Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Total Eclipse of the Tetragrammaton

The Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat is serious, not just wacky contrafactum. But, as Kohelet said, there is a time for serious and a time for wacky contrafactum. And the latter time is coming up soon! Sort of. I mean, it's almost Tu Bishvat, which means it will be only a month until Purim, and some of us are planning well ahead.

This will be my sixth straight year leading Purim maariv, and my fourth straight year leading it in the same place. Since many of the same people are in the same church basement year after year, I need new material each time to keep it fresh. I see maariv as the opening act for the megillah reading, which is (at its best) a work of comedic theater. So maariv should get the crowd fired up and in a wacky mood, ready for some comic inversion. This is accomplished mainly through two types of musical devices (neither of which I can claim any credit for):

1) Dissonant nusach. For example, I often use the High Holiday maariv tune for Barechu, the High Holiday Torah service for the first line of Shema, yom tov maariv for the last line of Shema, High Holiday musaf for the first four words of Chatzi kaddish (before segueing into an unrelated song, see below), and a kaddish shaleim that combines Shabbat mincha, Shabbat musaf, yom tov musaf, High Holiday shacharit, and Debbie Friedman's Oseh Shalom.

2) Setting prayers to secular melodies. Yes, I often set prayers to secular melodies when it isn't Purim, and the two endeavors should in no way be confused. To avoid this confusion, I will not use any secular melody on Purim that I would use for serious davening during the rest of the year, lest people think that the use of these melodies during the year is nothing more than Purim silliness. Thus, all of Automatic for the People is off limits (I've set it to kabbalat shabbat), as are "Redemption Song" (Mi Chamocha), "Scarborough Fair" (havdalah), "Down in the River to Pray" (Psalm 136 or chatzi kaddish), and Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah" (Psalm 146). [I don't take credit for all of those!] (Then there are the lesser-known melodies that I've used in non-Purim davening not because I thought anyone would recognize them, but just because they're good tunes: we used Phish's "Dirt" for I think Hashkiveinu at Kol Zimrah, and R.E.M.'s "Swan Swan H" as a wordless niggun. I've also used Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' "True North" at the end of pesukei d'zimrah on Shabbat, but it fits so seamlessly with the nusach that I'm not sure anyone noticed that it was anything other than embellishment of the nusach.)

So the melodies used on Purim have to be of a completely different sort. Past selections have included "Basket Case", "Blame Canada", "Blowing in the Wind", "Circle of Life" (from The Lion King), "Friend of the Devil", "Hey Jude", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Lean on Me", "Like a Prayer", the Looney Tunes theme, "Rubber Duckie", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Stand" (R.E.M.), The Brady Brunch theme, "The Sound of Silence", "Total Eclipse of the Heart", "Uf Gozal", "What a Wonderful World", and "Yellow Submarine".

What are the selection criteria? The song should be well-known to an American Jewish crowd mainly born between 1970 and 1984, and should be easily recognizable from the melody alone without instrumental accompaniment, and should ideally be either dissonant with prayer or somehow ridiculous or over-the-top or all of the above. Bonus points if I get to impersonate Louis Armstrong or Madonna or Bob Dylan or equivalent. In other words, all the criteria that make a good karaoke song.

And yes, secular Israeli songs are filed under secular (with "Yellow Submarine"), not sacred (with Automatic for the People). The fact that the original lyrics were in Hebrew does not change how goofy the song is. And please keep "Erev Shel Shoshanim" out of the kedushah. Thanks much.

So the reason I'm posting all of this now, over a month before Purim, is because I'm starting to work on this year's madness, and I thought the blogosphere would have some good suggestions for new songs to use. I have a few new ones lined up already (and no, I'm not telling! Wait until Purim to find out), and a small number of crowd favorites will return, but otherwise the floor is open. The selection criteria have been spelled out; now get to it! Thanks in advance!


  1. You could get 3 other people together and sing barbershop. If you each dress up as a letter of the Shem, you could call yourselves the Tetragrammatones.

  2. one of my favorite pieces of purim maariv schtick comes from david mosenkis.
    he routinely does "reponsive readings" where he asks people to turn to page 803 (depends on prayer book obviously) on which you find the prayer books index. he proceeds with something like "aleinu--123" to which people respond "ashrei--146".

  3. Tunes? You know I'm full of em...

    Beatles- Penny Lane or We Can Work it Out (those harmonies and the mixed meter are awesome!)

    Dylan- Ballad of a Thin Man, Queen Jane (great to go with the royalty theme).

    Ray Charles- Hit The Road, Jack

    Jimi- Purple Haze

    U2- Where the Streets Have No Name

    there's more, maybe i'll just email em...

  4. Oh, and for the over the top (and satch impersonation), Saints, man, Saints.

    oh, Stevie Wonder- Higher Ground.

  5. " And please keep "Erev Shel Shoshanim" out of the kedushah. Thanks much." I feel like that's a gateway song. People get into it first before they graduate to the real stuff. How about Mmm Bop, or The Rose, or My Humps, or part of Where is the Love, or One Two Step, or The Latke Song, or the Turkey Song (DF) or Roxanne by the mishtara.

  6. I'd love to hear how those serious ones sound!

  7. One day i hope to lead Lekha Dodi to "Girl's Not Grey" by AFI.