אהודה לשם משפיל ומרומם

Rather than write a blogpost, I am simply copying and pasting an email, which I sent an hour or so ago to a colleague. Personal matters have been omitted.


Dear Laura,

Thank you so much for your email. The piyyut is from medieval Italy, probably 12th or 13th century. (No earlier than 11th, because it shows clear influences of the late-10th-century "Odkha Ki Anafta", and no later than 14th, because it appears in manuscripts from then.)

It occurs to me that the piyyut is probably later than "Ahallel El Beminnim", another Hanukkah yotzer, because "Ahallel" also begins with Alexander. The difference is that "Ahallel" is based directly on the historical narrative of Josippon, from Alexander's conquest through the victory of Judah Maccabee. The Alexander section of "Ahallel" tells the story of Alexander and the High Priest, like our yotzer, but then it goes on to tell the stories of Heliodorus, the translation of the Septuagint, and finally (the bulk of the poem) the various events associated with Antiochus IV and the Maccabees.

If our paytan was inspired by "Ahallel", it means he was so enamored of the Alexander section that he decided to devote almost the entirety of his piyyut to Alexander, and only mention the Maccabean victory very briefly, at the very end. This means that he "recasts" (to use your term) the story of Hanukkah, or, at the very least, shifts the weight of the holiday to Alexander.

This is interesting, because we know that Alexander was a popular character in medieval European literature in general. Usually, when we think of Alexander in medieval literature, we think of the Alexander Romance, which was available in many languages, including Hebrew (where it found its way into later versions of Josippon). However, the stories told in our yotzer are not those of the Alexander Romance, but of the Talmud and Midrash. Perhaps further research (not mine, but I'll make an appeal for such research in my publication of this yotzer!) will uncover further evidence that Jews associated Hanukkah with telling stories about Alexander. (Or, on the other hand, perhaps not -- it could have been the creative innovation of our paytan, who wanted to make Hanukkah about Alexander, but did not succeed in spreading this idea.)


Best wishes,


The Dayyenu Tune

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what the origin is of the tune for Dayyenu that is now used almost universally. My father once heard a friend say that they had seen in some article that “the Dayyenu tune is over 1,000 years old”, but this is obviously ignorance and folly. The tune sounds quite 20th century – hardly likely – late 19th century. There are a few old recordings of the text being chanted in lern niggen [the tune used for reading the Talmud], like the rest of the Haggada; I grew up with part of the text being chanted in the current tune, and the rest in lern niggen.

For the past few years, Phillip and I have each had a theory about the current tune, though neither of us had seen any evidence, other than “how the tune sounds”. Phillip guessed that the tune was from 1950s Israel, whereas I guessed that it was from 1920s-1930s New York (from the circle of people associated with institutions such as the Educational Alliance). By the late 1950s, one can certainly find many recordings of the tune, from Israel, the United States, and possibly also other countries.

In the past week or so, I have decided to search for more evidence. I remembered the existence of the dissertation The Music of the Passover Seder from Notated Sources (1644-1945) [University of Maryland, 1980]. This dissertation is not available on Proquest, but I knew that there was a copy at the JTS library. Unfortunately, though, the JTS library has been closed for the past week. However, it re-opened today, so I was excited to go to the library and check this out.

I got there today, quickly found the dissertation, and looked up “Dayyenu”. It said that the “common tune” is first found notated by Idelsohn, in his massive Hebräisch-Orientalischer Melodienschatz, volume IX, Der Volkgesang der Osteuropäischen Juden; and that it has been notated in zillions of places since then. (Newhouse’s dissertation focusses mainly on notated sources from before 1945, but she will occasionally make reference to later notated sources, if they parallel earlier sources.) It is clear that in a dissertation from 1980 America, a reference to “the common tune” for Dayyenu must be to the tune which is so familiar today.

This was surprising to me, because I tend to associate Idelsohn with the very early twentieth century, and this tune does not sound like it is from so early. (This is besides the fact that it was interesting to find that it went back to Eastern Europe, rather than Israel or the United States, as Phillip and I, respectively, had guessed.) However, when I went over to the Idelsohn volumes, I realized (and vaguely remembered) that Idelsohn had started out by doing ethnomusicological research in areas such as Iraq and Yemen; he got to the Ashkenazim only later on in his career, such that the volume in question, volume 9, is from 1932.

I opened that volume, and found that, sure enough, he had the tune, and it was identical to how it is commonly sung today. (Often, when one finds the first evidence of a particular tune, it is in a form quite different from the form known today.) On the page, Idelsohn provides no further information about the tune’s origin, and he does not seem to have anything about it in the introduction. And yet –

There was something interesting. As an ethnographer, Idelsohn was careful to transcribe words as they were actually pronounced by his informants. Yet for this tune, unlike for most others in the book, the words are transcribed not in any form of Ashkenazic Hebrew, but in Zionist, Sephardified Hebrew: “Il-lu na-tan la-nu et ha-to-ra, da-ye-nu.”

