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Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah - Hashivenu

Hinei Mah-Tov

Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah“These are two songs that my mother, Edie Klempner used to sing at home. Like many Jewish families we didn’t go to synagogue, but were very involved in being Jewish and every Friday night, around the table at home, we sung Hebrew and Yiddish songs. My mother had a wonderful contralto voice and sung all the time. In fact my brother, sister and I also sung and performed party pieces for guests. However, my mother loved performing, and she didn’t actually teach us to sing any of her Yiddish and Hebrew repertoire!

When she was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 1991 and we knew she was going to die, I absolutely insisted, before she became too frail, that she taught me these two tunes. I instinctively knew they were special, since in spite of my involvement in Jewish life, I’d never heard them anywhere else. It was really important to me that they were preserved and I made her sing them over and over until I could sing them.

Rose with youngest child - Edie (Rabbi Sarah's mother), and 2nd youngest - Vera

My mother was the youngest of a family of nine children - seven sisters and two brothers - and they lived in Petherton Road in Clissold Park, Highbury with their parents, an aunt and two grandmothers. Her parents came from Eastern Europe; her mother, Rosie Mindel Tuchmacher, from a shtetl called Simyatich outside Bialystock and her father, Solomon Waltzer, from Chernovitz in the Ukraine, which in the nineteenth century was a big Jewish intellectual centre.

Rose and Solomon Waltzer on their wedding dayMy maternal grandmother used to tell me how at Easter time she had to hide in a doorway as the Cossacks came through with their whips and so, like many immigrants today, the family came to England - both refugees and economic migrants, who wanted to make their lives better. My mother’s parents met in the East End around 1904, where they started married life before moving to Petherton Road.

When my mother was born, her mother was so busy with so many children that her maternal grandmother, who had just arrived from Russia and couldn’t speak a word of English, looked after her. Her first language was therefore Yiddish, which she spoke fluently. However she also spoke beautiful English with wonderful diction and had a fantastic memory for lyrics, endlessly quoting poets and Shakespeare.

Most of my mother’s family sung and every year they had an enormous Seder When their neighbours finished their own Seders, they used to come to my mother’s family’s house to listen to the glorious singing. Two of her brothers also played the violin and could have been musicians but had to go into the family fur business. Of my mother’s siblings, sadly, only two remain alive, two sisters, one 89 and one 90, who are both amazingly strong characters, but, unfortunately, they don’t sing!

I don’t know the provenance of this tune for Hineh Mah-Tov, but I do know it was sung in my mother’s family - and not just by my mother. This was verified when I visited my uncle Jack in the last years of his life in the Jewish home for the elderly in Brighton. He had dementia, and was not able to speak with me. He knew that he knew me, but not exactly who I was. Sometimes, he thought I was my mother, because he called me by her familiar name, Edele. I’ve always found that one of the best ways of communicating with people with dementia is through singing and so the first time I visited him I started singing this song. When he, amazingly, started to join in, I knew...

The other tune is for Hashivenu, which is sung when the Ark is closed after the Torah service in the synagogue. This version is very unusual because it doesn’t have the word Adonai in it. My mother was a passionate Socialist Zionist and I have a feeling it comes from this background. It also sounds quite Sephardi. On the other hand, the niggun could be Chassidic. Unfortunately, I have no idea what period it comes from - and I’ve only ever heard my mother sing it.”

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