Max Helfman was a choral conductor and Jewish educator born in Poland. There his father had been a hazan and Max had sung in his choir. He came to this country at age 8, receiving a yeshiva education but no university training. He conducted a Workmen’s Circle chorus and later the Freiheits Gezang Verein, New York’s premier leftist Yiddish choir. He also served as cantor at several eminent Manhattan synagogues.
After the Holocaust and the end of World War II, Helfman’s Jewish cultural perspective turned toward a Zionist and Hebrew cultural one. A large part of this transformation derives from his meeting with Shlomo Bardin, a Jewish educator and visionary who went on to found the Brandeis-Bardin Institute camps. The choirs Helfman directed at the Institute served as the musical incubator of his new American Jewish Hebrew musical idiom. This was how the “choral tone poem-cantata” (as noted in Neil Levin’s liner notes for the Milken Archive-American Classics recording) Di Naye Hagode came to be in 1948.
The composition is based on the famed Soviet Jewish poet, Itzik Feffer‘s epic Yiddish poem about the Warsaw ghetto uprising: Di Shotns fun Varshever Geto.
On Passover eve, April 19, 1943, German troops moved into the Warsaw ghetto to begin the final liquidation of the remaining ghetto inhabitants. They were met with fierce resistance by 750 Jews who decided to fight to the death rather than submit to the yoke of the tyrant. Max Helfman wrote Di Naye Hagode (“The New Haggadah”) as a requiem for the resistance fighters. Just as the Passover haggadah is a “telling” of the story of Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt, this composition is meant as a “telling” of the tale of the uprising and as a lesson in the modern Jewish struggle for freedom.
The intersection of Passover, the uprising and the nascent Jewish state of Israel is nowhere stated better than in the closing song, Aza Der Gegot Iz (“Such is the Command”):
They roam, the shadows of the Warsaw ghetto.
They roam like prophets beheaded,
They bear their cruel fate with pride
And their secret dream is danger.
They wander the world like rebels…
Such is the command,
Such is fate:
To die in order to be reborn,
So begins the New Haggada.
In a tragic note, Feffer was murdered by Stalin just before the infamous anti-Semitic 1952 Doctors’ Plot.
I am offering Ma Nishtano (hear it) whose title means “how is [this night] different?,” as a representative selection from the cantata. The haggadah is a child-oriented primer telling the story of the Exodus so young people can easily understand the major themes of the holiday. Many of the prominent sections of the seder are distillations of these themes and put to music, which of course makes them more readily accessible to children. Ma Nishtano speaks of the ways in which a seder is different than any other meal eaten by the family throughout the year:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we may eat chametz [leavened bread] and matza,
but on this night only matza.
On all other nights we may eat many vegetables
but on this night bitter herbs.
On all other nights, we do not dip even once,
but on this night, twice.
On all other nights we may eat either sitting or reclining,
but on this night we all recline
Of course, the answers to these questions allow the ritual leader to explain many of the special customs of the seder to the guests, another opportunity to educate.
Passover is one of three harvest festivals in the Jewish yearly cycle. As such, it is a major Jewish holiday. To my mind, it is far the most joyous of our celebrations. There are other holidays filled with mirth like Purim and Simchat Torah, Passover is a festival of joy recollected in tranquility. It is the ultimate holiday of freedom marking the struggle of the enslaved Jews of Egypt to free themselves from bondage and found an independent nation in the Promised Land.
The festivals of the Jewish year revolve around an ancient agricultural calendar followed when Jews lived as tribes in the land of Israel. Passover, coming as it does in spring, was considered the New Year festival well before there was such a thing as Rosh Hashanah (which comes in the fall). Because of its association with spring, the holiday has always been connected to Song of Songs, the Biblical book of love, desire and devotion.
“Passover” comes from the Hebrew word pasach to pass over, which refers to the last of the ten plagues in which the Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of Jews which were smeared with the blood of the Paschal lamb sacrifice.
Passover is an eight day festival. On the first night we celebrate a seder by reading a book called the Haggadah (literally, “the telling”). The two most important elements of the seder are the Story and the Meal. The Haggadah is the Story. It recounts the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. It is filled with wise and wonderful sayings and prayers. A good number of them have been put to music. Music plays an important role in any good seder and we’ve been showcasing some of the most memorable ones here at this blog. Finally, a seder concludes with a bountiful repast. Any gathering of Jews worthy of the name provides for a meal at which guests can commune, sing, gossip and worship together.