In honor of Passover and the Internet sensation of dedicating Thursdays to past experiences, I took to Ha’Am’s archives to find an article that our predecessors wrote about this fine holiday.
The following article, “Chad Gadya: Not Just for Passover,” was written by Janet Frankel in Ha’Am’s May 1983 issue.
When singing popular music, it is often very important to be able to identify its source: who wrote it, who first sang it, or who sang it best. However, these pressing questions hardly occur to us as we sit around the table at the Pesach (Passover) seder each year. Upon completion of the meal, everyone joins in singing four traditional songs. We all know the tunes, yet it is doubtful that any American Jew wonders where the tunes for these melodies come from.
Professor Abraham Schwadron, chairman of the music department at UCLA, is an exception. Since 1975, he has been working on a collection of one of these traditional songs, Chad Gadya. It began when he wondered where his father’s version of Chad Gadya originated.
To this day he has not found the answer to this question, but many more questions arose as a result of his search. He now has almost 180 different versions of the song recorded, both published and unpublished, and is constantly looking for more.
“People became very interested in this notion of preserving the song,” says Schwadron. “I travel quite often, and before I go somewhere, I try to establish contact with people. Once there, I meet with other people, go knock on doors, and record. Not only on Passover, but at any time during the year. Given the repetitive nature of the song, one can get a pretty good idea (even with people who are not musicians or singers) as to the real melodic content — because after a number of repetitions you get a norm. Transcription, or notation, is then possible.
“There is also the importance of sharing this information with others. For instance, Western Sephardim do not sing Chad Gadya, and Eastern Sephardim do. Yet the Encyclopedia Judaica and the Jewish Encyclopedia both make a massive statement including all Sephardim, saying that this tune is not to be found among Sephardim.”
Schwadron recently acquired some versions that had originated from as far away as India, and explained that the versions go with the Jews wherever they go; following the migratory patterns of the Jewish people. In Italy, however, the Jews have been stationary for quite a long time. “One man in Rome, when I asked him how old his version was, said that his family had been in Italy since the time of Pompeii,” relates Schwadron. “When a person from Italy sings his Chad Gadya, you know what town he’s from. It is not so much family oriented as town oriented. All the Jews in Florence, for example, sing the same Chad Gadya. This is not the same anywhere else in my research. Most often the tune sung by a family is a result of some decision on the part of a family member who either invented the song, learned it from a rabbi, or borrowed it from someone else.”
What may be a surprising bit of information to many people is where their version of Chad Gadya originated. The version that many American Jews are familiar with is actually borrowed from the familiar German song, “Ein Mannlein Steht im Walde,” from Humperdinck’s famous opera, “Hansel and Gretel.”
Schwadron explains, “The point is that it’s not uncommon for the Jews to pull in music from outside sources as long as it isn’t too loaded in associations with other ideas. They’ll take soldier’s songs, they’ll take in operatic melodies, and then, so to speak, Judaize them by putting the right words to them. The question is whether this is Jewish music or not, even if Jews sing it.”
Chad Gadya not only teaches the children that are at the table, but also the adults who happen to be assembled. It also reminds the adults that the whole idea of a seder is a teaching experience.
The entire seder serves to remind us of where we come from, and Chad Gadya also refers to certain aspects of Jewish history. Schwadron has been offered various interpretations. “Each of the verses of Chad Gadya has allegorical implications which trace the whole history of the Jewish experience, and draws on certain ideas. For example, the idea of twoness, of the two coins in the first verse, has many possible allegorical meanings: one is the literal meaning of two coins. A second is the brothers Moses and Aaron. Another possible interpretation is the mysticism of body and soul. Or perhaps it symbolizes the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea. A fifth is the suggestion of the legend of Abraham and Nimrod. Finally, the idea of two could be referring to the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.” Schwadron further points out that these references, especially those conjured up by the last verse about the Angel of Death, are based on events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition which are historically verified in the history of Jewish persecution. “This is to remind us where we come from,” says Schwadron, “as well as to question adherence to Jewish ethical ideas such as ‘do unto others as they would do unto you…'”
Obviously, there is more to Chad Gadya than what is suggested in the Encyclopedia Judaica, which says the song found its place in the Haggada “for the amusement of the children, so that they might not fall asleep before the end of the seder.” For this reason, Professor Schwadron is continuing his search for the real reasons which led to the inclusion of Chad Gadya in the seder.