Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I can always sleep standing up

Catching up on the Limmud NY blogging, which is far from liveblogging at this point:

The Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat made its New York State debut at Limmud NY, after a number of appearances in New England. It wasn't actually one of the kabbalat shabbat options; it was just a session on Friday afternoon. It happened to be scheduled at the same time as (and next door to) the panel on "Is Hip Enough?", so I suggested that this session constituted one answer to that question, but I wasn't sure whether it was yes or no. (Probably no, since R.E.M. hasn't been hip for about 20 years.)

The AFTP kabbalat shabbat is exactly what it sounds like: we sang all the words of kabbalat shabbat set to all the music of R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. But before that, we discussed how this came about, and why Automatic for the People and kabbalat shabbat actually fit together; this wasn't simply a Purim-style contrafactum.

The story begins in the 16th century. The mystics of Tzfat would go out into the fields and greet Shabbat with the song Lecha Dodi, around which the whole kabbalat shabbat (welcoming Shabbat) service developed. Six psalms were added before it (Psalms 95-99 and 29), corresponding to the six days of creation, and sharing the common theme of God as sovereign over all creation. Two psalms were added after it (Psalms 92-93), corresponding to Shabbat itself; Psalm 92 is titled "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat" going all the way back.

Fast forward to 1992. The Georgia-based band R.E.M. released its ninth (and often considered best) album, Automatic for the People. (In response to the questions that came up, no, the members of R.E.M. aren't Jewish, and yes, I consider it Jewish music.) AFTP had a different tone from all previous and subsequent R.E.M. albums, trading the usual rock sounds for a string ensemble. Rather than being just a great collection of songs, AFTP is a coherent work from beginning to end: most of the songs are in the same key (D), and the album is a journey from the arpeggiated D minor chord that begins "Drive" to the arpeggiated D major chord that ends "Find the River".

Fast forward about four more years, when I had started to get into R.E.M. I was between high school and college, and driving about 40 minutes each way to work, just enough time to listen to about one CD per drive. I listened to a lot of music that year. One Friday afternoon I popped in Automatic for the People for the drive home, providing excellent driving music from "Maybe I ride and maybe you walk" to "The photograph on the dashboard" to "Leave the road". But it wasn't just driving music. I realized that the journey of AFTP was the transition from the work week into Shabbat, from the agitation of "Drive" to the serenity of "Find the River". It became my minhag to listen to Automatic for the People on the way home every Friday.

Fast forward to spring 1999. If AFTP is the consummate pre-Shabbat music, why not combine it with the words of kabbalat Shabbat? I figured there were 10 things in kabbalat shabbat (Lecha Dodi with 6 psalms before and 2 psalms after, and I also included Yedid Nefesh at the beginning as is done in some communities) and 12 tracks on the album, so I took out "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" (because even though it's a great song (which i've once heard described as two robots playing ping-pong) and has an important role on the album as a breather after "Everybody Hurts", it's an instrumental (as the title would suggest) and there's no way to fit words to it) and "Star Me Kitten" (because it sucks), and set those 10 elements of kabbalat shabbat, in order, to the remaining 10 songs on AFTP. I didn't include Ana Be-choach, and it's fortuitously in exactly the right place for "Star Me Kitten", so if you disagree with my (and like everyone's) assessment of the song, feel free to experiment. Don't blame me if Nechuniah ben Hakanah jumps out of his grave.

So we did a few Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat events at Hillel, and I plastered the campus with posters containing lines from the album: "Listen here, my sister and my brother", "Now it's time to sing along", "Nonsense isn't new to me", "TV tells a million lies", etc. We did it before Shabbat, so that anyone could attend regardless of their stance about musical instruments, and so that it wouldn't compete with the regular minyanim. The participants in attendance had never before prayed in the same room. I learned an important lesson about Jewish pluralism: the way to get people to sit down together meaningfully is to do something entirely outside the box.

As we did this more and more, I started to notice more correspondences between AFTP and kabbalat shabbat beyond the overall trend from agitation to serenity. The words and themes of individual psalms fit with the words and music of their corresponding song.

I'm not claiming that R.E.M. had this sequence of psalms in mind when they wrote Automatic for the People, and I'm certainly not claiming that the psalmist foretold the works of R.E.M. But I'm asserting my postmodern right to not care. I'm an agnostic about whether the Dark Side of the Rainbow had an intelligent designer, but that doesn't change my appreciation of it one way or the other.

So here goes:

Drive / Yedid Nefesh: Yedid Nefesh was written in the 16th century by Eliezer Azikri, as a love poem to God: just as acrostic love poems spell out the name of the addressee, the first letter of each verse of Yedid Nefesh spells out the name of God. It begins, as does "Drive", with simmering tension and desire. Yarutz avdach kemo ayal - your servant runs like a ram. "Maybe I ride, maybe you walk." Nafshi cholat ahavatach - my soul is sick with your love. "Maybe you're crazy in the head." And then, in the third stanza, the song EXPLODES! ANA EILI, MACHMAD LIBI, CHUSHAH NA, VE-AL TIT'ALAM! The gas leak of the work week is set on fire, the gas is consumed, and we're ready for... Shabbat!

Try Not to Breathe / Psalm 95: Directly from D minor into D major ("happier" by western convention). We've had our first catharsis and expressed our as-yet unrequited desire, and now we go into Lechu neranenah lAdonai - let's go sing to God!

A theme in this psalm, particularly in the last few verses, is memory. We recount the past, including the bad parts, so that we're ready to move beyond it. "I want you to remember." "I have seen things that you will never see."

