The beat goes on

If there's a love song in your heart come Valentine's Day, there's a good chance a Jewish composer or lyricist put it there.

lovesongs 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lovesongs 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even if you have lost that “lovin’ feeling,” a Jewish songwriter from centuries ago could help you find it once again.
When the question is asked in the classic song from the 1950s, “Who Wrote the Book of Love,” the answer could easily include several Jewish contributors. From Tin Pan Alley, there’s composer Harry Von Tilzer’s rousing “I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad).” From the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, there’s Frederick Loewe’s and Alan Jay Lerner’s song of head over heels infatuation, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
From the fabulous ’50s, the songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller gave us a taste of passion mixed with humor with their hit “Love Potion Number Nine,” and in the ’70s, Neil Sedaka reminded us of love’s labor lost with a slow version of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” And of course there’s always Leonard Cohen’s coolly erotic “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
On today’s play list we have a song by the Jewish Canadian rapper Drake, “Find Your Love.” With lyrics such as “I took a chance with my heart. Hey. Hey. Hey. And I feel it taking over,” coupled with a chorus of “I better find your lovin, I better find your heart,” it’s definitely a love song.
What’s with all the Jewish love music? Is it just a popular song category that Jewish songwriters need to enter if they want to succeed? Or is there something extra, a kind of musical yichus that the sons and daughters of the Jewish immigrant experience can draw from when they sit at the piano? If so, there’s a long line of Jewish love poets and songwriters from Spain, Eastern Europe and Israel from whom they could claim descent. Some are even from the Bible.
Their work will never break into the top 10 or even 1,000. You will probably never hear their songs on the radio, but now you can catch a few on YouTube. Hint: Knowing some Hebrew, Ladino or Yiddish will greatly enhance your listening pleasure. Yet, sometimes even just knowing a word or two, we know what these older songs are about: love.
TO FIND a connection between the generations of Jewish love songs we can turn to the pages of The Best of Jewish Love Songs, published by musicologist Velvel Pasternak, founder of Tara Publications.
“They’re not bluegrass or hip-hop,” said Pasternak, who before going into the music publishing business, in Cedarhurst, New York, taught music at Touro College and Yeshiva University. “These have a lasting quality.”
One of the Ladino titles in the 128-page book Durme Hermoza Donsella (“Sleep Beautiful Damsel”), has a theme that transcends generations – unrequited love.
That song was lovingly recorded by a keeper of the Sephardi music tradition, Judy Frankel. Pasternak recited from its lyrics: “Listen to the sound of my guitar, for two years my soul has been suffering for you, my jewel, my lovely lady.”
Can you just about hear Leonard Cohen covering it? “Several songs in the book are from the Song of Songs, like ‘Dodi Li,’” said Pasternak.
A popular Jewish song sung at table and campfires around the world, its opening is: “My beloved is mine and I am his.”
“But I have to tell you,” he added “there’s a difference of opinion on Song of Songs. The Orthodox don’t believe they’re love songs between a man and a woman.”
Pasternak’s son, an Orthodox rabbi, reminded him that the songs are about a different relationship, “between man and God.”
Another title found in the book, in the style of Song of Songs, often used at Jewish weddings, is “ Hana’ava Babanot” (“most beautiful of maidens”), by Amitai Ne’eman. Here the idea of the man-woman connection sounds, well, unambiguous.
Most beautiful of maidens
Lift your face to me...

Give me your hand and embrace me.

Strengthen me again and again.
It sounds like the song of someone who has found the “lovin’” and their “heart.” Drake, are you listening?
Pasternak, whose own burning desire is to save the tradition of Jewish song, has included several Yiddish numbers in his Jewish love collection. One of the classics, a song from the Yiddish theater, “Ich Hob Dich Tsu Fil Lieb,” I love you much too much, was composed by Alexander Olshanetsky with lyrics by Haim Tauber.
For those who want to savor its full flavor, a lightly schmaltzed version (is it the bongos?) recorded by the Barry Sisters, can be heard in Yiddish and English on YouTube. Even in this record, the theme of “love is blind” shines through:
“I am a fool, but I cannot be angry with you... I love you much too much.”
In fact, thinking back to Lieber and Stoller, it almost sounds like someone took an extra shot of “Love Potion Number Nine.”