One of the notable sections of the service on the evening of Yom Kippur is Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer, Like clay in the hands of a creator. After the service this week our Rabbi, Rav Benny Lau, told us the startling tale of the melody and its second career. Anyone who knows Israeli culture and has gone to an Ashkenazi synagogue on Yom Kippur ought to have noticed it; but I don't know many folks who have. I certainly hadn't.
Kachomer seems to have been written - words and melody - by Shalom Charitonow, a Chabbadnik in the early 19th century. Or not. I've seen different versions (the Internet can be a confusing place) as to whether Charitonow wrote the words, or perhaps merely the melody, and then the two were connected only in the 20th century in Israel. In any case, they've been connected for decades, if not centuries.
Charitonow lived in Nikolayev, a shtetel in what today is the Ukraine. Many years later another young Jew from Nikolayev, Emanuel Novograbelski, was about to be sent to exile in Siberia for his Zionist leanings, but instead was exchanged with the British for some Russians who'd been arrested in Manadtory Palestine; so in the mid 1920s he arrived here and joined the pioneers. He even joined the Labor Brigades for a while until his health forced him to be a city-dweller. Even then, however, he joined the Haganah, and the events of Summer 1929 found him serving with his unit in Tel Aviv. And that's where he was when news of the birth of his first son reached him.
Flushed with the personal excitement of being a new father, and the national tension of the first major round of Jewish-Palestinian violence, Emanuel, who by now was mostly known by his pen name Emanuel the Russian (because he wasn't one?) wrote a lullaby for his son: Sleep son, your mother is with you, tomorrow there's lots of work to be done, the fields at Beit Alpha are burning, one must never never succumb to despair, sleep son sleep son sleep. Lacking the time to compose a melody, he borrowed a niggun from the Old Country.
And ever since the tune has had two separate lives. If you're aware of the Israeli cannon of songs, Shirim Ivri'im, you'll know Shchav bni - rest, my son, as an early part of the culture. If you've ever gone to an Ashkenasi shul for Kol Nidrei evening, irrespective of Hassidic or Misnagdic, you'll know Kachomer Beyad Hayotzer. And if you're both (some of us are), you'll recognize both, but never both at the same time. Or rather, both as being the same thing.
Here's the melody:
Here's Arik Lavie, an important performer of cannonical songs, demonstrating how basic this one is:
Here's a band of chabadnicks doing it the Chabad way:
Here's Aya Corem, demonstrating that young contemporary singers still hold the early parts of the cannon to be their own.
Finally, here's someone who definitely knows the whole story: secular, cannonic, creative, and deeply connected Chava Alberstein, tying it all together.