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Oyb nit nokh hekher 16:50
 

Liner Notes

Maurice Rauch’s Yiddish cantata Oyb nit nokh hekher is based on the same story by Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz that was used by Sholom Secunda for his cantata in English, If Not Higher, which is included in Volume 17 of the Milken Archive. The notes accompanying the Secunda piece have further details with regard to the original story and its author.

Rauch’s librettist for this endeavor was the eminent Yiddishist and Yiddish literary advocate Itche Goldberg (1904–2006), with whom he collaborated on a number of works written initially (as in this case) for the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus in New York, which he conducted for many years.

Born in Apt, Poland, Goldberg grew up in Warsaw, where he acquired a modern secular education at a Zionist school. As a young student, although he knew even then that he was not headed for a personally religious life, he felt driven to gain Judaic knowledge, and he wanted to attend the Jewish teachers seminary in Warsaw, which also had among its students many Hassidim who, despite the school’s modern worldview, sought by their enrollment to avoid military conscription. The minimum age at the seminary was sixteen, but when Goldberg was thirteen, he persuaded the head of the seminary, Rabbi Posnansky—also the rabbi at the famous modern but still orthodox Tłomackie Synagogue in the city—to admit him.

He emigrated to Canada in 1920 and a few years later began teaching at socialist-oriented Yiddish schools in Toronto as well as at those of the left-leaning Yiddish-speaking Zionist circles (in particular the Labor Zionist Farband). In 1932 he moved once again, this time to New York, where he settled permanently and became intimately involved with the Ordn (Jewish People’s Fraternal Order), which had recently been organized (late 1920s) and was admittedly aligned with the Soviet Union and the Yiddish-speaking Communist milieu. His principal interest, however, eventually was cultural, which for him meant the revitalization and promotion of Yiddish language, literature, and related music and their humanistic dimensions and history. He directed the cultural and educational departments of the Ordn and its network of schools. Like Peretz (at whose funeral he was present in Warsaw at the age of thirteen), he was committed to Yiddish culture as the primary engine of a secular (but nonetheless spiritual) Jewish identity, and he was convinced that the human values at the core of Yiddish literature were still not fully tapped as a potential primary source for a secular Judaism. He edited a number of Yiddish journals, including Yungvarg (Youth) and Proletarishe dertsiung (Proletarian Education), authored textbooks for left-wing Yiddishist schools, wrote a book on Yiddish dramaturgy, and produced numerous essays that were published as collections. And he published the literary magazine Yidish. He was also a professor of Yiddish literature at Queens College in New York for fifty years, and one of the principal figures responsible for the successful transplantation of Yiddish culture to America and for its establishment and expansion as an American and American Jewish phenomenon.

Rauch’s score differs significantly from Secunda’s, and not only by virtue of its use of the Yiddish language and its musical sensitivity to linguistic details and nuances. Secunda’s piece is geared more toward tasteful but forceful operatic display—which is understandable inasmuch as he had in mind the brilliant tenor voice of the renowned opera star Richard Tucker as he composed it—whereas Rauch’s approach more closely reflects the folk character of the tale (or at least its outward trappings), its protagonist and antagonist, and the surroundings. Secunda composed his cantata for a professional chorus that he knew would not be a Jewish one per se, although good amateur choruses could perform it as well. Rauch’s work, however, was aimed specifically at Yiddish-speaking folk choruses, which he and Goldberg viewed as “people’s choruses” whose members would not only understand every word and idiomatic expression of the Yiddish but also would identify with the story’s positive, humanitarian dimensions and the central message that meshed with their socialist or even farther left sensibilities.

Even more divergent is Goldberg’s carefully considered libretto (his first collaboration with Rauch), which is at once more profound, more nuanced, and more faithful to the underlying story than Samuel Rosenbaum’s more Americanized, more contemporary, and less authentic treatment for the Secunda cantata. In a nearly seamless way, Goldberg lays greater stress on the secular humanism at the heart of the story, which in his interpretation is veiled only for effect by the Hassidic—and thus religious, God-centered—context. For many readers of Peretz’s work, that emphasis was also his intention, indeed the central point of the story.

For Goldberg, the Litvak, underneath his talmudic exterior, is not so much a religious skeptic of Hassidism and its emblematic magical beliefs (the traditional Litvak tag) as he is a symbolic doubter of humanity and its potential for goodness and kindness on its own—without religious motivation (Peretz himself came on certain levels to accept Hassidism’s role in constructing and promoting such values, even as he continued to scorn its primitive folkways, unworldliness, and exploitative abuses). This Litvak was Peretz’s creation, which he used to surround his own variant (one of many) of a story—the kernel of which had grown as a Hassidic legend about R. Moshe Leyb of Sassov—of a selfless, charitable rebbe for whom human kindness trumps religious ritual obligations.

