From the charts to your Machzor: Songs for the High Holidays

Editor's note: This story initially stated incorrectly in the "Who By Fire" section, #1 on the list of songs, that Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac is read as the torah portion on Yom Kippur. In fact, it is read as the torah portion on Rosh Hashanah.

Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Bryan Adams live at the Color Line Arena in Hamburg, Germany, on June 3, 2007. The heart-wrenching power of Adams’s voice in "Please Forgive Me" (No. 4 on the JNS.org High Holidays playlist) moves the listener like good chazzanut ought to, writes Binyamin Kagedan. Credit: Marco Maas via Wikimedia Commons.

In time for the 2013 High Holiday season, JNS.org has compiled a list of the top five popular songs to put you in the mood for introspection, repentance, and renewal—and a few just to make you smile.

Here is your High Holidays playlist:

1. “Who By Fire” (Leonard Cohen)

The consummate coffeehouse theologian lands in the number one spot on our list, having borrowed the title and concept of this song directly from the emotional centerpiece of the High Holidays liturgy, Un’taneh Tokef. Another song of Cohen’s deserves honorable mention here: “The Story of Isaac,” a post-modern retelling of the famous near sacrifice that highlights the moral ambiguity of Abraham’s choice. The section of Genesis that contains the original story is read as the Rosh Hashanah torah service.

2. “Man in the Mirror” (Michael Jackson)

Back from the time when Top 40 songs were still allowed to have simple moral messages, the prince of pop reminds us that changing the world must always begin with changing oneself. As with the silent confessions of the Yom Kippur musaf, the High Holidays are a time to give our friends and family a break and turn our critical eye to the person looking back at us in the mirror.

3. “Getting Better” (The Beatles)

Click photo to download. Caption: Paul McCartney performs in 1976, with his wife Linda in the background. McCartney sings “Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can” in “Getting Better,” No. 3 on the JNS.org High Holidays playlist. Credit: Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons.

A golden oldie about turning things around: “Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can,” sings Paul. Sometimes we lose faith in our ability to grow out of lifelong patterns of getting hurt and hurting back, but the song insists that change is always possible when we open our hearts and truly listen to our loved ones.

4. “Please Forgive Me” (Bryan Adams)

This one’s about saying sorry for loving too much, rather than too little. After all, don’t many of our conflicts come from holding on too tight? Not to mention the heart-wrenching power of Adams’s voice, which moves the listener like good chazzanut ought to.  

5. “Unwritten” (Natasha Bedingfield)

Here’s one for the millennials. A talented young British singer/songwriter, Bedingfield sings with conviction about the ever-present possibility of a fresh start. Her chorus offers an optimistic counter to the traditional image of the sealing of the book of fate: “Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten...” 

And a few more just for fun….

“Oops I Did It Again” (Britney Spears)

This song marked the original pop princess’s transition from ingénue to femme fatale. Perhaps it can inspire those of us who walk around feeling ethically spotless to remember that we all make the same mistakes (and usually twice).

“On Bended Knee” (Boys II Men)

Those of us Jews who are not football players (so, all of us) only take a knee once a year - during the Yom Kippur musaf service, when cantors, rabbis, and often whole congregations bow down in unison to commemorate the ancient temple service.

“Wake Me Up When September Ends” (Green Day)

For the shul-shluffer (synagogue sleeper) in all of us.

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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Posted on June 26, 2013 and filed under High Holidays, Special Sections.