Academic journal article American Jewish History

Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The "Hassidic Chant" of Paul Robeson

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The "Hassidic Chant" of Paul Robeson

Article excerpt

On May 9, 1958, the African American singer and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) performed "The Hassidic [sic] Chant of Levi Isaac," along with a host of spirituals and folk songs, before a devoted assembly of his fans at Carnegie Hall. The "Hassidic Chant," as Robeson entitled it, is a version of the Kaddish (Memorial Prayer) attributed to the Hasidic rebbe (master), Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810), a piece also known as the "Din Toyre mit Got" ("The Lawsuit with God"). According to tradition, Levi Yizhak had composed the song spontaneously on a Rosh Hashanah as he contemplated the steadfast faith of his people in the face of their ceaseless suffering. He is said to have stood in the synagogue before the open ark where the Torah scrolls reside and issued his complaint directly to God:

   a gut morgn dir, riboynoy shel oylem;
   ikh, levi yitzhak ben sarah mi-barditchev,
   bin gekumen tzu dir mit a din toyre fun dayn folk yisroel.
   vos host-tu tzu dayn folk yisroel;
   un vos hos-tu zich ongezetst oyf dayn folk yisroel?

   A good day to Thee, Lord of the Universe!
   I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, from Berditchev,
   Bring against you a lawsuit on behalf of your People, Israel.
   What do you have against your People, Israel?
   Why have your so oppressed your People, Israel? (1)

After this questioning of divine justice, Levi Yitzhak proceeded to chant the Kaddish in attestation to God's sovereignty and supremacy. Not just an act of protest, his song was also an affirmation of faith.

The son of an ex-slave and Methodist minister from Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson's biography seems far removed from this world of early Hasidism. Nevertheless, the singer embraced Levi Yizhak's "Kaddish" as his very own. A stalwart of the left and a master interpreter of folk songs from around the world, Robeson described the "Hassidic Chant" as a "tremendous sermon-song-declaration-protest" and a "protest against age-old persecution." (2) Such an interpretation, it should be noted, was consistent with Levi Yitzhak's own reputation as the "poor man's rebbe," not only among Hasidim but among secular Jewish leftists. For Robeson and for many of his fans, the song, which contrasts faithful Israel to the vainglorious imperial powers (the Romans, Persians, and English), likely possessed anti-colonialist overtones. (3) However, its political resonance cannot entirely account for why Robeson assigned the "Chant" a special status, describing it as "a 'Kaddish' that is very close to my heart," a piece that "means much more than just another song," and one that "I sing at almost every concert that I do." (4) In fact, although he had been singing the "Hassidic Chant" regularly since the late 1930s, there is reason to believe that it took on added personal significance for him during the difficult decade that preceded his performance at Carnegie Hall.

Once lauded as "America's Number One Negro," (5) a star on Broadway for his color-barrier-breaking performance of Othello in 1943, a confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt's, even a visitor to the Oval Office for a meeting with President Truman in 1946, Robeson had been effectively anathematized by the U.S. government during the 1950s. At the start of that decade, the State Department confiscated his passport as punishment for his allegedly declaring at a Paris peace rally that American Negroes would never go to war on behalf of the United States ("those who have oppressed us for generations"), against a country, the Soviet Union, "which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind." Although evidently misquoted, his refusal to repudiate the statement cost him dearly. (6) He was denied permission to travel, not only to destinations requiring passports, but even to ones such as Canada and Mexico for which none was then required. As his friend William Patterson remarked, "Robeson was the only living American against whom a [special] order has been issued directing immigration authorities not to permit him to leave the continental confines of the United States. …

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