Rescuing Seder songs

A website has been set up to save traditional Pesach music from obscurity.


It is a familiar story. You are sitting at the Seder table, having enjoyed a delicious meal of turkey and chrane. You have been through the Haggadah, manish tana has been sung and the afikomen hunted and found. Everything is perfect — that is, until it is time for the traditional table songs.

Versions of Chad Gadya start confidently but trail off into a quiet hum when everyone realises that no one actually knows the tune.

This is where new website www.jewishreflections.org comes in. The online project, funded by a Lottery Heritage Grant, has been three years in the making and contains audio recordings of Jewish Seder songs or zmirot sung by members of the Anglo-Jewish community. Each version of Chad Gadya or Adir Hus for example, is accompanied by a song sheet, information on the contributor’s life or stories about where the tune came from.

The idea behind the website was to preserve Jewish musical heritage. Head researcher Vivienne Bellos, who is director of music at North Western Reform Synagogue [Alyth Gardens] in London, says: “The reason I started doing this is that I have been at Alyth for 29 years and we always have a communal Seder. In the early years people would stand up and sing their versions of songs. There was this wonderful Italian man who sang Echad Mi Yodea. I thought: ‘I really want to notate that.’ And then he died and I never got the chance.”

She found contributors by putting notices up at synagogues, community centres and libraries with sections on Judaism, across the country, in the hope that people would get in touch and give her new tunes and stories.

“I interviewed a man called Eddie Leigh from north London, who sang Echad Mi Yodea in Yiddish. He had a fantastic voice,” says Bellos.

Running the website is Vicky Joseph, who has vast experience managing online projects. “Sometimes it’s the song, sometimes it’s the story behind the song that’s amazing,” she says.

“For example, we went up to Leeds to meet this little old lady. It took us ages to find her tiny house. She was American but her family was from Ukraine. She stood there and sang, with this confident voice, four fab songs. It’s times like that when you think: ‘We have succeeded’.”

Jewish Reflections is still looking for people to contribute to their anthology. If you have any unusual zmirot, please contact viv@jewishreflections.org or call 020 8457 8795

    Last updated: 11:52am, April 20 2009