The Nigun

A mystical musical prayer introduced by Hasidism.

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Gules, gules (Click here to listen)

From Brave Old World, Bless the Fire (Purchase this album)

Later Developments

In modern times, this process of musical borrowing and exchange worked in many unpredictable directions. Hasidic nigunim found their way into Zionist folk and popular music (see, "Hava Nagila"), Yiddish theater, and European classical music.

Perhaps the best evocation of the modern transformations of Hasidic nigunim comes in a famous short story by the Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz. In this work, called "A gilgul fun a nigun" ("The Transmigration of a Melody"), the author describes the tale of a nigun that wanders from town to town in Eastern Europe as various people hear it and borrow it temporarily. After beginning its life as a wedding melody composed for a Hasidic rebbe, it goes on to become a Jewish memorial prayer in another shtetl, then moves via Kiev to the Yiddish theater in Warsaw, only to end up being played as a poor organ-grinder's tune in the circus. The nigun's wanderings continues from house to house, person to person, town to town, and, eventually, back to the Hasidic rebbe. But the melody's migration is not yet done. At the tale's end, it departs with one of its bearers to a new destination: America.

Peretz's story aptly conveys the fate of Hasidic nigunim in the modern world. They continue to live multiple, often unpredictable lives both in present-day Hasidic communities and other parts of the Jewish world.

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Dr. James Loeffler

Dr. James Loeffler is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale U. Press, 2010).