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite / Psalm 96: Unrequited desires, check. Painful memories, check. Now that we've gotten both of those out of the way, we're ready for unfettered joy! Shiru lAdonai kol ha-aretz! Sing to God, the whole world!!! I don't claim to know what the lyrics of this song are about ("a candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss"), but I know that it's the most exuberant song on the album, and that Psalm 96 is the most exuberant prayer in many Carlebach-influenced kabbalat shabbat services (and that's no accident, looking at the words).

Everybody Hurts / Psalm 97: This song paradoxically provides a message of hope by universalizing despair. "When you feel like you're alone ... everybody hurts". This meaning can be read back into the words of the psalm (even if that wasn't the original plain sense). Anan va-'arefel sevivav - Cloud and mist surround [God]. Yes, this was originally about mystery and majesty. But in contemporary American culture, clouds are a symbol of gloom and confusion. Even God is surrounded by clouds -- it doesn't get more universal than that! And yet! Eish lefanav teilech, fire goes before God. Hei'iru verakav teiveil, God's lightning lights up the world. Even when surrounded by these clouds, there is light. Ve-ra'u chol ha-'amim kevodo - all the nations see this. Everyone experiences this. And the triumphant conclusion: or zarua' la-tzadik. Light is sown for the righteous. Everyone experiences these clouds, and yet has the opportunity to have the darkness lit up.

Sweetness Follows / Psalm 98: Both Psalm 98 and Sweetness Follows encapsulate the central themes of kabbalat shabbat. "It's these little things, they can pull you under / Live your life filled with joy and wonder"-- or the second time through -- "Live your life filled with joy and thunder / Yeah, yeah we were altogether lost in our own little lives." Joy and thunder are the two central themes. During the week, we are "lost in our own little lives", but Shabbat is an escape from "these little things", as we instead focus on joy and thunder, recognizing the big picture.

Shiru lAdonai shir chadash ki nifla'ot 'asah - there's the thunder.
Zameru lAdonai be-chinor - and there's the joy.
Lifnei Adonai ki va lishpot ha-aretz - and we're back to the thunder.

Monty Got a Raw Deal / Psalm 99: Fear and trembling! Revelation! Bow down! The music shifts back into minor here (both on AFTP, and in some versions of nusach!) in recognition of these solemn themes. Perhaps this song has subtly influenced Kol Zimrah's frequent use of this Yah Ribon tune for Psalm 99.

Ignoreland / Psalm 29: Stand up! Building to the climax! The last day of creation before Shabbat, the last non-mellow song on AFTP, all of creation must recognize its creator! Kol Adonai chotzeiv lahavot eish! I feel better having screamed, don't you?

Man on the Moon / Lecha Dodi: The climax. The focal point of kabbalat shabbat, one of the most well-known songs on the album. Written as an elegy for Andy Kaufman which spawned a biopic of the same name, and that's not so relevant to Lecha Dodi. But it is relevant that the song has a bittersweet tone, recognizing the happy within the sad and vice versa. Rav lach shevet be-'eimek ha-bacha, too long have you dwelled in the valley of tears. And it's just a fun way to sing Lecha Dodi.

Nightswimming / Psalm 92: Mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat, a song for the Shabbat day. But what does that even mean? The content has nothing directly pertaining to Shabbat. Why is this, of all psalms, the "psalm for Shabbat"? The rabbis had an answer in Mishnah Tamid: they interpreted the title of this psalm (in a phrase popularized in birkat hamazon) as Mizmor shir le-'atid lavo, le-yom she-kulo shabbat u-mnuchah le-chayei ha-'olamim. A song for the future, for a day that is entirely Shabbat and rest, unto eternal life. Thus, this psalm can be understood as talking about an ideal time in the future, when God really really is in fact sovereign over everything (v'atah marom le-'olam Adonai), and when the righteous really flourish like palm trees (tzadik ka-tamar yifrach) and all the evildoers are scattered. Like the shadows in Plato's cave, Shabbat serves as a reflection of that ideal time in the future. Though we're not in that time yet, we can experience a taste of it through Shabbat.

"Nightswimming" is about exactly the same thing, except the ideal time it talks about is in the past, not the future. "The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago... / Every streetlight reveals a picture in reverse." "The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder." We're not experiencing that ideal time, or even an image of that time, but just a reflection of an image of that time. "It's not like years ago." We're very much not in that ideal time now. "These things they go away, replaced by every day." Here we return to the same theme as in "Sweetness Follows" ("It's these little things, they can pull you under..."). Because these things go away, it is ever more important to embrace Shabbat, which represents the ideals to which we strive, whether we project those ideals into the past or into the future.

Find the River / Psalm 93: Not only do AFTP and kabbalat shabbat end the same way, they even use the exact same metaphor: the river. The river represents eternity, as it did for Kohelet. As we enter Shabbat, we enter eternity. Eternity utters a day. "Pick up here and chase the ride / The river empties to the tide / All of this is coming your way." Adonai le-orech yamim.


  1. this is great. that you have dissected each bit of the davening so thoughtfully is the best, it makes the whole idea of REMing kabbalat shabbat meaningful, and not just (as you say) a fun way to sing it.

    by the way, i once understood the chili peppers' 'Californication' album to represent Jewish history: from creation ('Around the World') to Moshiach ('Savior').

  2. This sounds wild and really fun. I would love to have the chance to davven it sometime.

  3. I second Rachel's comment.

    Next best thing, though — any chance of recording a demonstration of how the tunes&texts work together, so people could practice on our own?