A friend of mine recently asked if I had heard of Black Sabbath. Before I had the chance to launch into my best Ozzie Osborne-inspired rendition of the 1970 heavy metal classic “War Pigs,” he added that he was not speaking of the band, but rather an album title. It was then that he introduced me to Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a compilation of Jewish music as performed by legendary African American artists such as Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.
He began this musical introduction with a recording of The Temptations performing a Fiddler on the Roof medley, and I’m fairly certain my jaw literally dropped. To hear one of my all-time favorite groups perform music from one of my all-time favorite musicals was stirring enough, but that was only the beginning. Black Sabbath encompasses Israeli, Yiddish, and even religious music in its survey of the Jewish music catalogue. As my friend played the next track, I was overcome by the coolness of Nina Simone’s take on the Israeli folk classic, “Eretz Zavat Chalav,” as performed at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Her signature smoky, bluesy tone brought new life to a song I grew up adoring, and despite its repetitive nature (ideal for Israeli dancing), Simone manages to infuse each line with such freshness, such life, such pizzazz.
After introducing me to those two tracks, my friend gifted me with a copy of the entire album. Upon later listening, I came upon Johnny Mathis’ rendition of “Kol Nidre,” an Aramaic liturgical piece traditionally performed as a cantorial solo on the eve of Yom Kippur. Growing up, my father always looked forward to Yom Kippur services so that he could hear Kol Nidre; he was so moved by its beauty, whereas I could not imagine how anyone could be excited by the beginning of the fast. But when I heard Johnny Mathis perform it—and I realize how cheesy this sounds—I got choked up. I felt it in my bones, in my stomach, everywhere. After all these years, I finally understood what my dad meant. I finally understood why this piece of music means so much to so many people.