One Yom Kippur I watched a great movie, the original 1927 film The Jazz Singer. This was the first "talkie," containing several scenes with sound, although most of it was still silent. The second “talking” scene in the movie - actually, the second non-silent scene in movie history - features a Jewish cantor singing Kol Nidre, a famous Yom Kippur prayer in Aramaic. This alone makes the movie worth watching. Just imagine an American audience in 1927. The first time they see a "talking" movie. And it’s a Rabbi singing a Jewish prayer in Aramaic!
The Jazz Singer is about the clash between traditional faith and modern secularism in the American Jewish experience, with a definite slant towards the perspective of Secularism. The main character, Jakie Rabinowitz, rejects his father's desire for him to be a cantor and instead uses his musical talent to become the titular "Jazz Singer."
Secular culture is Jakie's religion and secular song is his worship. Jakie explains this new secular religion to his father: "You taught me that music is the voice of God! It is as honorable to sing in the theatre as in the synagogue! My songs mean as much to my audience as yours to your congregation!" When one of his father’s Orthodox Jewish friends implores Jakie to return to his Jewish religion he replies: "We in the show business have our religion, too."
As much as Jakie wants to swap out his Jewish heritage for secular culture, in the end he can't resist the faith of his ancestors. Near the end of the movie, Jakie sings the same Aramaic prayer that his father sang at the beginning. His Gentile girlfriend remarks in awe: "a jazz singer - singing to his God." Jakie’s Aramaic prayer is the last thing his father hears before he dies. Then his father’s spirit is there with Jakie in the synagogue as he continues the Yom Kippur prayer. The movie ends with Jakie being a success in show business while also honoring the faith of his father, albeit without the religious strictures of Orthodox Judaism.
I deeply identify with Jakie Rabinowitz and the struggle he faced between the Old World religion of his father and the calling of his heart. Like Jakie my heart is moved to serve God, but not in the way my father envisioned.
Jakie’s father taught him that singing was sacred and this sanctity could only be expressed by becoming a synagogue cantor. He actually embraced the lesson of his father, but not the way his father intended. Instead, he expressed this according to his own convictions by becoming a jazz singer. As Jakie explained to his father, “You’re of the Old World! If you were born here, you’d feel the same as I do.” Jakie’s secular Jewishness was an American adaptation of the Old World faith of his father.
Like Jakie’s father, my own father taught me a lesson that I embraced, but not in the way he intended. My father was an Orthodox Rabbi who taught me that the Tanakh (Hebrew) was sacred. He wanted me to be a Rabbi deeply immersed in the Babylonian Talmud, the ancient Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. To my father, the Hebrew Bible was a dead corpse without the interpretation of the Talmud to give it life. Yet, the calling of my heart led me to embrace the Hebrew Bible as the living Word of God. I too saw the faith of my father as the heritage of an Old World, the Babylonian Talmud being a product of our 2,000 years of Exile. Born into a world in which the Jewish People have begun to return to our ancestral homeland, restored our ancient language, and liberated the eternal capital of our people, I felt called to return to the perfect Word of God in the Hebrew Bible without the Talmud as an intermediary.
I have been implored many times by friends and relatives to return to the Orthodox Judaism of my father. But I couldn't forsake the living Word of God in the Hebrew Bible even if I wanted to. As Jakie said in the movie, just before praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur: "there's something, after all, in my heart- maybe it's the call of the ages-- the cry of my race... tearing at my heart." The call of the ages that my ancestors heard at Sinai rings louder in my ears than 2,000 years of rabbinical discourses. The cry of my race, Hear O Israel, Yehovah is my God, Yehovah is One overwhelms my soul more than any ancestral tradition. The Hebrew Bible tears at my heart more than any cantorial recitation. While I can’t sing for my life, I believe the spirit of what my father taught me is with me when I proclaim the perfect truth of God's holy and precious Word.