Am Yisroel Chai
Shlomo Carlebach's Version and Earlier Versions
By Jacob Birnbaum
My good friend, Shulamith Berger, has drawn my attention to Gavriel Bellino's inquiry on the Jewish-Music list, "Four Questions on Am Yisroel Chai."
After initiating the grass-roots movement for Soviet Jewry with the creation of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in April 1964, I strove to generate movement songs (now assembled in "Songs of Hope for Russian Jews," originally "Songs of Protest for Russian Jews").
Our dear friend Cantor Sherwood Goffin became the first troubadour of these songs, sang some of them in the Soviet Union in 1970 and recorded some of them in the record "The New Slavery."
I was determined to get one from Shlomo Carlebach. We knew each other and our grandfathers had become acquainted in 1897 at the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. His zaide, Rabbiner Arthur Cohn, was Rabbi in Basle and my zaide Dr. Nathan Birnbaum was elected to be the first Zionist Secretary-General.
Shlomo was constantly on the move and hard to pin down. His mother Rebbetzin Paula Carlebach was most helpful in forwarding my requests for a song "Am Yisroel Chai." The request began to resonate with him when he flew to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. Later he told me that he had washed my letter, typed on "Student Struggle" stationery, down the airplane toilet in some trepidation.
He first sang the song to a group of Prague youngsters. I did not know about this at the time but had continued to press Rebbetzin Carlebach that he should have something ready for our great Jericho march of Sunday April 4, 1965. Late on Friday afternoon April 2nd, my phone rang and Shlomo's exhausted voice said, "Yankele, I've got it for you!"
Jericho Sunday dawned bright and sunny. We encircled the Soviet UN Mission on East 67th Street in New York, Jericho style, to the trumpeting of seven shofars blown seven times and marched to the UN. Shlomo was inspired and for the first time publicly sang what was to become a contemporary Jewish liberation anthem. Even Irving Spiegel, the usually kvetchy New York Times correspondent, basked in the pervasive joyful spirit of the moment.
Shlomo had added another phrase "Od Ovinu Chai" with which he climaxed the song on a high note of exaltation. He took this from the Biblical Yosef's exclamation about his father Yaakov. I would say that this was the culmination of Shlomo's first musical period, which I would call his "Neshomo" period, marking the revival of popular Jewish religious music after the destruction of the great East European reservoir of popular Jewish music during the Holocaust. I well remember the barrenness of the Jewish music scene in the post World War II years. It was Shlomo who revived the "Ovinu" consciousness in the latter 1950s.
When I brought Shlomo into the Soviet Jewry liberation movement, he entered his second musical phase -- a preoccupation with the physical rescue of the Jewish people and Israel, the "Guf" phase, one might say. After the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, he went to the Wall and sang the new song of liberation but now in reverse order. Now he began with a high triumphant "Od Ovinu Chai" with "Am Yisroel" in second place.
This also pointed to his third phase, which I'd call his "Mikdosh" phase. He had not been well and in 1994, my wife and I went to daven Slichos with him at his shul. Avoiding his more usual sentimental discursive style, he spoke brilliantly and deeply about contemporary spiritual challenges and then the service got under way.
In his later years, young Hasidim had become enchanted with him. Many such were present and the scene became religiously electric, the davenen becoming ever more intense with his microphone-aided voice soaring ecstatically over it all. I was startled and moved and faces all around me were lit up in fervor. As we left, I said to my wife, "This was a Mikdosh experience and Shlomo's essence."
Shlomo had expanded beyond the striving for the redemption of the individual soul to the physical redemption of Am Yisroel and finally penetrated to the holy core of Jerusalem's Mikdosh.
Shortly thereafter, Shlomo passed on.
In sum, with his early neoclassic melodies, he responded to the yearnings of younger post-Holocaust generations to reach into their Jewish roots, to hold on and rebuild their Jewish identity. He was responding to something even larger than a physical Holocaust, to the pervasive thinning and disintegration of Jewish identity in recent centuries.
That is why he later responded to another of my requests, to compose a song of Jewish resistance and renaissance in the Soviet Union. I asked him for a rendering of the Psalmic "lo omus ki echyeh" -- "I will not die but live" (also to be found in "Songs of Hope for Russian Jews"). This covered my Soviet Jewry slogan "Let My People Go! Let My People Know!" "Lo omus" did not take hold in the same way as "Am Yisroel Chai", but "Let My People Know" was appropriated by a number of outreach groups.
But in his mind and heart one might say that Shlomo's greatest passion was "Let My People Rejoice!" Job cried out that "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward!" Shlomo's preference was surely to overcome and supplant the pessimistic "born to sorrow" with an ecstatic "born to joy!"
As to the origins of the term "Am Yisroel Chai", the discussion of Cantor Sam Weiss of Paramus on the Internet mailing list jewish-music at shamash dot org (post of April 29, 2003) fits my experience very well. Biblical Israel spoke of "Amcho" or "Ami" -- HaShem's People. Much later, the Hasidim made much use of the term "Dein Folk Yisruel". In modern times this became "Dus Yiddishe Folk", separating the Jewish entity from its Divine originator and partner. It figures that the concept of an independent "Am" was the expression of a modern Jewish nationalist consciousness -- Zionism. Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, the pioneer Jewish nationalist long before Herzl, who'd coined the term Zionism and later became a pioneer Baal Teshuva early in the twentieth century, sought a reunion of the two with his manifesto "Am Hashem."
I believe I may have first heard a version of "Am Yisroel Chai" in the 1930s during the rise of the Nazis as an expression of Jewish national defiance and hope. A version appeared in a German Zionist song book, another was sung in the D. P. camps after Word War II. When Golda Meir became the first Israeli Ambassador to Moscow in the 1950s, she walked to the synagogue on the first Sabbath, great crowds gathered and shouts of "Am Yisroel Chai" were heard. As the Soviet Jewish resistance movement developed, the distinguished Yiddish poet Yosef Kerler composed his own version. When I enlisted Shlomo's aid in 1964, none of these versions were current.
More than two decades ago, I was approached by someone who felt that Titus' Arch in Rome, displaying the Roman removal of the ritual objects from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., was a "busha," a continuing shame for the Jewish people, and we should find some way of blowing it up. I responded that the Romans were long gone but we were still here, truly "Am Yisroel Chai." Later, I heard that someone had scratched the term onto the monument as graffiti. I hope it is still there! I was pleased that I had worked on Shlomo to create the song.
© Copyright J. Birnbaum, May 2003.
Keywords: Shlomo Carlebach, Am Yisra'eil Chay.