Strange Happenings: The Holyday Calamities of Avremele Melamed is a paraphrase of a familiar satirical motif in eastern European Jewish folklore. Recounting examples of his comical misfortunes while feigning commiseration, the song pokes fun at Avremele, a hapless village Jewish schoolteacher and elementary religious instructor who either manages to blunder or whose luck seems always to be against him at holy day times. Avremele—a diminutive for Avraham, or Abraham (little Avram), which itself suggests a note of condescension or mockery when applied to an adult in this context—is portrayed here as the typical mishap victim who might be described in contemporary terms as a loser or a fortune’s fool, constantly finding himself in some predicament through no real fault of his own or owing to carelessness or absentmindedness. First, a bit of barley—one of the forbidden grains during the Festival of Passover—is discovered in the matza dumplings at the seder in Avremele’s home on the first night of Passover. Next comes the Festival of Shavuot. In many regional traditions, cheese-filled crepes known as blintzes have long been a sine qua non for this holy day, when the custom is to eat dairy dishes. But the recipe for blintzes requires butter, and Avremele’s cat has eaten the butter—apparently when it is too late to obtain more. On Rosh Hashana, a central commandment concerns hearing the sounding of the shofar in the synagogue—which occurs just after the completion of the morning service (shaḥarit) and the biblical readings and prior to the musaf service. Avremele, however, has dutifully gone off to the mikve (ritual bath) after shaḥarit, apparently hoping in vain to return before the completion of the Torah reading and in time to hear the shofar blasts. And finally, his observance of a custom in connection with spiritual preparations for Yom Kippur on the day preceding it is thwarted when his rooster dies—again when there is no time to procure a replacement. This refers to an old custom known as kapparot—or kapore in Yiddish—whereby a fowl is substituted symbolically for one’s sins. One “lays the sins” upon the head of a chicken or a rooster as a substitute for punishment and as a symbol of atonement. The fowl is then slaughtered for consumption at the meal on the eve of Yom Kippur, just prior to the fast. The reference here to a white rooster alludes to a common preference for white as the symbol of purity and holiness in connection with this holiest of days. This custom is not mentioned in the Talmud, and its origin has been described by some rabbis as a “pagan ritual.” Some connect it to the scapegoat (azazel) ritual in antiquity in which a goat was sent from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem into the desert on the day of Yom Kippur, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20–22). However, some rabbis opposed it on these same grounds, for after the destruction of the Temple, even symbolic animal sacrifice was forbidden. Although in the 16th century Rabbi Joseph Caro in his shulḥan arukh (Code of Jewish Law) called kapparot a “stupid custom,” it seems to have gained wide currency in Jewish communities, and most rabbis have been reluctant to outlaw it. Some rabbis suggested that this exchange be done with something other than a live animal. In more recent times, many people observe the custom by substituting a token monetary sum that is then offered to charity.
The motif of Avremele Melamed and his misfortunes, as well as the basic melody of this piece, belong to Yiddish folklore. But there have been a number of song versions and settings. This concert arrangement, with its virtuoso solo element and its invitation for additional cantorial-type improvisation, is by Maurice Goldman. Goldman was a prolific composer of both Hebrew liturgical and Yiddish choral music—first in Cleveland, and then in Los Angeles, where he taught at the University of Judaism and directed several choruses, including the Los Angeles Oratorio Society. In addition to synagogue music, he wrote a number of cantatas and several chamber works, as well as film scores. He also wrote a number of arrangements for the Roger Wagner Chorale.
Sung in Hebrew
Avremele melamed...[Avremele the teacher]
In whose house was a grain of forbidden barley found in the matza balls on the first seder of Passover?
Whose butter did the cat lick up on the first day of Shavuot, and who was thus left without blintzes?
Oy, who went off to the mikve (ritual bath) on the first day of Rosh Hashana right after the early morning service and missed the sounding of the shofar?
Whose white rooster died on the eve of Yom Kippur, leaving him without a kapore (symbolic expiatory sacrifice)?
Orchestrator: Larry Spivack
Translation by Eliyahu Mishulovin
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