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Courtesy: Ed Remler

I came across the following story in an article entitled Observations and Reflections on the History and Meanings of the Kaddish in Judaism magazine, Winter Issue, 2001, by David Blumenthal. It concerns a poem called the Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak The story is stirring in itself, and even more so if you transpose it to today, replace the nations it refer to, with the great nations of today, and replace the Jew in the story with Israel, the Jew of the nations.

Blumenthal begins,referring to the excellent book on Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810), [by Samuel Dresner who] cites the "Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak" which mixes vernacular Yiddish and liturgical Aramaic. Dresner, [....recounts] a particularly stirring rendition of the singing of this Kaddish.

The soaring strains of this song of divine dissent sounded far beyond the narrow confines of Berdichev, echoing in the hearts of Jews scattered throughout poverty-stricken, persecution-ridden communities in Eastern Europe and, in time, even in far-off America and Israel.... Nor was the mysterious power of this song understood only by the jews... Paul Robeson, for example, the noted black singer, sang it following World War II at the great rallies for European Jewry and for the State of Israel during the early years of the young state's struggle for independence and subsistence.

Robeson sang it in 1958 in Moscow at a special concert The hall was filled to overflowing with military and government officials, persons of influence and culture. Among those present were also a large number of Jews. It was well known that Robeson's repertoire contained many Negro folk songs, African freedom songs, and several Jewish songs. Robeson's procedure was to explain the meaning of each song before he sang it. Conscious of the suffering of Russian Jews, he had decided to sing the Berdichever's Kaddish and listed it on his program.

Suddenly he received a note from a member of the sponsoring committee which read: "No one in the audience understands Yiddish. It would, therefore, be out of place to sing any Jewish songs this evening."

Robeson was perplexed. Yiddish had been listed in the last Russian census as the mother tongue of thirty-five percent of the jews, who were well represented in the audience. Granting the assumed ignorance of Yiddish, would the African songs that he would sing in the languages of Ghana and the Congo be better understood?

The Soviet context is important:
He began his program in his usual manner, explaining each song before it was sung. First, he introduced a series of songs from the Congo and Ghana, indicating their anti-colonial character, which reflected the new spirit of the rising nationalism there.

Then he boldly announced, "And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berdichev.

So it was that he began to sing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's Kaddish.

Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, "Say to the Children of Israel."
And every other verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel."
And over and over, "Command the Children of Israel."
Father, sweet Father in heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
[ a tremor passed through the auditorium, scattered sighs and muffled sobs were heard. And when he began to thunder:]
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"Yisgadal v 'yiskadash shmei raboh-
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name."
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.
Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmei rabok-
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name."

Weeping could be heard from parts of the auditorium. Tears flowed freely from dozens of faces. The applause, sporadic at first, reached a crescendo which threatened to shake the walls. The song became a rallying cry among the frightened Jews of Moscow for weeks to come.

Posted by Ed Remler