Hebrew Songs

Foreign languages occasionally show up in Phish lyrics. The chorus to "You Enjoy Myself" includes some Italian, Reba might be Russian, "Ya Mar" might include some, and the chorus of "Meatstick" has been sung in Japanese since 2000. Still, there is only one non-English language in which Phish sings an entire song, and that’s Hebrew — and they double down by performing two traditional songs,  “Avenu Malkenu” and "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav." The doubling up makes some sense, considering that two members of the band, Mike and Fish were raised in Jewish families.

"Avinu Malkeinu" is a prayer heard throughout the stretch from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), also known as the High Holy Days. If one attended synagogue at this time of year as many practicing Jews do, one would hear "Avinu Malkeinu" repeatedly, but the frequency and placement would depend upon the congregation.

Because Phish is Phish, they don’t play "Avinu Malkeinu" in the traditional way. A vast majority of their renditions come in the middle of "The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday," the theme of Trey's thesis project, a practice that most synagogues skip, and their rhythm oscillates between 5/8 and 6/8, whereas traditional arrangements stick in the latter time signature. Lyrically, however, they stay on-point; the part of the song that they play can be translated as such: Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, even though we have no [worthy] deeds; treat us with charity and kindness, and save us.”

Despite its association with the High Holy Days, “Avenu Malkenu” has only been played twice during the traditional time of year: once on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (9/12/1988) and once on Kol Nidre (the night when Yom Kippur starts, on 10/3/1995). Although “Avenu Malkenu” references an especially reverent, spiritual text, “Yerushalyim Shel Zahav” is more nationalist, focusing on the city of Jerusalem as a home for the Jewish people. Before the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control, and Israeli composer Naomi Shemer was commissioned by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority to write this song. It remains a quasi-national anthem for Israel, but most American listeners probably recognize its haunting melody from the end of Schindler’s List.

In addition to its appearance at the end of the studio cut of “Demand” on Hoist, Phish’s rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” auspiciously appeared live twelve times between 7/16/1993 and 12/31/1994, a third of which were in "Mike's Groove."

 

"Suddenly it's hip -- or at least acceptable -- to be Jewish. ... The most explicit reflection of a mainstream group's Jewish identity may be a few lines of the High Holidays prayer `Avinu Malkeinu' in the middle of a song by Phish, added in by band member -- and Conservative day school alumnus -- Mike Gordon."
-- Debra Nussbaum Cohen for Jewish Telegraphic Agency



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