What could this mean? Presumably, the tune was from Eastern European Zionists. What (little) I know about the music of such people fits with the tune; and in fact, it fits rather well with the guesses made my Phillip and by me – the people who were Zionists in Eastern Europe in the early 1930s were often from the same circles as people who would later be in Israel in the 1950s, and even in New York in the 1920s or 30s. (OK, maybe the people in the Educational Alliance in the 1910s would have been more Bundists than Zionists – I don’t know exactly – but their tastes in music were probably similar.)

So, now we’ve got a hypothesis. It would be interesting to see if there’s any more evidence we can find.

[Incidentally, the refrain is transcribed by Idelsohn as “da da ye nu”, as commonly heard in cantorial recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, and not as “dai dai yenu”, as commonly heard today. This makes sense, too: while there is a dagesh hazaq in the yod, such that the first syllable would be dai, not da, in many pronunciations of Hebrew, Zionist Hebrew would hardly pronounce the word as dai ye nu, but rather as da ye nu. And so, when the first syllable is repeated, this becomes da da ye nu.]

Leavened bread

Baking leavened bread, the second Friday in a row. It looks like this might become part of my regular Friday morning ritual. I don't even really like leavened bread much (though hopefully this will be better than the puffy stuff one buys in a store), but the ultimate goal is to get good enough at making leavened bread to be able to be facile at making unleavened bread.

Last week, I put in way too much salt. Let's see what error happens this week. Anyway, this week I'm having guests on Shabbes evening (Friday night), so hopefully the bread will be edible.


Over 50 months ago (4+ years), I made a list of toys that I wanted:
1. käppchen
2. printer-scanner-copier
3. festive green porôches for Yomim Tôvim
4. painting of myself
5. sifrei mikro on kelof
6. Computer program for creating musical notation
In the meantime, I have actually gotten 1-5:
1. I've got 6 käppchen: three black, two white, one green.
2. I bought a printer-scanner-copier about four years ago. It had issues throughout its lifespan: it was slow, often didn't do what I wanted to do, had a terrible scan feature, and sometimes didn't work at all. I threw it out last year.
3. It's not a professionally-made parokheth, but I do have a nice piece of green fabric, cut to size and shape, hanging on my aron qodesh.
4. I've got two paintings of myself, painted by Janet.
6. Jen wrote me Ekha and Qoheleth, and gave me a Sefer Tora. I would still like to commission the others, of course, but this is a big start.
I never did get #6.

I should now make a new list of toys which I would like:
1. Because I never did get that musical-notation software, let me make it #1 here. I would still like it, but don't know when I'll buy it.
2. Shtraimel.
3. Green wrap-dress.
4. Bekkishe.
5. Enormous huggable plush wolf.
6. Enormous huggable plush lion.
7. I'll have my (=Louisa's, but in my possession through at least 2027) electric piano when I return to New York in September, but it might be nice one day to buy a real acoustic piano with hammers and strings. For that matter, it would be nice to have a an ‘oud to hang on the wall, and maybe learn how to play it, and have professional or amateur lutenists play it while I have dinner parties. And maybe even a chamber orchestra, in order to be able to have concerts of chamber music, and even chamber operas, in my living room.
8. Of course, the other books of Tanakh on klaf.
How's that for a start?

Shtraimel Store

After years of dreaming of one day buying a shtraimel; months of seriously (on-and-off) planning to buy one one; and weeks of looking at the sign advertising that they're selling at Adler Shtraimlekh starting at $690, I finally went to find the shtraimel store.

A few days ago, I looked up the location, #5 Yehuda Ha-makkabi St., on a map. It turns out that it's a five-minute walk from my house.

So, this morning, at about 11 AM, I put on a white shirt and dark pants (to not look like a weird tourist or mocker), and walked over to that street.

I found that #5, like many (or perhaps all) the addresses on that street, is a huge building complex. I walked around inside the huge courtyard, until I found signs pointing to Adler Shtraimlekh.

I walked up the stairs, and found an unmarked door. There was a chasidic or perhaps Yerushalmi man standing out on the balcony. I asked him: "Is this Adler shtraimlekh?" He said: "Yes."

He asked: "Why do you want to know?" I said: "Because I want to enter." He said: "Oh, do you work there?" (Odd -- if I worked there, wouldn't I know where it was?) I said: "No, I would like to shop there."

He said: "Ah, to buy a shtraimel. For a chassene?" I said: "Yes." (Well, not exactly, but I eventually hope to get married one day, and probably will wear my shtraimel at least at on point during the wedding. Cough, cough. I could have said: "No, it was just time for me to buy a shtraimel; I felt that I'm old enough to be an adult." So I'm adopting the clothing of their culture, but not their cultural assumptions. Hmmm. Anyway, there are some groups where unmarried men wear shtraimlekh -- according to Wikipedia, yerushalmis. And rebbishe einiklech in various chasidic groups, but I'm not that.)

