Granted, the title is exaggerated. But how else could one properly describe Nina Simone’s 1962 performance of the classic Jewish and Zionist standard Eretz zavat halav udebash? A black and white video of the beautiful and sober execution in quintet formation (piano, bass, percussion, drums and guitar) can be seen on YouTube; for those who would rather enjoy good quality audio, there is the CD “Folksy Nina.”
I bumped into this album by chance. I write my books and articles with background jazz music. When I got to the task days ago, I randomly chose a Nina album from my iTunes library. After a few songs I seemed to hear a jazzed version of the great Hassidic classic. I interrupted my writing and checked the list of songs on that CD. There it was: the third theme was indeed Eretz zavat halav udebash.
The phrase translates as “the land abundant in milk and honey” and refers to the Promised Land, as it is written in Ketubot: Rami ben Ezekiel once … saw goats grazing under fig trees while honey flowed from figs, and the milk flowed from them [the goats], and these mixed with each other. “This is really,” he said, “flowing with milk and honey.” Jewish sages contend that the milk came from goats (not from cows) and the honey from figs and dates (not from bees) because everything should be kosher. It is considered a poetic metaphor of the wealth of the Land of Israel, which had to be fertile to receive the Jewish people so that it could multiply and thrive in its homeland.
In all likelihood, Nina Simone did not get caught in these exegete’s minutiae. Still, the question remains. The divine promise to the Jewish people of a “land abundant in milk and honey” taken from Hebrew sources and launched into the world of jazz? A musical hit of modern Zionism within the genre canon? How did an African-American singer and pianist, racially conscious, and closer in ideas perhaps to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King, embrace that song? A Google search offered some answers.
Before becoming “the High Priestess of soul,” Nina Simone met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 1950s, when they were both starting their careers, and she probably came in contact with this Jewish standard at the time. Carlebach’s own story is amazing. This “undercover agent of Orthodox Judaism,” as Amy Klein called him in Haaretz, was born in Berlin in 1925 and lived in Vienna, where his father was the chief rabbi. With the advent of Nazism, the family moved to Lithuania first and to the United States later, where he put his creativity at the service of Jewish-rooted folk-music composition. He created hundreds of catchy themes based on verses from the Hebrew Bible and disseminated them everywhere. His songs became hits: “David Melech Israel” and “Am Israel Chai” for instance are classics of the Hebrew songbook. The troubadour rabbi played his guitar for Jewish audiences mainly, but he also carried his Hasidic mantra to hippies in California and Gentiles in the Soviet Union as well as to post-Holocaust Europe. He is considered the most influential Jewish religious music composer of the 20th century. He died in New York in 1994.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 into a poor family in North Carolina. As a review in The Times of Israel informs, at the age of three she was already playing the organ at church, and as a young woman she applied to a Philadelphia music school, where she aspired to become the world’s first classical black pianist. After being rejected she threw herself into the piano-bar circuit in Atlantic City and adopted an alias to prevent her mother from learning about her new occupation. Her career took off swiftly: she was only thirty years old when she made her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1963, a concert that shed light on her eclecticism and musical curiosity as she played jazz, blues, gospel, folk and Hebrew melodies, among them Eretz zavat halav udebash.
Her biographer Nadine Cohodas points out that this was the second time that Nina Simone played that song, she had played it the previous year during a presentation on CBS. There is a third record of this song being performed later that year in Virginia. Soon enough, Simone would direct her creative energy to the cause of civil rights in her country. Naturally, she sang the ballad that can be considered the African-American jazz anthem against racial persecution, “Strange fruits,” immortalized by Billie Holiday. These “strange fruits” alluded to the bodies of black men and women that hanged from the nation’s trees. This sad ballad also connected jazz with Jews, since its composer was a Jewish school teacher named Abel Meeropol.
Jazz has always been open to outside influences. This is attested by Louis Armstrong’s funny version of the Mexican song “La cucaracha” (1935), the “Concierto de Aranjuez” performed with the artistry of trumpeter Miles Davis and the orchestration of Gil Evans (1960), the precise execution of the bolero “Bésame mucho” by guitarist Wes Montgomery (1963), the sublime embrace of bossa nova by saxophonist Stan Getz and composer Joao Gilberto in “The Girl from Ipanema” (1964), the oriental dive of pianist Dave Brubeck in his album ”Jazz impressions of Japan” (1964), the New Age wave present in clarinet-player Tony Scott´s LP “Music for yoga meditations and other songs” (1965), to give just a few examples. But the adaptation of Eretz zavat halav udebash for jazz quintet that Nina Simone made in 1962 is likely one of the most unique and exotic acquisitions of the genre.