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Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris - Echad Mi Yodea (in Hebrew & Arabic)

Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris“This song was recorded by my grandfather Bar Kochba Kahanov, later known as Barton Kahn, before he died. I’ve never heard it anywhere else before and nobody I know has heard it anywhere else before. It will continue in our family - we sing it at Seder every year. My grandfather taught it to my Mum and then to me and certainly when we’re in the States we always sing it and I’ve started enforcing it on my husband’s family as well. I will certainly ensure my children learn it. I’ve always wanted it preserved for posterity.

My grandfather wasn’t exactly at the peak of his voice but he will tell you about it...”

“I remember my father singing it on the Seder night when I was a small boy. The words are in Hebrew and Arabic. My father grew up in Jerusalem among Spanish Jews and he learned the words and melody from them”.

(NB the use of ‘Moshe v’ Aaharon’ in the second verse is a Sephardi tradition and is not unique to this version of Echad Mi Yodeah.)

Bar Kochba Kahanov / Barton Kahn“My grandfather on my father’s side was not Jewish. He was from somewhere in Indiana and his family had been in America since before the foundation of the United States - and so if I weren’t Jewish I could join the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution)!

My grandmother on my father’s side was from a small village outside Riga called Varklein. She left there when she was three or four years old and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was raised. You wouldn’t really know she’d been born anywhere else; she had a very thick southern drawl and we used to laugh at the film ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ as she had the feel of the main character, only without servants. Her Jewish knowledge was, shall we say, ‘limited’! She used to refer to Yiddish as ‘Jewish’ and when she tried to speak it to people they had no idea what she was talking about!

My grandmother on my mother’s side was from a small shtetl called Shtefan in the Ukraine; somewhere in the Pale of Settlement (the only regions of Russia in which permanent residence of Jews was allowed). She also came to the States when she was a small child although I’m never entirely clear how she ended up in the American Midwest but I know she did end up marrying my grandfather and that they lived in Oklahoma City for most of their lives.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, was born and raised in pre-state Israel, in Palestine. His father, my great-grandfather, had been born somewhere in the Pale of Settlement. His parents were killed in a pogrom and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle and an older cousin. His aunt and uncle then died and the older cousin was a member of BILU (a group of Jewish idealists from Kharkov who wanted to re-establish the Jewish state in the land of Israel. The name is an acronym based on a verse from the Book of Isaiah – Beit Yaa’kov Lehkhu Venelkha, House of Jacob let us go up) so when my great-grandfather was twelve and, we think his cousin was about eighteen, they decided that the only thing was to go to Palestine and they walked from somewhere in the Ukraine to Istanbul! They stowed away on a ship and ended up in Haifa.

We have no idea what happened to the cousin, but my great-grandfather went to study somewhere in Jerusalem for a brief period of time before ending up settling in Nes Ziona, one of the original Zionist settlements - he was the sixth person to settle there! That’s where my grandfather was born and raised, in a very Zionist milieu; hence his name was Bar Kochba, very unusual today, although it is my son’s Hebrew name. When he came through Ellis Island his name was changed for him by the immigration official to Barton Kahn.

My grandfather was in the British border patrol in the twenties and the story is that he was sent up somewhere to the north of Haifa to protect the Lebanese border. There were some small kibbutzim there. There were some skirmishes with the local Arab population and the British border patrol had been ordered not to interfere.

Of course my grandfather, who spent a great deal of his time finding ways to accidentally relieve the border patrol of their rifles and things of that nature, was not about to pay attention to these orders so he went off to help the kibbutzim to protect themselves. Some local Arabs were killed in the skirmishes and it appears that one of them was killed by a British bullet, so my grandfather was facing a court martial. His superior officer was very, very fond of him and said, “look you’re going to be facing a court martial in about three days, you need to get out of town”, put him up in his own home for a day or two before shipping him off to Haifa and stuck him on a boat to the States.

That’s how my grandfather ended up in the States. He ended up in the Midwest because he had distant cousins who owned newspaper recycling plants in the American Midwest and they wanted to open a new branch in Oklahoma City, which is where my grandfather eventually ended up. He did have a brief stint where he went back to Palestine in the thirties - he was the first mayor of Nes Ziona. But it didn’t really work. In the intervening period he’d met my grandmother who was not prepared to live in pre-state Israel for a variety of reasons - so they settled in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. My grandfather was fiercely Zionistic for his entire life and they did go back to Israel occasionally, but not often, as it wasn’t easy.

There’s an air force base near Oklahoma City and there used to be a lot of Israeli air force people who would come through for training and my grandparents’ house was always full of Israeli air force people coming to stay and attend Jewish festivals.

My grandfather was also a chazzan. I don’t know when he learned to do it but he had an amazing voice and he did the chazzanut at the local synagogue in his spare time and he used to sing on the radio in Oklahoma City. We have recordings of him doing radio programmes; he had a regular slot on the radio and he would sing Jewish songs and synagogue stuff. My mother was in the synagogue choir - I think it was a Conservative synagogue - and they used to do things for Jewish festivals and educate the local population. My grandparents always had a guest book in the front of the house. Anyone who was coming to Oklahoma for any reason came to their house. They were a sort of repository for stray Israelis which were more than you might have imagined!

My grandfather had all kinds of interesting stories. My great-grandfather was head of the community in Nes Ziona and during the First World War the Turks rounded up all the heads of communities and he was sent to prison in Sfad or Tiberius - one or the other - so my grandfather, who was a teenager at the time, decided that he should go up to the prison and try to bribe the guards and get his father out of prison. But my great-grandfather, his father, refused to leave because he said everyone else would suffer if he got out. Eventually he was transferred to Damascus where we assume he was killed. My grandfather, on his way back to Nes Ziona, had to keep crossing over the front lines, as it were. And according to family legend he happened to be in Jerusalem when the British came in and was standing by the gates of the old city when Allenby got off his horse and walked through the gates. So he said! Whether it’s true...? It could well be!

I came to the UK when I was 21 to do graduate studies in Oxford at the Hebrew Studies Centre and then for reasons shrouded in mystery, even to me, I decided to go to rabbinical school at Leo Baeck [College]. My husband and son are English and the next one will be English too. I’ve been here since 1989, a while now, and that is how the tune got here, although in a strange sort of way my grandfather was British too as he was raised during the British mandate in Palestine.”

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