Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev as the inspiration for the Champion of Civil Rights, the Singer Paul Robeson

Session 3  June 20

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev  as the inspiration for the Champion of Civil Rights, the Singer Paul Robeson

 For the recording of thsi presentation, go to:


Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Levi Yitzchok Derbarmdiger (compassionate in Yiddish) or Rosakov) (1740–1809), also known as the holy Berdichever, and the Kedushas Levi, was a Hasidic master and Jewish leader. He was the rabbi of Ryczywół, Żelechów, Pinsk and Berdychiv, for which he is best known. He was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, and of his disciple Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, whom he succeeded as rabbi of Ryczywół.[1]

Levi Yitzchok was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people ("Sneiguron Shel Yisroel"), because he would intercede on their behalf before God. Known for his compassion for every Jew, he was one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He is considered by some to be the founder of Hasidism in central Poland.[2] And known for his fiery service of God.

(on line image- an artistic rendering of a Chasidic Jew)

This nigun chanted by Reb Shlomoh Carlebach is attributed to Rebbe Levi Yitzhak.




Extreme love of the Jewish people, even of the least of us.

On laborers and piety


:** The Jewish wagon drivers of Berdichev felt they had to be ready for work as soon as it became light, so in order to save time, they would wrap tefilin and pray speedily next to their wagons, and at the same time do all the little tasks necessary to prepare the wagons for the road that day. When the Berditchever first saw them doing this, he raised his eyes towards Heaven, and exclaimed, "O Merciful Father, how wonderful are your children, the Jewish people. Even while they work, they pray!"


Even when they mumble, they don’t stumble


Of course, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not one to fail to try to improve the situation. One day he approached the wagoners as they were completing their prayers and removing their tefilin and tallises. Walking right up to them, he mumbled, 



"WHAT?" they exclaimed in amazement. He repeated:



"Rabbi, please slow down. And a bit louder. We can't understand a word you are saying."


"Aha!" Rabbi Levi Yitzchak pounced. "So how to you expect The Holy One to understand and accept your prayers, the way you race through them?"


"No, Rabbi," responded immediately the most quick-witted one. "It is just like a baby that is first learning to talk. It sounds like nonsense and no one can understand. EXCEPT the baby's mother; she can always understand her child."




Another version


He once saw a Jew adorned with his prayer shawl and tefillin as he was greasing the wheels to his wagon. Someone remarked, “Look at that fool. He dresses in piety while he dirties himself with work.”


Rabbi Levi Yitzchok responded, “Look at that holy person. Even while greasing his wagon he is wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin.”






Even in the midst of drinking and theft


Once, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Levi Yitzchak was heading to shul for Selichos (Jewish penitential prayers commonly recited on the days leading up to the High Holidays and on fast days) when a sudden downpour forced him and his gabbai (personal assistant) to seek shelter under the awning of a tavern. The gabbai peered through the window and saw a group of Jews feasting, drinking, and reveling. Growing impatient, he urged Reb Levi Yitzchak to see for himself how the Jews inside were misbehaving when they should have been in synagogue praying to G-d for forgiveness. Instead of looking, Reb Levi Yitzchak rebuked his gabbai for finding fault with the Children of Israel. Surely, he asserted, they must be reciting blessings over their food and drink; instead of passing judgment on them, Reb Levi Yitzchak proceeded to bless them. The gabbai then peered into the tavern once more and overheard two Jews talking to one another about thefts they had committed. He told this to the Rebbe, yet once more Reb Levi Yitzchak refused to judge them and instead concluded that, indeed, they must be holy Jews since they were confessing their sins to one another before Rosh Hashanah! [from the website: www.berdichev.org]



Prevent anyone who can witness to God against the Jewish people


A Maggid (itinerant preacher) was invited to give a sermon at the shul of Reb Levi Yitzchak. The Rebbe sat there with rapt attention as the Maggid masterfully wove together fascinating parables, spectacular stories and lofty Torah insights, inspiring the masses to grow ever higher in their Avodas Hashem (connection to G-d). Then the Maggid started reproaching the people and listing a whole host of sins and indiscretions that they were committing and for which they needed to repent and change their ways. At this point, the Rebbe stood up and stopped the Maggid from going any further. He explained his reason for doing so as follows: For so many centuries and millennia, the Satan has been trying to prosecute the Jewish people in front of G-d and to point out all their sins in the hope of destroying them. Yet G-d refuses to hear the Satan?s damning testimony and says to him: ?I have already written in My Torah, ?A single witness shall not stand up against any man for any iniquity or for any error, regarding any sin that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses shall a matter be confirmed? (Deuteronomy 19:15), and you want to testify as a single witness against my children?!? And now, this Maggid, who is standing here and testifying the sins of the Jewish people can, G-d forbid, be joined together with the Satan to make two witnesses, so he must be stopped!




