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Dona, Dona

12/26/2019 11:00:18 AM

Dec26

Rabbi Dan Dorsch

I haven’t had a good cry in a while. But it happened when I was listening to Theodore Bikel’s Yiddish rendition of “Dona, Dona” while I was driving Haley to school. She’s become obsessed with listening to a version of Dayenu on Hankus Netsky’s (last year’s scholar in residence) Passover CD and has had me playing it on repeat. Finally, “Dayenu!” she let me listen to something else.
 
I doubt that many people of my generation have even heard of this Yiddish folk song even though it was translated into English, recorded by Joan Baez, and was quite popular in the 1960s.
 
Yet, the song “Dona, Dona,” which in Yiddish is intended to sound like “Donai, Donai,” (God’s name said twice), is a powerful ballad about the human gift of recognizing the price of freedom: “Calves are easily taken to the slaughter without wondering the reason why / but for those of us who know the price of freedom, like the swallow we have learned to fly.”
 
Why did I break into tears in the car? Was it the beauty of Yiddish music and the touching voice of Theodor Bikel? Absolutely.
 
However, I believe I also cried because as we begin to look ahead to our secular new year, human freedom is now in the decline. The non-partisan Freedom House’s annual Freedom Index has indicated that while the United States still remains a free country, that we are fast declining and now scoring behind many of the world’s other democracies. Authoritarian leaders are admired instead of decried as tyrants. Religious persecution is making a comeback worldwide. The opposite of the Al Hanissim prayer we recite on Chanukah has come true: “The strong overpower the weak.” Today, 2.5 billion people on earth live in countries categorized as “not free,” some of them perhaps “never wondering the reason why.”
 
Naturally, I can’t help but think of the Maccabees. What would they have done if they lived in our day and age? Living in a time of religious persecution, they “wondered the reason why” and stood up for the oppressed. They cried out to “Donai,” took up arms, and kicked their Greco-Roman overlords to the curb. For the Maccabees, living a life without freedom was simply intolerable. In intolerable times, they “learned to fly.”
 
Today, it’s not only calves. Kurds are slaughtered. Venezuelans starve. Hong Kong is oppressed. Uyghurs in China are taken into camps.
 
So far, we’ve been mostly silent. That’s tragic.
 
Today, some of us sing “Donai, Donai!” Perhaps, in the future, we may also sing Dayenu.
Thu, February 20 2020 25 Shevat 5780