In typical American fashion, Rosenbaum’s libretto is more romantically linked to invented pseudo-nostalgia and to perceptions of the Hassidic world as an admirable bastion of spirituality, Jewish substance, and warm interactions. Goldberg’s libretto—more like this and other Peretz stories that merely used the Hassidic environment as a backdrop—never becomes truly immersed in that world and its insular life. Rather, Goldberg, along with Rauch, appears to be an outside if fascinated spectator. But he perceives the Nemirover rebbe not so much as a religious hero driven by devotion to God or by the moral centrality of the Torah and Divine teaching, but as an even more worthy secular model of human ethics and morality.

Following the premiere in New York, a sister chorus in Detroit that was also affiliated with the Jewish Music Alliance and the Ordn—part of the network of leftist choruses that before the 1950s merger had been established by the International Workers Order (see the biographical sketch on Rauch)—decided to add this cantata to its repertoire and to program it at one of its major concerts. When the administrative programming and repertoire committee realized that the story concerned Hassidim, a rebbe, and prayers, they abruptly canceled those plans on the grounds that a piece tied in any way to religion or religious themes—or even depicting them—could have no place in the mission of their staunchly secularist and fiercely antireligious chorus.

Not because he was the librettist, but because he believed so firmly in the underlying nonreligious or extra-religious message of the story, Goldberg traveled at his own expense to Detroit to convince the committee that the concept of humanism expressed by the actions and deeds of a rabbi or rebbe does not make the story religious. To the contrary, he explained, the story underscores an opposition to a restrictive “God orientation” as well as to a more narrow, religion-based social awareness; here, the rebbe’s true religion was humanism, for which he and all the other religiously related elements are merely vehicles for expressing that set of values. In fact, Goldberg continued, the story demonstrates that humanism—indeed, secular humanism—is a higher and more worthy worldview than religion; that the “higher” in Peretz’s title means not only that the rebbe ascends higher than heaven—higher than religion—and that humanistic values are higher than religious ones. Also, he pointed out that a part of Hassidism was actually intertwined with humanistic concerns; moreover, like the Yiddishists and their chorus, Hassidism was, after all, a “people’s” movement—thus making it “a bit of socialism.” Not only did the story and his libretto transcend Hassidism or religion, or even specifically or exclusively Jewish values, but it could also in theory have had an entirely different setting and set of characters to demonstrate the same humanism. Thus, this particular setting and these characters are those with whom the “Jewish folk” of Europe could identify.

In summing up his argument, Goldberg referred to a vaguely similar story about the BESHT (the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism), who is said to have heard a crying child one day while he was on his way to the synagogue. Knowing that he would be late and even miss some of the required prayers, the BESHT nevertheless stopped to attend to the child and calm him. “This, too, is socialism,” Goldberg proclaimed, and in the end he prevailed.

 

By: Neil W. Levin

 

Lyrics

Libretto by by Itsik Goldberg, based on Isaac Leyb Peretz’s story
Sung in Yiddish

CHORUS:
Where can the rebbe be?

NARRATOR/ SOLOIST:
Where can the rebbe be?

NARRATOR AND CHORUS:
Every morning during slikhes time1 the Nemerover rebbe used to disappear. He couldn’t be found anywhere – not in the besmedresh (house of study), not in the shul (synagogue), not with a minyan (prayer quorum), nor at home…

CHORUS:
He really was nowhere to be found. Where can the rebbe be? Where has the rebbe gone?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
Indeed, it must be concluded, it must be said, that the rebbe – he should live a long life – that the Nemerover rebbe – his merit should protect us – is up in heaven.

CHORUS:
The people need practical sustenance – to make a living; they need [matrimonial] matches to be made; they need health; they need peace. Who will advocate for them? Who will intervene [on their behalf] at the Throne of Glory, in front of God in heaven, if not the rebbe? Ay, ay, ay! Our rebbe is in heaven; our rebbe neither sleeps nor slumbers. The rebbe pleads compassion for us in heaven. Our rebbe is in heaven.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
But a Litvak (stereotypical talmudic rationalist and anti-Hassidic Lithuanian Jew) shows up, who doesn’t accept or believe in [the power of] rebbes. He laughs and he ridicules – you know how Litvaks are! “The rebbe,” he mocks, “is not up there at all.”

