The song of the moment for me is called “N’Kadesh,” a holiness prayer out of the Jewish liturgy.
I first heard this song in a synagogue service from Central Synagogue in New York when I started paying attention to synagogue services last fall.
You don’t need to understand Hebrew to know something is going on or going somewhere in this song. In fact, we are entering Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6, where seraphim are flying around the throne of YHWH “calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” (Isaiah 6:3)
This may be the easiest line for those not familiar with Hebrew to hear in the song, as “holy, holy, holy” can be heard in the repeated Hebrew word kadosh.
The song was written by Michael Skloff, who I think has also written the theme song from the television show, Friends. Obviously that song is part of his commercial success, but clearly there’s another part of Skloff who wants to bring artistry to the Jewish liturgy.
The song has a very simple structure, but there’s a particular genius in that structure. I would describe it is as:
A1 – B1 (muted) – Bridge – A2 – B2 (triumphant) & Coda
There’s a really lovely hook in the introduction. The song plays like a kind of waltz (3/4 time), but there’s a little syncopated emphasis leading into the fourth bar that grabs you and is a repeated motif throughout the song.
A soloist—the Cantor—leads us into the A section:
N’kadeish et shimcha baolam,
We will sanctify your name in the world
k’shem shemakdishim oto bish’mei marom,
Just as they sanctify it in the heavens above
kakatuv al yad n’vi-echa
as it is written by your prophets
v’kara zeh el zeh v’amar:
and they cried to one another and said:
B (muted) section
The end of the A section builds in such a way that you think you are heading into a climactic moment. And it is a big moment with the choir joining, but things are muted because suddenly we are in a minor key as Isaiah 6:3 is quoted. You get the sense that this is a moment full of awe.
Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tz’vaot,
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts
m’lo chol haaretz k’vodo.
The entire earth is filled with G-d’s glory
We return from the vision of heaven with a beautiful little repeated figure now introduced in the piano accompaniment (dee-DAH-di-dah). The Cantor sings:
Our source of strength
our sovereign one
mah adir shimcha b’chol haaretz.
How great is your name in the world
The choir alone sings:
Baruch k’vod Adonai mimkomo.
Blessed is G-d’s glory, shining forth from where G-d dwells
We return to the A section and what’s so lovely is that we go back to the A section before the choir has finished their previous line. It’s as though the soloist knows we didn’t arrive quite where we wanted and he intends to take us there this time without any wasted moments.
This second time through the A section music has a little more substance with the choir oohing and aahing underneath and singing responsively to the soloist.
Echad hu Eloheinu,
One is our G-d
hu Avinu, hu Malkeinu,
Our parent, Our king
v’hu yashmi-einu b’rachamva l’einei kol chai.
Who will redeem us with his mercy
B2 section (triumphant) and Coda
And now we are in a triumphant climax. Cantor and choir both sing out the opening line, now in a major key.
Ani Adonai Eloheichem.
I am the LORD, your G-d
Then we have this extraordinary effect—while the choir continues on, the Cantor reminds us that YHWH is “holy, holy, holy” (kadosh, kadosh, kadosh). It’s gorgeous counterpoint and feels theatrical.
Yimloch Adonai l’olam,
G-d will reign forever
Finally, Cantor and choir take us to the end.
Elohayich Tzion l’dor vador,
Your G-d, oh Zion, forever and ever
hal’luyah x 8
I tried to write down how I heard this tune in the B2 section. (See below.) One of the things that I think makes the end so powerful is the way Skloff juxtaposes a passage of intervals (beginning with Ani Adonai Eloheichem) against a step-wise build (Elohayich Tzion and following) until he hits one last big interval. (There are no cymbals on any of the recordings I heard, but that second hal’luya with the octave leap would take one if there was an orchestra accompanying.)
Perhaps I should have said this final Hallelujah is the easiest line for those not familiar with Hebrew, but I’m not sure most Christians even think of it as Hebrew. It is a word that Christians know and can easily join in to sing.
This song is just so well put together. It makes sense structurally, but more significantly, makes us feel powerfully.
The song was written for Danny Maseng, the Cantor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, California. Here’s his spirited version of the song.
Perhaps my favorite performance at this point is by Cantor Rachel Goldman. It can be found at the bottom of this page.
I also found quite moving a solo performance from a music recital by Sarah Lonsert, a vocal student at Cal State Northridge. If this wasn’t her closer for the program, it should have been. To borrow a sports analogy, she left it all on the stage with this rendition.