There is no piece of music more beloved by American Jews than Kol Nidre, the meditation that kicks off worship for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. If you are Jewish and you go to synagogue once a year, chances are that you go to hear Kol Nidre. The text addresses the weakness of human vows and promises. But, as with so much worship generally, it’s the music that really matters.
Owing to its power and its popularity, the song has become something of a leitmotif in Jewish American cinema, appearing at the climax of each version of The Jazz Singer (1927, 1952, 1959, 1980). Each film tells the story of a son, the last in five generations of cantors, who has chosen the American stage over the synagogue pulpit and, as a result, becomes estranged from his father. The drama of each film comes to a head on the eve of Yom Kippur (when Kol Nidre is chanted), as the father is ailing and the son is called to fill in for him. In each version the son has to choose between his secular career and his sacred calling, between taking his father’s place on the pulipt and fulfilling his dreams of mainstream stardom.
Much has been made of blackface in The Jazz Singer (yes, even in the 1980 version, Neil Diamond appears in blackface) and while I don’t want to excuse this peculiar practice of performance, I want to offer an alternative context for reading the films to suggest that, musically, these versions of the film are not “about” jazz or “about” American popular music as much as they are about Kol Nidre.
Each version of the film (adapted from a short story by Samson Raphaelson) features at least one performance of Kol Nidre. In the 1927 version, Jake Robin (Al Jolson) finds him caught between opening on Broadway and singing in the synagogue. The film’s score uses the opening descending notes of Kol Nidre to punctuate the drama.
Sonically, Kol Nidre is central to the decision — it’s not ultimately about whether he’ll give up on his non-Jewish love interest, or whether he’ll take his father’s place at the synagogue for good. Rather, the drama is about Kol Nidre.
By 1959, Jerry Lewis updated Jolson’s “Jake” to “Joey” for his television version of the story. Joey wanted to become a nightclub performer and seemed to enjoy wearing blackface-inspired clown makeup. In this version, there’s no discussion of the drama around his father’s health, Joey simply takes to the pulpit and all is forgiven (pick up the video at about 4:15 for the heavy drama)
In 1980, Neil Diamond updated the role, changing the title character’s name to the slightly hipper “Jess.” The climactic scene opens with him arguing with his non-Jewish wife about what to do, and the rendition of Kol Nidre that he offers is pure Diamond. Forgiveness here takes a little more work, but Kol Nidre opens the door.
Diamond borrowed his “walking from the back of the congregation” maneuver from an earlier film, starring Moyshe Oysher. Originally called “Der Vilner Shtot Khazn,” the film was retitled “Overture to Glory” and dramatized the life of mid-19th century Vilna cantor Yoel David Strashunsky, who was lured away from the synagogue by the Warsaw Opera, only to regret his decision, return to his congregation, and die penniless.
Unlike the jazz singers, Oysher is not looking for reconciliation or forgiveness, but, having followed their lead, is trying to make right what has gone wrong.
The narratives of cantors seeking redemption on Yom Kippur by singing Kol Nidre runs powerfully through these films. By featuring Kol Nidre as prominently as they do (often including it more than once), the melody stands for repentance, return, forgiveness (all themes of Yom Kippur, incidentally). Listening to the films’ versions of Kol Nidre means adjusting our ears (and eyes) to hear not a story about Americanization and its discontents but to hear a story about this song in American Jewish life, and its symbolic resonance.
Hearing Kol Nidre in this way changes the film’s meaning from the standard struggle between tradition and modernity, or between secular and sacred. Amplifying Kol Nidre means hearing the film in terms of the power of music and the relationship between music and tradition (After all, it’s important that the protagonists are cantors, not rabbis).
It’s the music that drew Jake/Joey/Jess away, and its the music that draws them home. It’s the music that draws American Jews to synagogue to hear Kol Nidre, and its the music that keeps them coming back, year after year, to hear that same tune.
Stay tuned for “‘The Story of Kol Nidre in America: Part 2”, coming soon.