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The Nigun in a Hasidic Story

by Peninnah Schram

[Peninnah wrote this piece as an introduction to her story, The Nigun.]

The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) of Podolia. He traveled from one town to another preaching his ideas - that all are equal, that purity of heart is superior to study, that joy rather than sadness should dominate one's relationship to God. He taught these ideas through stories.

Hasidim accord music an all-important place in their lives. They continue to believe that it is through music, especially when sung by the human voice, that one can attain salvation, get rid of evil, and reach the ultimate communion with God. Thus, the Hasidim treasure the human voice - the voice that can sing and tell stories.

I would like to note two important points about Hasidic music that will help the reader understand the "truth" of this story.

First, Hasidim believe that words limit a melody. Therefore, there is an entire body of Hasidic nigunim (tunes) without words. A wordless nigun can be repeated endlessly. Instead of words, meaningless syllables, such as ay-ay-ay, ya-ba-bim, bim-bam, are used. As a matter of fact, each Hasidic group claims its own set of syllables to sing. The only one they all share in common is "Oy vay." (Velvel Pasternak has documented nigunim and their sources. It is from Velvel and from Ruth Rubin that I have learned so much about nigunim.)

Second, the creation of new songs was and continues to be regarded as one of the highest virtues and is the responsibility of the spiritual leaders. These songs are taught orally, memorized, and carried to the Tzadik's followers, although many are now being transcribed and recorded.

The singers in the Hasidic "courts" were always alert to new tunes, adapting, reshaping, and interpreting them. Many of these new tunes were fashioned out of "primitive and secular tunes, rhythmic marches of passing military bands, songs of the non-Jewish countryside," including shepherd love songs (see Rubin (1979)). On hearing one of these melodies, the Hasid has the responsibility of freeing it and of returning the holy spark to God by singing the melody as a holy nigun.

Hasidim have always sung their nigunim, at the Sabbath table - devotional melodies, songs of yearning and joy, dance tunes, march tunes and waltzes. The power of a nigun is illustrated in a story told by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin:

A simple, uneducated Jew with no great religious learning was invited to a Hasidic seuda shlishit (third Sabbath meal). The Rebbe presented a brilliant discourse on the Torah portion of the week, demonstrating his depth of insight and his rare oratorical abilities. "I don't understand," exclaimed the guest, with a puzzled expression on his face. One of the Hasidim then told a story, a wondrous miracle-story. "I still don't understand," whispered the guest, tears beginning to form in his eyes. At length, the assemblage began to sing, a tune of joy and of love, a song of peace and of yearning, a Sabbath melody which captured the desire of a people for God, the rejoicing of a people in its Law. Slowly, the stranger began to lift his voice in song together with the Hasidim, to move his fingers to the rhythm of the music, to join hands with his friends as they rose together to dance. "Now I understand," he declared, with glistening eyes and an open heart.

A number of years ago, in 1978, my dear friend Ruth Rubin and I were having lunch at a coffee shop near Stern College. During our conversation, she remarked, "I remember a Hasidic story with a nigun. Do you want to hear it?" As I am always ready to hear a story, she told me briefly what she could remember of the tale and sang the nigun.

As soon as I heard the story and the nigun, I knew that I wanted to tell this story. I went home, wrote a draft, sent it to Ruth, and it went back and forth until we had worked out a version that integrated the narrative with the nigun.

This story has become one of my favorites and I include it in my programs as often as I can. (Years later, a woman who heard me tell the story informed me that the nigun is similar to the tune used with a Polish folk dance. In fact, she proceeded to sing the Polish tune and dance the folk dance - and it was practically the same melody.)

"The Nigun" is A-T [Aarne-Thompson folktale type] 1415 with elements from A-T 910, especially TMI [Thompson Motif Index] J2080, wise counsels.

In October 1985, 1 had the pleasure of being invited as a featured storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee (sponsored by NAPPS, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling [now two organizations, Storytelling Foundation International and the National Storytelling Networkl). On Friday evening, I told the story to the 4,000 people who came to listen to a weekend of storytelling.

It was an experience to hear people from all over the country, people of various ethnic groups and backgrounds, sing the nigun as though it had always been part of their lives. For the next two days, people greeted me with the nigun. It was wonderful!

One evening at the festival a man approached me, started singing the nigun, and said, "I can't get this melody out of my head." I laughingly replied, "So give me 50 rubles and I'll take it out of your head." After reading the story, you'll understand what I meant.

But the fact is, once a story or a melody enters your head via your heart, it's part of you. You own it and must tell it or sing it again and again. I think that man is still singing our nigun.

In the story, The Nigun, I have indicated when the melody is to be sung or played. The musical notes are found integrated at the appropriate places in the story. You can, of course, improvise and sing the melodies whenever you feel like it. Warning: It is very difficult to end a nigun once you enter the world of song.

As published in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, by Peninnah Schram. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. Permission was also obtained from the author. To order: The Jason Aronson Home Page

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