CHORUS:
Ha! Litvak, Litvak! You hard-headed faithless cynic2. Have you no fear [of the Almighty], no respect or faith? In what do you believe – what kind of strange idols (gods) do you worship?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (quoting the Litvak, in stereotypical Lithuanian dialect):
“Gentlemen, friends, it is a known Talmudic saying that moyshe rabbenu (Moses, our teacher) never ascended to heaven alive; so if even moyshe rabbenu didn’t, your rebbe certainly hasn’t.”

CHORUS:
Litvak, Litvak! Faithless cynic! Skeptic! What kind of strange idols do you worship? Our rebbe is in heaven. If the rebbe isn’t in heaven, Litvak, then where is the rebbe?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (quoting the Litvak):
“All I know is that he is not in heaven.”

CHORUS:
If the rebbe isn’t in heaven, Litvak, then where can he be found?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (quoting the Litvak):
“[As if it’s] my problem – my worry! It might as well be my grandmother’s problem! However, if I were there, as a straw in the [his] mattress3 to witness it, I would have figured it out by now.”

CHORUS AND NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
Listen to an awesome tale. Leave it to a Litvak! He hides under the rebbe’s bed, all alone with the Nemerover: leave it to a Litvak! He is frightened, he’s shivering, but doesn’t back off.

That very night he steals into the rebbe’s room. The rebbe – he should live a long life – is in his bed; and the Litvak, the apikoyres (skeptic/doubter) is under the bed – under the rebbe’s bed. It is slikhes time (pre-dawn) – leave it to a Litvak! – And the Litvak begins to think: ‘Maybe it’s possible that the rebbe really does ascend to heaven.’ The rebbe groans in his bed, and under the bed the Litvak is frightened, but still he doesn’t back off.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
There is a knock at the window.

CHORUS (quoting the traditional call to arise for morning prayers):
“Dear Jews, sweet souls, awaken, arise to the service of the Creator [to prayer].”

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
The rebbe – he should live a long life – wakes up and puts on peasant’s clothes: canvas overalls, large boots, a coarse peasant shirt, a fur hat, and a leather belt. And under the belt he jams an axe; and the rebbe goes out.

CHORUS:
The Litvak is frightened, but still doesn’t back off.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST AND CHORUS:
Just outside the town there is a little forest. The rebbe goes into the forest and goes up to a tree and strikes the tree with the axe.

The tree groans and falls. Then the rebbe chops it up into kindling wood and ties it up with a rope and returns to town.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
The Litvak trembles with fear, but doesn’t back off.

CHORUS AND NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
The rebbe stops at a poor cottage and knocks on the window and on the door. “Poor one, open up for me!”

THE POOR WOMAN INSIDE (solo voice):
Who’s there?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (quoting the rebbe, who speaks in a Slavic tongue – pretending to be a local peasant):
“Ya. It’s Vasil. I have [fire] wood to sell, very cheaply – next to nothing.”

THE POOR WOMAN:
Buy? Buy with what? How much would I have to pay?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (the rebbe as Vasil):
Six groschen, that’s all.

THE POOR WOMAN:
Even for next to nothing I can’t pay.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (the rebbe as Vasil):
You poor one, have you lost all faith, God forbid? You have a great God. Can you not trust Him for six groschen, poor one?

CHORUS:
And the rebbe – he should live a long live – enters the cottage. Beneath her tattered clothes the poor woman shivers in the gray dawn light. While singing a nign (melody) he lights her stove – a slikhes tune (from the s’liḥot [penitential] liturgy):

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (as the rebbe singing from the s'liḥot liturgy in Hebrew):
Asher b’yado nefesh kol ḥai v’ruaḥ kol b’sar ish; han’ shomo lokh v’haguf po’olokh ḥuso al amolokh. (In Your hands [God] are the souls of all the living and the spirit of all flesh. The soul is Yours, and the body is Your creation. Have compassion upon Your handiwork [children].)

CHORUS:
The soul is Yours, the body is Yours. Have compassion upon Your children.

NARRATOR/SOLOIST:
Trembling, the Litvak finally yields.

CHORUS:
Ay, ay, ay! Our rebbe is in heaven. So what do you say now, Litvak, you non-believing hardhead? Is it true that the rebbe goes up to heaven? Well, tell us now!

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (quoting the Litvak):
“The rebbe in heaven? Higher!”

CHORUS:
Higher than heaven?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (the Litvak):
“Higher!”

