Rediscovering 'Joy of the Soul'

Rediscovering 'Joy of the Soul': Fusing creative arts and Jewish scholarship

Dr Nathan Wolski  

About the project

Although not a household name today, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Elkhonen Kirhcen’s (1655-1735) Simkhes ha-Nefesh (Joy of the Soul) was a best-seller. This Yiddish classic, first published in 1707 in Frankfurt, was printed dozens of times throughout Europe, and of all the musar (morality-guides) works of the time, it attained a special place in the hearts of the Yiddish-reading masses.

Part anthology, part moral guide, part inspirational, Simkhes ha-Nefesh comprises Yiddish paraphrases and folkloristic retellings of stories from the Talmud and medieval sources informed by his core message: niks zorgen zol / don’t worry; instead serve God with the simple joy of your soul. Despite the great popularity of his work, Kirchen felt that his Yiddish tales weren’t accomplishing their goal. So in 1727 he published a second volume, this time comprising fourteen songs including musical notation and lyrics. It is here that we find the oldest Yiddish musical notation.

Despite the unique nature of Kirchen’s work, scholars of Old Yiddish literature have only scratched the surface of his composition. The songs have not been studied in any detail, nor have they been transcribed from the Old Yiddish font or even translated. This project seeks to fill this lacuna in scholarship and also bring the music to life.

I will be working closely with internationally renowned Melbourne composers/performers Husky Gawenda and Gideon Priess to imbue them with an understanding of the songs, their historical context and their meaning. They will then produce 14 new songs, based on Kirchen’s lyrics and musical notation. In addition, we will produce a website to house these new songs and make them accessible to the public. The website will also feature transcriptions of the Yiddish poems, standardised versions of the Yiddish text in accordance with YIVO guidelines, translations of the Yiddish poems, readings of the poems by native Yiddish speakers in the Melbourne Jewish community and an introductory essay by an ethnomusicologist.

This project is made possible through the generous support of the The Kronhill Program for Visiting Scholars.

Sample of one of the melodies found in Simkhes ha-Nefesh, brought to life by Gideon Preiss.