As a major Kabbalistic scholar: His major book: Kedushat Levi

On opening of Genesis: https://www.sefaria.org/Kedushat_Levi%2C_Genesis%2C_Bereshit?lang=bi



The first thing G’d embarked on when creating the material universe was to create heaven and earth.”

It is an axiom, general principle, that G’d created the entire universe, and having done so, never withdraws from the universe for even a single moment, [unlike sculptors or painters who, once they have completed a sculpture or painting, move on to something else, having “finished” with their previous “creation.” Ed.] This axiom is true both of what He created in the heavens and what He created in the material, three-dimensional part of the universe. We pay tribute to this in our daily prayers when we say יוצר אור ובורא חושך, “He creates and fashions (present tense) light, and He creates darkness.” When speaking of any accomplishments of G’d’s creatures however, we speak of them in the past tense, i.e.יצר כסא, “he shaped a chair,” or עשה מזרון, “he made a mattress.” G’d’s creative activity is never completed, as the Torah testified in Genesis 2,3 אשר ברא ‏אלוקים לעשות, “which the Lord has created in order to complete it.” This means that G’d is part of every creature He ever created, and once man realizes that he is nothing without G’d Who has created him and Who provides him with all the strength and creative stimuli that he possesses, he will be able to relate to Hashem as an ongoing creative Force in His universe.


Song attributed to him as an expression of the universality of the presence of God even in that which is good or evil.



Dudele Text and comment


Dudele-play on words- “ dudel” is to play a melody on a shepherd’s flute, in other words, a simple melody. Du, in Yiddish( as in German) meaning “ old English Thou, is a reference of affection to whom one is speaking to as opposed to Sie( You) the formal word to a stranger. ( Common in other European languages-Tu and Usted,Tu and Vous).

The Master of the Universe is addressed as a child would address a father or mother. Similarly, in common Yiddish parlance, God is addressed in the very casual “ Tatenyu Sisser”=Sweet Daddy.

I once asked my father why it is that Jews talk in shul. You don’t see it in mainstream Churches or in the Mosques.

We feel at home with God, like a child at home with Daddy. So we talk because we are comfortable, not afraid.


The universality of God

A  Dudele


Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev [1]



Master of the Universe! !רבונו של עולם

Master of the Universe! !רבונו של עולם

Master of the Universe! !רבונו של עולם


Master of the Universe! !רבונו של עולם


Master of the universe, ,רבונו של עולם

I’ll sing a song for you. .כ׳וועל דיר א דודעלע זינגען

you, you, you, you … דו דו דו דו


Where will I find you? ?איה אמצאך

Where will I not find you? ?ואיה לא אמצאך

Where can I find you? ?וווּ קאן איך דיר יא געפינען

Where can I not find you? ?אוּן וווּ קאן איך דיר נישט געפינען

you, you, you, you … דו דו דו דו


Wherever I go: you! !אז וווּ איך גיי – דו

And wherever I stay: you! !אוּן וווּ איך שטיי – דו

Just you, only you, ,רק דו, נאר דו

again you, but you! !ווידער דו, אבער דו

you, you, you, you …  דו דו דו דו


When something’s good: you. !איז עמיצן גוט – דו

When, G-d forbid, it’s bad: ay, you. !חלילה שלעכט – איי, דו

Oy, you, you, you, you, you, you, you … אוי, דו, דו, דו, דו, דו, דו, ,דו


East — you; ,מזרח – דו

West — you; ,מערב – דו

South — you; ,דרום – דו

North — you; !צפון – דו

you, you, you, you … דו, דו, דו, דו

In heaven: you. .שמים – דו

On earth: you. .ארץ – דו

Above: you. .מעלה – דו

Below: you. .מטה – דו

you, you, you, you … דו, דו, דו, דו


Wherever I turn, ,וווּ איך קער מיך

Wherever I go:  וווּ איך ווענד מיך

you, you … דו, דו



(transliterated Yiddish lyrics) —


Riboyno shel oylom (repeated)


Riboyno shel oylom

Ich vil dir a dudele zingen:


Ayeh emtzoekho?