CHORUS:   
Even higher than heaven?

NARRATOR/SOLOIST (the Litvak):
“If not even higher!”


1. The period leading up to the High Holydays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), during which the penitential liturgy is recited daily in the early morning hours preceding the recitation/praying of the regular morning service.

2. Common epithet directed at a Lithuanian (or perceived Lithuanian) Jew (Litvak) by other Jews, especially Hassidim, referring to the perceived and/or presumed hard-nosed talmudic intellectualism and rationalism at odds with folk beliefs, emotions, and superstitions (lit., cross-head).

3. Analogous to the American-English expression, “If I were a fly on the wall.”

Libretto by by Itsik Goldberg, based on Yitzhak Leyb Peretz’s story

CHORUS AND NARRATOR (SOLOIST): 
avu, avu ken zayn der rebe?  avu ken zayn der rebe?

SOLOIST:
un der nemerover flegt slikhes tsayt, yedn frimorgn nelem vern,
nelem vern farshvindn, farshvindn. 
men flegt im nit zen in ergets,
in beysmedresh?

CHORUS: 
Nito…

SOLOIST: 
in shul?

CHORUS: 
Nito…

SOLOIST: 
ba a minyen?

CHORUS:
Nito…

SOLOIST: 
in der heym?

CHORUS: 
avade un avade nito.  avu, avu ken zayn der rebe?  avu kumt ahin der rebe?

SOLOIST: 
muz men dokh dringen, darf men dokh zogn, az der rebe (zol lebn!), az der nemerover (zkhusoy yogn oleynu!) iz in himl!

CHORUS:  
in himl!

SOLOIST: 
in himl!

CHORUS:
yidlekh darfn parnose, yidelekh darfn shidukhim, yidlekh darfn gezunt, darfn sholem, iz ver zol zikh miyen, ver zol zikh eynshteln, oyb nit der rebe, baym kisei hakoved, far kevyokhl in himl, oyb nit undzer rebe?

ay, undzer rebe, undzer rebe, ay, undzer rebe’z in himl. undzer rebe, undzer rebe shloft nit un dremlt nit.  mont der rebe far undz rakhmim, rakhamim in himl!

undzer rebe, undzer, rebe iz in himl, undzer rebe!  undzer, undzer rebe, undzer rebe iz in himl!

SOLOIST:
kumt ober on a litvak vos tut in rebn nit gloybn. er lakht un er khoyzekt (ir kent dokh di litvakes), “der rebe,” makht er, “iz dafke nit oybn.”

CHORUS:
“ha! litvak, litvak tseylem kop, tsi hostu nit keyn moyre? litvak, litvak, tseylem kop, vos iz dos far avoyde zore?”

SOLOIST: 
“rabeysay, rabeysay, a befeyrese gemore, az meyse rabeynu, meyse rabeynu iz baym lebn in himl nit aroyf, iz az meyse rabeynu, nit ayer rebe avade un avade nit.”

CHORUS:
litvak, litvak tseylem kop!

SOLOIST:
“…a befeyrese gemore…”

(place large bracket to show that this chorus and the following Soloist text are sung simultaneously) 

CHORUS:
litvak, litvak, tseylem kop, vos iz dos far avoyde zore?  undzer rebe iz in himl litvak, litvak tseylem kop.  oyb der rebe’z nit in himl! Vuzhe iz der rebe? oyb der rebe’z nit in himl, litvak, litvak, vuzshe kumt ahin der rebe?

SOLOIST:
“eysekh eysekh nit in himl!  nit in himl!”

“mayn dayge!  mayn bobes dayge!” 

SOLOIST:
fun dest vegn, volt ikh a baln geven, dergeyn di zakh...

(place large bracket to show that this chorus and the following Soloist text are sung simultaneously) 

CHORUS AND NARRATOR:
hert a mayse noyre. (vos a litvak ken)  er bahalt zikh unter dem rebns bet, eyner aleyn mitn nemerover , (vos a litvak ken) es bafalt im an eyme.  im tsitert di hoyt, der litvak tsitert un tret nit op.  hert a mayse noyre, vos a litvak ken, es krekhst der rebe afn bet, untern bet der litvak tsitert un tret nit op.

