Why We Love Sad Songs, or the Nol Kidre spirit


Is Kol Nidre the saddest or the happiest song on earth?

Is Kol Nidre the saddest or the happiest song on earth?


It’s Yom Kippur. We are wearing white, wearing the kind of white shroud in which we’re buried. We’ve had no nourishment, no water, no sex. The body is withering. And when the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark, it all becomes clear – it’s as if we’re looking deep into a casket. We’re lost in an empty wood box, and we’re dressed in white, and we’re chanting confessions. Lawrence Hoffman, Yom Kippur expert, said it best: “If this isn’t our deathbed, what is it?”

But then: We hear chanting. Music. But we are not hearing the heavenly choir, music of the angels. This is not the sweet, neutered voices of innocence lost and regained on a new horizon. It’s actually fairly adult.  The voice quavers, it’s hoarse. It dips to its lowest rung and stays there, without trying to rise. It is wretched. It has looked at its own misery, bending and slurring. It knows itself, capable of sublime heights of feeling and beauty, but it always messes up. It is tragic.  In fact you want to cry because it has passion and guts and sorrow and failure and utter abject nothingness. Life is so sad.

You realize one thing: you’re not in heaven at all. Heaven isn’t supposed to be sad. It’s life and it’s sad.  You’re still here. You’re still here, and it’s hard to be human. It’s a dog’s life, there is so much to be sad about. Hah! Hah!! You’re still here! Stuck here on earth! The chant is Kol Nidre, the existential contribution of the Jews. It was only a dress rehearsal for your own death. The fear was real but it was only a dress rehearsal. Who needs the angels’ choir when you can have Kol Nidre, the saddest song on earth?

You can listen to Cantor Moshe Oysher chant Kol Nidre on YouTube, but start at the .55 minute mark.  Here is Al Jolson singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJPVO_Qkvo#t=44

The adaptation by 19th century Max Bruch for orchestra and cello has been famously recorded by Jacqueline du Pré, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, among others.

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2 Responses to Why We Love Sad Songs, or the Nol Kidre spirit

  1. Pamela says:

    Hi Jill–your post makes me want to hear what this music sounds like. Can you post a link to something on-line? Reading the article made me think about savasana in yoga, the corpse pose, where you ironically enter into profound contact with life itself–vibration, sensation, heart beating, breath moving in and out, and practice letting go for that final exhale…

    • jillbpearlman says:

      Hi Pamela, the link resisted a state of permanence or fixation. It appeared and disappeared, until I found one (from the beginning) that agreed to stay put. Maybe you can see it now. Your savasana comparison is really good. I might have to take that and run with it. But ironic? I rarely think of irony as part of yoga.

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