 Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.

Today’s Prayer:

The USPG Prayer Diary has a particular focus on Ireland and the Church of Ireland this week, and I introduced this theme in the prayer diary on Sunday (13 March 2022), with the heading ‘Crossing Borders’. The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary this morning (18 March 2022) invites us to pray:

Lord, may we remember that love has no boundaries. May we cross borders to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips’ (Psalm 38: 16) … footsteps on the sand at La Carihuela, south of Torremolinos in Spain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org