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.
Beyond just being a really cool project of The Idelsohn Society—a cohort of four self proclaimed “music dumpster divers” who have dedicated themselves to the preservation of lost vinyl—this album speaks profoundly to me as a Jewish educator, and to the work I do at JOI. My approach to Jewish education and engagement has always centered on embracing the diversity of Jewish expression, and the acknowledgment that there is no singular way to be Jewish. JOI’s vision of Public Space Judaism, an organizing concept that literally brings Judaism to where people are, builds upon this idea. You never know what people are going to respond to, which means that it becomes essential to get creative in the way we seek to reach people. Beyond that, listening to this album made me think a lot about who accesses Jewish life—be it Jewish art, music, food, theology, whatever—and it’s not necessarily always Jewish people. Justin Bieber says the Shema—the Hebrew declaration of monotheistic belief—before every concert, not because he is Jewish, but because he was inspired to incorporate it into his own life, his own ritual. It may seem silly, but when I heard that I couldn’t help but feel that much more proud to be Jewish.
I was enormously uplifted by the way the artists who contributed to Black Sabbath were able to reimagine traditional Jewish music. It inspires me to apply that spirit of renewal to other aspects of my Jewish life, and to encourage my Jewish community to do the same.
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