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Yair Rosenblum’s Unetaneh Tokef

Unetaneh Tokef is one of the central prayers for the Yamim Noraim, and one of the most familiar tunes for it is that which was written by Yair Rosenblum. Rosenblum is one of the most important figures in the history of Israeli music and in 1990 he was living on Kibbutz Beit Hashitah in the Jordan Valley. While many people know Kibbutz Beit Hashitah for its olives and pickles, the kibbutz is also known for what happened during the Yom Kippur War. During the war eleven members of the kibbutz were killed. It was during his time on Kibbutz Beit Hashitah that Rosenbum wrote his canonical music for Unetaneh Tokef. Here is a description by kibbutz member Michal Shalev of what happened from a very good article on the history of Rosenblum’s composition by Matti Friedman.

“At first he thought he would write new music for ‘Kol Nidrei’,” she wrote, referring to the prayer that opens the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, “but at the same time he looked for other ideas.” Flipping through a High Holidays prayerbook, he came across “Unetaneh Tokef.”

“Yair read it and knew this was what he was looking for,” wrote Shalev. “He didn’t shut his eyes all night, and waited for the morning, for the house to be empty of people and for a chance to play uninterrupted.” When Shalev arrived at about 10 a.m., she found Rosenblum “writing and crying.” He played her a tune he had written for the prayer — a melding of European cantorial melodies, Sephardic tunes and modern Israeli music. “It was one of those moments in which you feel shaken and an excitement that has no room for words,” she wrote.

The person chosen to sing Unetanah Tokef at the Yom Kippur gathering that year was kibbutz member Hanoch Albalak.

“When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven, the audience was struck dumb,” Shalev wrote.

A few weeks ago Chief Rabbi David Lau was visiting Kibbutz Beit Shitah when he met Albalak, who was now eighty years old. Below is a video of Albalak singing Unetanah Tokef at that meeting. (HT Sivan Rahav-Meir on FB).

For those fasting, may you have a meaningful fast, and for all observing Yom Kippur, may it stir within you the seeds of change.

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