The Yom Kippur Jazz Singer

Scene from the movie The Jazz Singer (1972).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.


Related Posts:
Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement)
The Yom Kippur War Miracle

14 thoughts on “The Yom Kippur Jazz Singer

  1. You have created a bridge bringing the ancient understanding to this generation. I thank you for your every effort. I am grateful to have you to learn from.

    Someone asked me the other day what Moses’ seat meant – and I knew the answer! Which also explained why the priests were referred to as chairs!

    Many, many conversations have been started with things learned from this wall. What an amazing bridge you have built here Nehemia.

    What tears at your heart is the same that brings us to this wall.

  2. I too am loyal to our Living God Yehovah. There is such a need for Truth. The world is suffering from religious traditions that separate us from the truth of the Hebrew scriptures.

  3. Where can one find the prayers said on Rosh Hashana and Yom Trumah ? I no longer attend the traditional “orthodox” synagogues. Please reply so that I may keep Hashem’s holy days?

    • As part of my learning experience, i 15 or so years ago purchased a cassette from the Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in New York city. Beautiful songs for the sabbath morning service, Hazan Ira Rohde. I think they had others for the high days.

  4. Thanks Nehemia. Keeping Yehovah’s calendar can be a bit lonely and I missed the congregational aspect of Yom Kippur this year. But thanks to this sweet tribute to your Papa, I didn’t miss Kol Nidre. And I, for one, am a fan. Shalom

  5. Powerful Nehemia. The mother role tore at my heart as in a unique way I am experiencing this. Thank you for sharing this today.

  6. I love your life story! It stirs my spirit when I read how YHVH draws His people to truth when they listen. Thank you for your boldness to use your platform in proclaiming the truth of the Living Word of God. Shalom!

  7. Shalom Nechemia. I love your heart towards Father. I love and respect the fact that you stand-up against traditions for the TRUTH wich IS YHVH’s WORD. Thank you for the respect you have to Father and HIS WORD. May YHVH bless you and keep you on this Special YOM KIPPUR. Shalom alecheim.

  8. Beautiful Movie! Touched my heart and brought me to tears. Before I read your comentary, while watching the movie, you came to my mind and your testimony in the Raiders of the Lost book teaching. Enjoyed the movie greatly. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thank you for sharing. I can relate, as I have also been called to pursue the heart of my Heavenly Father in ways that shatter the traditional religion taught to me by my earthly father. I love rediscovering His Word. Thank you Nehemia for your ministry that brings light to my spiritual walk. Shalom and bless you.

  10. Nehemia,

    As beautiful as the Kol Nidre is, is it in line with scripture. The Tanakh teaches us to be very careful about the vows we make. I understand the purpose during the Middle Ages, but maybe this is something we should all take a look at.

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