As I look forward to the spring holidays of Pesach and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, an antidote comes to my mind. It was during my first year of cantorial school and I was studying in Israel. Along with a fellow student I went to visit the Renanot Institute, a repository for the varied musical traditions of Jewish communities from around the world. In addition to collecting and recording these unique and, in many cases, endangered melodies, the institute also sustains the music through publications, recordings and educational outreach.
During our visit, the institute’s director described how many of the rich musical traditions that developed in the Diaspora begin to disappear as various Jewish communities settle in Israel. This is not so much a matter of purposeful erasure of culture, as it is the same kind of assimilation process that we see in the United States. The difference is that in Israel Jews are assimilating with other Jews.
As our host was describing this phenomenon, he presented us with this riddle, “What piece of Jewish liturgy is universally the first to be “musical assimilated” by Jews arriving in Israel?” This seemed like an impossible question to a first year cantorial student, but as soon as I heard the answer the reasons were clear and obvious: the first musical tradition that all communities loose upon settling in Israel is the tune to the “four questions” of the Pesach Seder. Why? Because the questions are traditionally recited by the youngest family member—exactly the person who is least likely to remember the traditions of the “old country.” Moreover, the modern Israeli tune for the “four questions” is pretty catchy—in fact if you know a tune for them it is probably the Israeli one written in the mid 20th century.
While much has been written lately comparing Pesach and Yom Ha’Atzmaut as competing narratives of Jewish national identity, I think that the antidote retold above raises some very different questions: How do we counterbalance our desire to preserve our unique identity while still being part of a larger community? What is lost when traditions die? What if traditions cease to be compelling to modern Jews? How do we keep Jewish traditions fresh and vital for ourselves and our children?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear your reflections on them. Perhaps together we can explore some answers.
Wishing you a sweet and liberating Pesach!