Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Strike the Dog - Personalizing Chad Gadya

What's so captivating about a dog getting smacked with a stick and a lamb being bought (11 times by the end) for two zuzim? The familiar barnyard menagerie is easy to understand and the repetition of lyric makes it easy to sing about, both which make Chad Gadya perfect for bored kids at a long Seder. And that, I suppose, is enough. A playful song to balance some heavy seder drama. Dam, Tsfardeia, Cat, Dog, Ox. Is that it?

I've seen a number of explanations for Chad Gadya.Rabbi Yehudah Prero at Torah.Org notes the similarities of the Chad Gadya narrative to Passover's escalating plagues. Wikipedia offers up a more historical interpretation.
"Some Jewish or Zionist thinkers believe Chad Gadya shows the different nations that have inhabited Israel: the kid being the Jewish people, the cat, Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick, Persia; the fire, Macedonia; the water, Rome; the ox, the Saracens; the slaughterer, the Crusaders; the Angel of Death, the Turks. At the end, God returns to send the Jews back to Israel."
The Vilna Goan had a similar but more spiritual explanation.
"Chad Gadya tells the story of the history of the Jewish people as they were brought time and time again by their sins into physical and spiritual servitude under the nations of the world, and how they would rise to a great salvation when they returned to Torah and teshuvah."
(This is just the summary, see "The Peirush of the Vilna Gaon on Chad Gadya" for the whole explanation)

Clearly, there is something about a small miseries (a lamb being eaten by a cat) escalating to larger and larger intersessions (finally God himself intervenes) that we find deeply compelling, so compelling that the song has been part of the seder Haggadah since the medival period and been recorded by countless musicians.

There are no shortage of versions out there, including Moyshe Oysher 1920's cantorial, Ofra Haza's 1970's pop, and Darshan's 2000's hip hop. I think that my current favorite, though, is Israel musician Chava Alberstein rewrite of Chag Gadya for the 2006 movie Free Zone.

Had Gadia

Here are two translated snippets of her lyrics, courtesy of the Free Zone press pack.
"The crafty cat was on the lookout
It pounced on the lamb
And ate it up
The dog choked the cat
That had eaten up the lamb
That my father had bought
For just two pennies
The lamb! The lamb!"

"Why do you sing, little lamb?
Spring isn't yet here
And Passover neither
Have you changed?
I have changed this year
And every evening
Like each evening
I have only asked four questions
But, tonight
I have thought of another question
How long will this hellish circle last?
I have thought of a question tonight
How long will this hellish circle last?
That of the oppressor and the oppressed,
Of the executioner and the victim
How long will this madness last?"
Honestly, the production of the song is a little syrupy for me (I'd love to hear her do it live), but there is something about the rising intensity of the vocals and how Alberstein weaves the Chad Gadya story back into the Passover seder, both personalizing it and generalizing it. Pretty powerful stuff. How long will the madness last, indeed?

You can find out more about Chava Alberstein at her homepage or Wikipedia entry. You can also check out a 2002 interview with Alberstein on National Public Radio.

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