Der khazn un der gabe
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Der khazn un der gabe belongs to a special category of “cantorial folk-art song,” which combines secular folksong motifs with elements of hazzanut that fit into the plot or story of a song—usually concerning cantors or hazzanut.
This song depicts, with characteristic comic exaggeration, a typical syndrome of friction that sometimes existed between cantors and lay leaders, or between a particular cantor and a gabbai—the lay warden of a congregation and its supervisor of ritual matters. That friction could derive from jurisdictional disputes, from simple personality conflict, or—from cantors’ perspectives, which this song projects—from a degree of envy in those situations where a gabbai might have considered himself more knowledgeable than the cantor, or even superior as a ba’al t’filla.
The song’s background here is uncertain. Perhaps, as a deliberate snub, the gabbai pretends not to recognize the cantor of his congregation—either in connection with an ongoing quarrel or in a refusal to nod to his popularity or independence. Another possibility is that the cantor has arrived for an audition, and at first the gabbai does not realize who he is. Either way, the gabbai projects some animosity toward cantors in general.
In any case, the cantor here proclaims his right to sing whenever and whatever he wishes—making his point by invoking and singing words of a private prayer that normally would never be chanted cantorially or even aloud. (That text, observed by the devout, follows the completion of bodily functions, and therefore obviously lends added humor to the song.) “If I want, I can sing even that...” he seems to be saying. The opening of the song will surely evoke laughter from attuned audiences.
After either mistaking, or pretending to mistake, the cantor for several ordinary townspeople, the gabbai finally recognizes him—but as part cantor and part fool. That might be a reference to a common jibe at cantors, in which the three Hebrew characters that spell the word hazzan are claimed by cantorial detractors to form an acronym for the Yiddish phrase khazonim zaynen naronim: “cantors are fools.” Here, of course, the cantor has the last word: the gabbai is the fool for not taking the cantor’s initial “sung hint.”
There is also another little-known underlying basis for this song. According to family members who recognized their identities and names, Pinchik was referring to specific characters he had known in his hometown in the Ukraine.