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Ma Nishtana? 

03/19/2023 07:49:13 PM

Mar19

     Last week I wrote about the end of the seder, but today I want to write about the beginning. Probably the best known part of the seder is the singing of the 4 questions. For generations one rite of passage for a Jewish child was the recitation of this text. I was the youngest of four children and I remember the thrill of being able to take my turn to lead the four questions. I still remember the voice of the boy soprano who was featured on a recording we played frequently at home. That melody was a recitative chant, often identified as the "gemara niggun", because it is reminiscent of the style in which gemara was chanted as it was studied. After all, the Haggadah is a text of learning, so reciting it to a melody used for studying gemara was natural. It was first  notated by Abraham Baer (1834-1894) in 1877.  Abraham Baer's Anthology of liturgical music has served as a basic text for cantorial students for generations. Many of you will recognize this as the melody of your youth and commonly chanted to yiddish words. 

     I remember chanting Ma Nishtana to this melody but gradually this melody gave way to a more upbeat melody coming out of Israel. This  "new" melody quickly increased in popularity. The Jewish Music Research Center explains: "By the mid-20th century newly composed tunes in Israel slowly substituted the traditional chanting of several sections of the Haggadah, the Four Questions included. These new tunes, composed in the spirit of the new Hebrew musical culture, had a lively metric character calling for congregational singing rather than  by the leader of the seder." Soon our family stopped singing the original older melody and quickly adopted the newer, upbeat melody. This melody did not emerge from the kibbutzim of Israel (as I had thought), but originally part of an oratorio  called “Oratorium le-hag ha-herut” (Oratorio for the Holiday of Freedom) by Ephraim Nieświżski/Niswiszki, renamed Ephraim Abileah (1881-1953).". Although the oratorio itself was only performed once, the melody for Ma Nishtana went viral. Very soon the origin of the melody faded and it became known as the "Israeli melody". It has become so popular that many people think it is a "traditional" melody. In fact, recently an ad for a holocaust era film featured a family huddled around a seder table singing this Israeli melody (which had not even been composed until after the holocaust period). 

     A number of years ago a wonderful book was published compiling over 300 ways to ask the Four Questions. Many contributors helped the authors collect texts, translations and melodies, new, ancient and imaginary (including my husband who contributed a Phonecian rendering).  Rickey Stein had started collecting translations for 25 years before he met Murray Spiegel who also had developed a tradition of finding recordings of odd versions of the four questions in order to make the seder more fun. This volume first published in 2007 and then revised in 2011 is still available. Learn more about the book and listen to just a few renditions of the four questions including a recording of Theodore Bikel singing the yiddish version in the original "gemara niggun" I described in the beginning of this article. Here is the link:  300 Ways to ask the Four Questions

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784