V’ayeh lo emtzoekho?

Vu kon ich dir ya gefinen?

Un vu kan ich dir nisht gefinen?

du, du, du, du


Az vu ich gei – du!

Un vu ich shtei – du!

Rak du, nor du,

vider du, aber du!

du, du, du, du


Az mailoh du, matoh du

Mizroch du, mayrov du,

dorem du, Tzofen du,

Du du, du du, du, du


Iz emitzen gut — du,

choliloh shlecht — oy, du

Oy, du du, du du


Mizroch du, mayrov du,

dorem du, tzofen du,

du, du, du, du


Shamayim, du,

Eretz, du,

Mailoh du,

Matoh du

du du, du du


Vu ich kehr mich,

vu ich vend mich,

du du, du, du [3]


Version of Yitzhak Perlman  on You Tube









Courtesy: Ed Remler ( Note: Similar stiry is told of Jan Peerce performance around the same time)


I came across the following story in an article entitled Observations and Reflections on the History and Meanings of the Kaddish in Judaism magazine, Winter Issue, 2001, by David Blumenthal. It concerns a poem called the Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak The story is stirring in itself, and even more so if you transpose it to today, replace the nations it refer to, with the great nations of today, and replace the Jew in the story with Israel, the Jew of the nations.


Blumenthal begins,referring to the excellent book on Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810), [by Samuel Dresner who] cites the "Kaddish of Levi Yitzhak" which mixes vernacular Yiddish and liturgical Aramaic. Dresner, [....recounts] a particularly stirring rendition of the singing of this Kaddish.


The soaring strains of this song of divine dissent sounded far beyond the narrow confines of Berdichev, echoing in the hearts of Jews scattered throughout poverty-stricken, persecution-ridden communities in Eastern Europe and, in time, even in far-off America and Israel.... Nor was the mysterious power of this song understood only by the jews... Paul Robeson, for example, the noted black singer, sang it following World War II at the great rallies for European Jewry and for the State of Israel during the early years of the young state's struggle for independence and subsistence.


Robeson sang it in 1958 in Moscow at a special concert The hall was filled to overflowing with military and government officials, persons of influence and culture. Among those present were also a large number of Jews. It was well known that Robeson's repertoire contained many Negro folk songs, African freedom songs, and several Jewish songs. Robeson's procedure was to explain the meaning of each song before he sang it. Conscious of the suffering of Russian Jews, he had decided to sing the Berdichever's Kaddish and listed it on his program.


Suddenly he received a note from a member of the sponsoring committee which read: "No one in the audience understands Yiddish. It would, therefore, be out of place to sing any Jewish songs this evening."


Robeson was perplexed. Yiddish had been listed in the last Russian census as the mother tongue of thirty-five percent of the jews, who were well represented in the audience. Granting the assumed ignorance of Yiddish, would the African songs that he would sing in the languages of Ghana and the Congo be better understood?


The Soviet context is important:

He began his program in his usual manner, explaining each song before it was sung. First, he introduced a series of songs from the Congo and Ghana, indicating their anti-colonial character, which reflected the new spirit of the rising nationalism there.


Then he boldly announced, "And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berdichev.


So it was that he began to sing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's Kaddish.



Paul Robeson  rendition, You Tube



Side note:

The reference to Palestine, like the one above to Jesus, is instructive.

What Robeson believed linked Africa to the Soviet Union ethnographically,

blacks to socialism politically, and spirituals to Mussorgsky

musicologically, was the religion of the Bible. Robeson had speculated on

black-Jewish musicological connections as early as 1927, when an

interviewer for the Jewish Tribune, Sulamith Ish-Kishor, claimed to

notice a similarity between his rendition of “Rock Me, Rock Me” and

“Jewish synagogue music.”37


Kishor’s fanciful speculation that Negroes had learned to sing spirituals

by overhearing the Jewish cantorial music of antebellum New Orleans,

Robeson seized the opportunity to dilate upon the influence exerted on

blacks by the Hebrew Bible. “The Bible was the only form of literature

that captive negroes could get at, even those who could read,” he noted.