He asked: "When is the chassene?" I said: "Not for a while -- after tishebov." (Not technically false -- if I get married, it will almost certainly be at some point later than this tishebov.)

He asked: "Where is the chassene?" I said: "New York." (Again, most likely true.) To keep up the conversation, I said: "You've been to New York?"

He said: "Yes. So why are you getting a shtraimel here? You could get one for much cheaper in New York." (Unless I misheard, and he said "better" (yoter tov), and not "cheaper" (yoter zol).)

I was very surprised by this. Is it possible that this could be so? Judaica items are always cheaper here, and besides, the chasidim here are really poor, because they tend not to work. Chasidim here in Jerusalem wear cheap synthetic-fur shtraimlekh, whereas chasidim in New York have money, because they work at B&H (the camera store), so they wear real fur shtraimlekh. (And chasidim in Antwerp work in the diamond industry, so they are probably even more well-off than the ones in New York, so they probably own multiple real-fur shtraimlekh.)

I said: "Well, I'm here now, so I would like to buy one here. Are they open on Fridays?"

He said: "Yes, usually. Why don't you knock?"

I knocked the door, and rang the bell, but nobody answered. It seemed that there was nobody inside; at one point, a telephone rang inside the store, but nobody picked it up.

So I went home. But now at least I know where it is; I'll go back some time in the middle of the day on a weekday, next week.


This past Saturday night, I ordered my haggadoth from Lulu.com

As of today, they still had not shipped, and I was beginning to get worried.

I went to the Lulu.com support chat. The good news is that the support staff were quite good: They spoke English, understood the problem, and were able to explain to me what was going on.

The bad news is that my order had been cancelled, because the credit card had failed. (I'm pretty sure the reason for this is that I clicked "use shipping address as billing address", and the shipping address was my dad's address, rather than one with my name.)

So, this meant that I would need to start from scratch.

I re-uploaded the PDF, and made a new order. The problem is that printing can take 3-5 business days (though it never has taken more than two days in my experience, and has even taken one day), and my father is leaving for Israel on Wednesday night.

So, I chose "express shipping" (24 hours after printing), which cost me a bloody fortune -- $60. I sure hope it arrives in time. If it prints tomorrow, then it will arrive at my dad's place on Saturday; if it ships on Monday, it will arrive at his place on Tuesday; if it ships on Tuesday, it will arrive at his place on Wednesday.

If it ships later, I simply won't receive it.

But that will be OK, right? I can calm down? If that happens, I can print 3 or 4 copies at a print shop here, even though they won't be nicely bound? And if I have more than four people at either seider, people can share.

It won't be super-beautiful, or impressive for me, but does it really need to be? Isn't that just feeding narcissism, not freedom? (That is, it's OK to want it to be beautiful, but if I'm going to freak out and feel like a failure if it's not, that's not going to be good for me at all.)

Wet Sefer Tora

It strikes me that it had been written on gevil (unsplit leather), rather than qelaf (parchment), this wouldn't have been a cause for worry. At least, that's what Yaakov has always told me.

That's why you can write a mezuza on gevil, in "Dio Lanetzach", and keep it in a large glass mezuza-case, filled with water and a few goldfish, and it will remain OK. Does anyone do that, though?


I have a wet Sefer Tora in my apartment. This does not make me happy.

There's a safruth store a block or two away. I hope I can convince someone tomorrow to come from the store and take a look at it, to tell me what to do.

Brilliant minds conversing about an important topic

me: Anyway, did you open the email? [NB: The email said just: "In faire Verona where we lay our Scene...".]
 Phillip: yes,yes, R&J
10:49 AM me: Or just MS Verona - Seminario Maggiore 34
10:50 AM Phillip: hence the italics
10:53 AM me: That's not actually why I did the italics, do you realize?
10:56 AM Phillip: No. Because it is in Italy?
 me: No (but I thought of that since you wrote the thing about the Italics)
10:57 AM Phillip: so?
 me: Because that's how it is in the 1599 Quarto
10:59 AM Phillip: Ah, of course. I didn't know this particular word was in italics, of course, but that explanation should have occurred to me.
11:02 AM me: OK
  What?!!! You didn't know that that word was in italics? Did you even pass your Abitur?!?!!
11:07 AM Phillip: Yes, we learned all of Schekspear by rote, and in English, but in blackletter, of course.

11 minutes
11:18 AM me: Ah, not a single italic word among them./
  But you did memorize other typographical features, such as capital letters, yes?
11:19 AM Phillip: Obviously. No wussy liberal teachings about "meanings" and such nonsense.
 me: Right. This is Germany, of course.