Jewish Currents November-December 2003 57:6 (621) pp23-24

"Shir L'Shalom" --Reclaiming a Secular Jewish Anthem


[Portions in brackets did not appear in print.]

To honor Yitzchak Rabin's eighth yortsayt (November 4th, 1995), JEWISH CURRENTS[, becoming the first national publication to do so,] prints my faithful -- not prayerful -- singing translation [in English] of the secular Hebrew song, ""Shir L'Shalom," "The Song of Peace" (text by Ya'acov Rotblit with music by the late Yair Rozenbloom). [Jerusalem music librarian Ryna Kedar writes that the song "was first performed by the Nachal Troupe in 1970." It "was controversial because of the words and I believe not played for a while."] This was the song that the Israeli prime minister sang with pop singer Miri Aloni and the crowd at a major peace rally just before Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish fanatic. It has risen in populartiy as a peace anthem ever since.

[The translation, by Leonard Lehrman, was first performed at North Shore Synagogue (Syosset NY) in 1995, and in 1996 at the Jewish Music Roundtable of the Music Library Association convention in Seattle, and at the Concord Hotel as part of a celebration of the Lehrman Family, whose Newsletter published it.

Reading a New York Times account of the event, American composer Jeffrey Nytch (b. 1964) was inspired to create a new choral setting of the text, in a literal, unrhymed English translation. Brady Allred conducted the premiere of this work Feb. 23, 1997, by the Duquesne University Chamber Singers, which toured with the piece in Germany, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia.

Nytch's work is not easy, but worth the effort. It has been performed, he writes, by "various other college & community groups," most recently on a June 8, 2003 concert "Of War and Peace" with Jersey City's Schola Cantorum on Hudson conducted by Deborah Simpkin King. A member of the group writes that it was one of the most powerful pieces she had ever sung.

Contacted by phone in Jerusalem (thanks to Dr. Yosef Goldenberg, acting head librarian, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, who writes that composer "Yair Rosenblum [b. 1943] died several years ago [in 1997] after a hard disease"), the poet Ya'acov Rotblit (b. 1945) knew of the existence of several translations of his work, but did not know the Nytch setting, most likely because Nytch says he has "not had any luck with a publisher: my work doesn't fit into a nice neat category," and publishers "tend to claim that it's too difficult" - an all too common, and frustrating situation for so many composers today.]

The only published English singing translation of the Rozenbloom setting is that of Transcontinental, the Reform synagogue movement's music publisher, from 1996. It was a very free adaptation called "Hand in Hand" by Stanley Ralph Ross and composer Michael Isaacson. Instead of remaining faithful to the song's message that it's better to work for and sing a song of peace rather than to [just] sit around praying [- a worthy Jewish secular statement if there ever was one! - ] the Ross-Isaacson version may be summarized as "Let's all pray for peace." It does include the lines, "Let's strive to do our best to make sure war is banned" and "We must walk hand in hand," but it also includes lines like "give thanks to God above," "God's eternal love," and "we pray that it [peace] is not a dream," - although there is no mention of the deity in the original Hebrew song.

To the contrary, the song insists[, secularly]: "La-khein rak shiru shir l'shalom, al tilkhashu t'filah," which I translate: "Better to sing a song of shalom than murmuring a prayer." [And even Michael Isaacson himself, though he asked not to be quoted, conceded - at the 2003 Guild of Temple Musicians convention in New York - that my translation is closer to the Hebrew original than his.

At the 1997 GTM convention, Transcontinental's Judy Tischler observed that turning the Shir L'Shalom into a Prayer for Peace made it acceptable, and performable, in hundreds of synagogues - and churches - around the country, and, she asked, wasn't that more important than fidelity to the original text's intentions?]

Curious to know the poet's reaction, I reached Yaa'cov Rotblit by phone in Jerusalem and asked what he thought about the journey has poem has taken through several translations. [Not too surprisingly, just as Bertolt Brecht replied smilingly: "Let them do my plays" - when Eric Bentley informed him in the 1950s that various translators and directors were distorting his works' original intentions, so] Rothblit took an ecumenical view: "Yes, I wrote originally, Llet's stop praying and work for peace!' But in our situation here, prayers are welcome [too]. Thirty-five years later, I think we should pray too."

[So, as I wrote Michael Isaacson and the GTM, "there's room for all of us in this world."] Nevertheless, [thanks to Jewish Currents,] perhaps this secular peace anthem will now reach more of the secular Jewish public that [deserves to hear it and] ought to be singing it.

LEONARD LEHRMAN's compositions include ten operas. His translation of "Shir L'Shalom," first performed in 1995, will be performed by the Oceanside Chorale under his direction on Saturday, December 6th at 8:00 p.m. [postponed by the snowstorm to December 20th!] at the Boardman Middle School in Oceanside, Long Island.