“You’ll notice,” Robeson continued, “that comparatively few of the

spirituals are based on the New Testament. . . [since] the stories of the

earlier part were closer to [the slaves’] own lives. . . .” Slave Christianity

was Hebraic. The language of the Old Testament, its rhythm and

cadence, thus became incorporated into the cultural inheritance of

African Americans. “( His father was a preacher, well versed in Biblical Hebrew)


Yet Robeson, it should be noted, consistently generalized from his experience of a

secular, leftist Jewish culture by idealizing Jews and Judaism as a whole.

Indeed, according to Marshall, Robeson even performed a number of

Jewish religious customs: “He wore a yarmulke when he studied and

asked me to teach him the Kaddish.”49


In a 1933 interview with the Morgen

Journal-Tageblatt, he indicated that he was shopping around for a

Yiddish opera in which to perform, since, as he now liked to insist, he

felt no affinity with the operatic music of France, Germany, and Italy. “I

do not understand the psychology of these people, their history has no

parallels with the history of my forbearers who were slaves. The Jewish

sigh and tear are close to me. I understand. . . them. . . [and] feel that

these people are closer to the traditions of my race.”54



Likewise, throughout Robeson’s life he felt that Jews had

uniquely stuck by him, even when his own cohort of black leaders later

fed him to the McCarthyite wolves. During a press conference in the

aftermath of the infamous Peekskill, New York, riots of late August

1949, in which members of the mostly Jewish labor union audience had

been attacked by racist and antisemitic thugs, Robeson insisted that

“Negroes owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people, who stood there

by the hundreds to defend me and all of us yesterday.”41


(The Peekskill riots were race riots directed against African Americans and Jews attending a civil rights benefit concert.[ He was scheduled to sing at a concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was scheduled to take place on August 27 in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill. Before Robeson arrived, a mob of locals attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. The local police arrived hours later and did little to intervene. Thirteen people were seriously injured, Robeson was lynched in effigy and a cross seen burning on an adjacent hillside. . . . Robeson drove with Rosen and two others to the concert site and saw marauding groups of youngsters, a burning cross on a nearby hill and a jeering crowd throwing rocks and chanting "Dirty Commie" and "Dirty Kikes.")



[Note: Robeson was an ardent fans of the Soviets and it was difficult for him to reconcile his admiration of them with his discovery of plans , such as with  the murder of the Yiddish poet, Mikhoels, that were part of a greater scheme to eliminate Yiddish culture. At the same time, he had suffered under McCarthyism for these views, and was also abandoned by the younger leadership of the Civil Rights movement]


But the inevitable tension between these elements—largely

unacknowledged by Robeson—finally caused the chain to snap. In late

March of 1961, around the time of his reported dramatic performances

of the “Chant” in Soviet Russia, Robeson attempted suicide in his

Moscow hotel room. The reason should not be attributed to either

persecution or politics alone, but rather to a crisis that was somehow

more indefinite and profound. Robeson’s “disillusion,” as Martin

Duberman explained it, “was not with the U.S.S.R. per se, but with the

way the world worked, its refusal to adhere to a historical process that

had seemed predetermined.”85

And in such a circumstance of isolation

and despair, when the seamless progression of folkloric fantasies at last

broke down, who knows if Levi Yitzhak’s “Kaddish” did not even now

provide a measure of consolation, if not as a manifesto, then at least as

a prayer?


( J Karp- The Hasidic Chant of Paul Robeson)



Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,

I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,

I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.

What do You want of Your people Israel?

What have You demanded of Your people Israel?

For everywhere I look it says, "Say to the Children of Israel."

And every other verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel."

And over and over, "Command the Children of Israel."

Father, sweet Father in heaven,

How many nations are there in the world?

[ a tremor passed through the auditorium, scattered sighs and muffled sobs were heard. And when he began to thunder:]

Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.

The Russians, what do they say?

That their Czar is the only ruler.

The Prussians, what do they say?

That their Kaiser is supreme.

And the English, what do they say?

That George the Third is sovereign.

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,

"Yisgadal v 'yiskadash shmei raboh-

Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name."

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,

"From my stand I will not waver,

And from my place I shall not move

Until there be an end to all this.

Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmei rabok-

Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name."


Weeping could be heard from parts of the auditorium. Tears flowed freely from dozens of faces. The applause, sporadic at first, reached a crescendo which threatened to shake the walls. The song became a rallying cry among the frightened Jews of Moscow for weeks to come.




No comments:

Post a Comment