In a couple of previous posts, I wrote about getting familiar with the steps of the seder, to increase kavannah (attention/concentration) and involvement. It’s also a way to help make the participants a “group,” rather than just a collection of disconnected individuals who happen to be in the same place at the same time.
Another issue for many people can be the songs used at the seder. Assuming the parents themselves know the songs, how do you prepare young children to know them at the seder? Or — how do you use melodies with adults who might themselves be unfamiliar with them?
When my son was very young, I’d begin playing a tape of seder songs after Purim. At his age, they weren’t associated with any particular time or place. He just liked to listen to them. Then, when the seder came along, he participated more or less naturally.
Certain melodies, like the “Kaddesh,” will most likely be used year after year. In “Zamru Lo,” a 3-volume collection of congregational songs that was published by the Cantors’ Assembly (Conservative), this melody is labeled “Babylonian,” but without any further explanation.
Other melodies might be the same ones a son or daughter will learn in the process of their Jewish education.
What about “new” melodies? Shouldn’t there be room for creativity?
The value of singing the same melodies year after year is, of course, that they then become “hallowed by tradition.” They come to have specific associations with a time, place and activity. One might conceivably go to a concert in December and hear a seder melody performed by a professional singer or choir. We might appreciate and enjoy the performance aesthetically. At the same time, there’d be something “out of place” about it, just as there’d be something “out of place” about singing “Ma’oz Tzur” in July. I imagine that connoisseurs of Indian classical music feel the same when they hear a “morning raga” performed at night!
I had the same experience once with Christmas carols! I sang them many times over the years, out of a love of singing in harmony with others. Even if we tended to sing them in December, they were mostly a “seasonal” kind of music for us. The meaning of the words themselves was scarcely even noticed. However, one year, a friend and I attended a “midnight mass” at an Episcopal church, out of curiosity. Carols were sung as part of it. I suddenly realized that carols, though not always sung only as part of a formal service, are fundamentally religious songs. Hearing them in that context suddenly made the music subsidiary to the text, rather than the other way around (as it had been for me). The popularity of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” is another good example of this.
Still, should we introduce new melodies at the seder? If so, how?
In the end, I think everyone will find their own answer to this. There might even be some people who make a “hallowed tradition” of creating new melodies and/or arrangements each year. Where singing the same melodies year after year can create a special uniqueness about a seder and add to focusing attention, singing new melodies can create its own kind of interest and help make the seder a more personal expression.
It need not be “either/or.”
If we have a grounding in “traditional melodies” (almost all of which were “new” once), we can sing some of them and create new ones, too. From year to year, we could even vary which “traditional” ones we sing and which “new” ones we introduce. This works especially well once the children are a bit older, and have sung the “traditional” melodies for several years. The change might do much to spark their own curiosity and creativity.
We might also sing one verse of a song in the “traditional” way and vary it with a “new” melody in a later verse; perhaps even go back and forth between them.
Group singing can be a very powerful, unifying experience. Anyone who ever went to a Pete Seeger concert — especially in the ’50’s and ’60’s — knows what that felt like.
So, I don’t think there’s necessarily a uniform answer to the question of “new melodies” at the seder. Each person or family will find their own way with this (regardless of anything I might say).
I simply urge that traditional melodies be used enough to be familiar, in order to make children’s subsequent participation in other seders, later in their lives, easier for them.