kosher bookworm

Kol Nidre and the legacy of Velvel Pasternak, z”l


This past Tuesday, we experienced the passing of one of our community’s leaders, Velvel Pasternak z”l. Velvel was among the founders of the Stiebel of Cedarhurst, the Young Israel of Woodmere, and Chofetz Chaim of the Five Towns. In addition, and perhaps most lasting, was the scholarship that he devoted his life’s career to: the preservation of our Jewish musical tradition in all its variations — cantorial, klezmer, Sephardic, Yiddish theater, freylech — vocal and instrumental, in all their interpretations.

Several years ago, I wrote a brief column devoted to what was to be Velvel’s final book, Behind the Music: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles & Reflections. Given the time of year of that review, I chose to focus upon Kol Nidre. This week, in Velvel’s memory, that essay is reprinted here.

I invite readers to send in memories and impressions that will be shared in a future essay devoted to the everlasting Jewish musical legacy of Velvel Pasternak.

• • •

Behind The Music, by the esteemed Jewish musicologist Velvel Pasternak of Cedarhurst, affords us the opportunity to consider his take on one of our faith’s most prominent musical and liturgical works, Kol Nidre.

Pasternak is no stranger to Jewish liturgy. He was a daily attendee at the services at the Young Israel of Woodmere, and at Shabbat and holiday services at the Chofetz Chayim Kehillah in Cedarhurst whose rabbi is Rav Aryeh Ginzberg.

Pasternak’s life’s work involves the publication of Jewish music stories, anecdotes, articles, essays, sheet music, and reflections of the Jewish music tradition.

In a timely piece for this time of year, please consider this brief essay on Kol Nidre that I am presenting to you as a sample of Pasternak’s scholarship:

“A long-standing fable still exists with regard to Kol Nidre. Many otherwise knowledgeable Jews believe that both the text and the melody of the prayer emerged from the Spanish Inquisition. They assume that the Kol Nidre, essentially a formula for self-absolution, was specifically designed to free the Marranos who had been forcibly converted from their imposed obligations.

“Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, the outstanding Jewish music researcher of the 20th century, notes that the Sephardim, the true heirs of the Marranos, sing Kol Nidre with a melody that differs entirely from the one sung by the Ashkenazim. Rabbi Yehuda Gaon (740 CE) introduced the text and chant of Kol Nidre, but it seems that it had a different function at the time and most certainly a different melody. It was not repeated three times nor did it have the present day preamble, ‘beyeshiva shel ma-ala’ (in the academy on high).

“The practice of repeating the Kol Nidre three times was considered in a host of rabbinic responses. The most important, by Maharil, states that the cantor is ‘to extend the chant of the Kol Nidre until nightfall. He must chant the Kol Nidre three times, first in an undertone, then louder during the first repetition and even louder for the third, ‘for then we shall hearken with awe and trembling.’

“The first version of the melody appeared in a collection of liturgical synagogue chants published in 1785 by Ahron Beer, a cantor in Berlin. Although the transcription contains most of the familiar elements, the melody continued to change. One hundred years later Louis Lewandowski transcribed the melody and it appeared in print.”

It is this melody that we sing to this day.

Velvel Pasternak was born in Toronto and attended Yeshiva University, the Julliard School of Music and Columbia University. He taught, lectured and researched Chassidic and popular Jewish music and was the leading authority on the subject.

A piece by Pasternak’s rabbi, Rav Aryeh Ginzberg, described his neighbor and congregant:

“In the more than 15 years that I have had the honor to daven together with Velvel, my admiration for him grows every Shabbos. He is one of the most modest and humble people that I ever met who sits quietly every Shabbos in the very back row and keeps to himself. If I hadn’t read about his vast accomplishments in the world of Jewish music, I, and others who sit with him each and every Shabbos for years, would never have known anything. This is vintage Velvel. 

“While being considerably older than most of the others in our shul, he never misses a shiur each week. He sits quietly during the shiur never revealing his knowledge in so many areas. However, every once in a while he will approach me after a shiur with a comment or a question and it becomes immediately clear that his understanding of Torah in so many areas is significant and yet he remains to all the most unassuming person that you ever met, an example for all other to follow.”

• • •


Shiva, which began in Israel, will continue at the Pasternak residence, 29 Derby Ave., Cedarhurst, from Friday morning, June 14 through Tuesday morning, June 18.