Why do Jews sing the blues

Jerome Kern's ancient ancestors would have had every reason to belt out "Old Man River."

Who better than the children of Israel — forced to build pyramids for rich Egyptians — have earned the right to sing: "You and me, we sweat and strain,/Bodies all aching and racked with pain"?

Of course, when Kern composed the song in 1927, he was thinking of African Americans toiling along the Mississippi. But in a class called "Jews Who Sing the Blues," taught last month at San Mateo's Peninsula Temple Beth El, Rabbi Alan Berg pointed out that Jews have always had a right to sing the blues, particularly those who escaped modern-day pogroms.

"Jews came to America from difficult circumstances in Europe," said the rabbi, who studied American blues music at Portland State University in Oregon. They were "fleeing absolute heartache and tragedy. If they were going to create American music, [then] one would have thought it would have told the story of their grief."

But as it happens, Jewish American composers have not been so predictable. Berg calls the entire score of "Show Boat" — which Kern co-wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II based on Edna Ferber's story of performers on a Mississippi show boat — "a tremendous expression of the ethics of tolerance and compassion."

With such passionate numbers as "Bill," "Only Make-Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," Berg said, "Kern cries out for understanding."

The blues, a distinctly American genre, evolved from 19th-century African American work songs that sought to "communicate messages that couldn't be communicated overtly," said the teacher.

When Jewish American artists such as Kern, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin arrived on the music scene, they "sort of put a Jewish imprint" on the blues.

"It is important to recognize that American Jews function extraordinarily well in partnership with African American music, taking and giving back and adding a uniquely Jewish element," said Berg.

"The Kaddish itself is an affirming prayer," said the instructor, whose class drew about 75 students. "It speaks of God's goodness and yet it's a prayer of grieving."

He included contemporary songwriter Debbie Friedman's "Blues Kaddish" in his curriculum.

Also on the list was Paul Simon's "Silent Eyes," which the rabbi called "a quiet articulation of aching for peace, [which is] beautifully spoken," the rabbi said of the song, which includes these lyrics:

"Silent Eyes/Watching/Jerusa-lem/Make her bed of stones;

"Silent Eyes:/No one will comfort her./Jerusalem/Weeps alone."