My bitter herbs and songs of hope
Though April Showers may come your way
They bring the flowers that bloom in May.
April brings showers and, usually, the holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt. It is a joyful holiday, a time when Jewish families, often with non-Jewish friends, gather for the seder, which means arrangement, a combination religious service and dinner that includes symbolic foods, readings, songs and several cups of wine.
Passover is closely linked to Easter both by its symbolism and its date. They are holidays of hope, “movable feasts” in the sense that they have no fixed date on the Gregorian calendar.
When I was young, my mother was doubtful that I could sit through an entire seder. I wanted to attend and promised to be good. A family member saw me grimace when we ate bitter herbs dipped in salt water — a reminder of the bitterness of slavery — and asked me how I liked it. Fearing maternal reprisal, I answered, “Delicious.”
At the end of our family’s seder, my father would launch into singing “Chad Gadya” — “One little goat, one little goat” — and we would all chime in with the chorus, “which my father bought for two zuzim.” Of course the song is in Hebrew, which my father could read very well. Some of us relied heavily on the English transliteration.
The second verse repeats the first and adds two more lines, followed by the chorus. My father, just warming up, would then sing the third verse. By now you get the idea — it’s a lot like “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” It keeps repeating itself, a total of 11 verses. My father would always sing it to the end, while the rest of us dropped out along the way. Why we sing this song on Passover, I have no idea.
My father’s favorite singer was Al Jolson, who was born Asa Yoelson, a cantor’s son who sang his first songs in the synagogue. I think that was part of his appeal. He was the star of the first full-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer. “
In 1946 a movie named “The Jolson Story” came out, and my father took me to see it. An actor named Larry Parks played Jolson, but all he had to do was move his lips, and the sound was that of Jolson’s voice. No matter how many times you see the movie — I’ve lost count — the singing is always perfect.
Like father like son, I wanted my children to see “The Jolson Story,” so I bought it on videocassette when they were young and told them they had to watch it with me. They gave me one of those “Why is he making us do this?” looks. It is the only movie I ever forced them to watch, and they liked it.
Al Jolson recorded Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” “The Hope”, which expresses the 2000-year-old longing of the Jewish people to return to Israel. You can hear it on YouTube.
Passover this year begins on April 14, and I’m thinking “Hatikvah” would be a good song to include. It fits nicely with the traditional last words of the seder — “Next year in Jerusalem” — and it’s a lot shorter than “Chad Gadya,” which Jolson never recorded.
We could also include his trademark song, “April Showers,” which is also a song of hope.
So if it’s raining, have no regrets,
Because it isn’t raining rain, you know, it’s raining violets.
Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner in the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey. His collection of essays, Claremont Boy: My New Hampshire Roots and the Gift of Memory, will be published this month by Bauhan Publishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2014.