(place large bracket to show that the following soloist and chorus texts – until “der rebe geyt aroys.” - are sung simultaneously) 

SOLOIST:
nokh yene nakht beoysoy halayle, er shlaykht zikh arayn in rebns kheyder, der rebe (zol lebn) afn bet, der litvak, der apikoyres untern bet, untern bet fun dem rebn.  slikhes banakht, (vos a litvak ken), der litvak trakht, s’iz efsher a sfore der rebe geyt take in himl aruf, der rebe tut krekhtsn afn bet, es tsitert der apikoyres untern bet un tret nit op. 

SOLOIST:
a klap in fentster. 

CHORUS:
"yidelekh tayere, zise neshomelekh, shteyt uf la’avoydes haboyre, uruno kumuno!“

SOLOIST:
der rebe (zol lebn) shteyt uf un tut zikh on poyerishe kleyder, tut er on pludern layventene, groyse shtivl a poyershe syermyenge, a futern hitl un a pas a ledernem, un untern pas, farshtekt er a hak.

CHORUS:
der litvak tsitert.

SOLOIST:
Der rebe geyt aroys.

CHORUS:
litvak tsitert, un tret nit op.

SOLOIST AND CHORUS:
hinter der shtot shteyt a veldl. der rebe farnemt zikh in veldl, er shtelt zikh lebn a beyml op, shlogt mit der hak in beyml, er shtelt zikh lebn a beyml op, shlogt mit der hak in beyml. krekhtst, dos beyml krekhtst, un falt un der rebe af shaytlekht tseshpalt es. farbint di shaytlekh mit a shtrik, lozt zikh tsurik in shtetl.

SOLOIST:
der litvak tsitert un tret nit op.

CHORUS:
bay a shtibl orem, alt, tut der rebe zikh farhaltn. er klapt in fentster, klapt in tir,

NARRATOR (the rebbe):
"orem mentsh1 du even mir.“

INHABITANT:
ver iz?

NARRATOR (the rebbe):
"ya – ikh vasil. Ikh hob holts tsu farkoyfn zeyer bilik, tsu farkoyfn bekhotsikhinem tsu farkoyfn.“

INHABITANT:
koyfn? Mit vos koyfn batsoln? Vu vel ikh nemen?

NARRATOR (the rebbe):
"zeks groshn, zeks groshn in gantsn.“

INHABITANT:
afile bekhotsikhinem batsoln, vu vel ikh nemen?

NARRATOR (the rebbe):
"orem mentsh du, orem mentsh du, tsi hot dir kholile der bitokhn oysgeloshn. host aza groysn got getroyst im nit zeks groshn, orem mentsh du, orem mentsh du?“

CHORUS:
undzer rebe (lebn zol er) farnemt zikh in shtibl arayn. unter shmates es tsitert di oreme froy in groyen frimorgn shayn. er heyst mit a nign dem oyvn ayn, mit a slikhes nign.

(place large bracket to show that the narrator and the following chorus text are sung simultaneously) 

NARRATOR (the rebbe):
"asher beyodoy nefesh kol khay veruakh kol bosor ish haneshome lokh vehaguf po’olokh. khuso, khuso, al amolokh.”

CHORUS:
di neshome dayn, der guf iz dayner, rakhamim, rakhmim hob af kinder dayne.

NARRATOR:
der litvak tsitert un tret shoyn op.

CHORUS:
ay, ay, ay, undzer rebe, undzer rebe, ay, ay, ay… undzer rebe in himl. nu vos zogstu, nu vos zogstu litvak, litvak, tseylem kop? iz dos emes as der rebe geyt aroyf in himl? zog zhe litvak, geyt der reb’ aroyf in himl? zog zhe litvak, geht er tak’ aroyf in himl?

NARRATOR (the Litvak):
“der rebe in himl? in himl? oyb nit nokh hekher!“

CHORUS:
fun himl nokh hekher?!

NARRATOR (the Litvak):
“hekher!”

CHORUS:
nokh hekher fun himl?!

NARRATOR (the Litvak):
“nokh hekher!”

CHORUS:
“oyb nit nokh hekher!!!”


1. In Polish Yiddish, mentsh is a neuter word, and can be used to refer to a woman.


 

Credits

Composer: Maurice Rauch

Length: 16:50
Genre: Cantata

Performers: Ira Biegeleisen, Bass Baritone;  Choral Society of Southern California;  Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale;  Martha Nagy , Soprano;  Nick Strimple, Conductor;  Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra

Date Recorded: 06/01/2000
Venue: Fox Studios, Newman Scoring Stage #1, Los Angeles, CA
Engineer: Lazarus, Tom
Assistant Engineer: Sedillo, Scott
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Schwendener, Paul

Additional Credits:

Translation: Eli Mishulovin

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