Singing the Exodus Story


My coming of age as a Jew, and, I imagine, yours as well, has a musical score, composed of various styles of our choosing. We choose the Jewish music we sing at home, in our congregations and around our Passover tables, at our happiest simchas (joyous occasions) and in our most difficult moments. Kay Kaufman Shelemay, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard, calls this scripting, this music backdrop, our soundscape, the aural landscape in which we live.

For many of us, the African-American spiritual “Let My People Go” is part of the soundscape of Passover Seders. This invented tradition is hardly new: many of us have sung “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land” at Seders for more than forty years. How did this come to be? And, even more importantly, what does this musical choice teach us about the process of making the Seder experience relevant—to contemporary Jews—through music?

Historically, the inclusion of “Let My People Go” is connected with the Jewish commitment to the civil rights movement. The song was included in Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder (1969), which made use of an innovative haggadah that explicitly linked (through readings and songs) the Exodus story with the struggle for civil rights. (A video of the original Seder was recently posted on YouTube.) But  this was not the first time Jews connected the struggles of blacks in America with the story of Jewish slavery in Egypt. As ethnomusicologists Judah Cohen and Marion Jacobs have pointed out, left wing Jews of the 1920s held “third” Seders that included African-American spirituals as a way to underscore the contemporary relevance of Passover’s message of liberation.

When black slaves sang about the Exodus from Egypt, they were singing about their own struggles—in coded form. These spirituals could pass as worship and bible study, which slave masters were unlikely to interpret as incendiary. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, students at Fisk College who were emancipated slaves, performed and published this spiritual in the 1870s. Paul Robeson, the prominent actor, singer, and social activist, brought the song to a wider audience in the 1950s. For Jews active in the civil rights movement, the lyrics (“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/ tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go”) fit seamlessly into the Seder. And we loved the soulful music. Coming of age during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, our tastes in popular music were shaped by African-American music—gospel, the blues, rock and roll.

When I was growing up, I had many reasons for thinking that our Jewish community and the African-American community shared a kinship, and a common plight. (This was reinforced by my experience traveling in the deep South in the early 1960s and seeing signs on hotels, bathrooms and drinking fountains that “Blacks and Jews”—and I am prettifying the language here—were not welcome.) Common experiences of slavery and persecution were underscored by my family’s Holocaust stories. Even as I enjoyed white privilege, for years I maintained (incorrectly) that I wasn’t white; I was Jewish.

When I was 14, and my Jewish youth group advisors were driving to Mississippi in a beat-up Volkswagen bus for voter registration drives and to march on Washington, songs of the civil-rights struggle signified the core values that brought me into Jewish life: a passion for social justice, courage to take a stand and a belief that our tradition was actively committed to social change. Everything about my experience told me that “Let my People Go,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Oh, Freedom” and “We Shall Overcome” were part of my Jewish soundscape—“Hey Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you moan. Pharaoh’s army got drownded” has been part of our Seder for 30 years. True, the song has required certain textual emendations: Mary has been “returned” to Miriam, excising Christological references. To return to “Let My People Go,” it’s difficult to define what constitutes Jewish music. I generally favor the definition offered by ethnomusicologist Kurt Sachs, who said that Jewish music is music made for Jews, by Jews, as Jews. Of course, part of the answer here is that the American Jewish experience is essentially an American experience, a truth underscored by historian Jonathan Sarna in his book, American Judaism (2004, Yale University Press). From my experience singing African-American spirituals at our Seders, I believe that passionate music, sung with purpose, from many traditions, has a place in our broader lives. We don’t have to include every moving piece of music, but if we want to deepen the music that flows out of us, we must listen, and sing, expansively. Music is energy and whatever comes in will find a way out, filtered through our own expression and experience. Ultimately, I think it’s less productive to put up walls and declare, “That music isn’t Jewish!” than to open ourselves up, asking instead, “How does this music move my heart as a Jew?”