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A Jewish Expression Beyond the Realm of Words: An Introduction to the Nign

By Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

Published Sep 27, 2022

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An Introduction to the Nign

Cultural expression is important—now more than ever, when the ability to physically inhabit cultural space has been undermined by mortal peril. The nign—a wordless, melodic form with roots in 18th century Hasidism—presents a virtual structure, open to the emotional expression of where we happen to be now. 

An Introduction to the Nign

Different examples of the Hasidic nign, an Ashkenazi Jewish form of musical expression that attempts to the engage with the inexpressible—joy, transcendence, and connection in Jewish space and across Jewish time. In a culture whose oldest and most profound expressions have centered around words and their interpretations, the persistence of the nign—the potential of its wordless accessibility—presents other possibilities of how to embody Jewishness in the world. 

An Introduction to the Nign

Watch and listen:

(2 min) Nigun B’cho Hashem Chosisi, 1972 

Learn More

(4 min) Listen to Yaakov Wasilewicz, a Jewish musician, explain what makes a nign magic.

Recorded at YIVO in New York City for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project.

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Anthony Russell is a multidisciplinary artist specializing in Yiddish culture.

Reflections

"Translate" into words

If the nign is primarily a wordless expression, what words would you use to describe these selections?  

Sounding Jewish

The nign is an Ashkenazi Jewish musical form whose influence has spread beyond its roots in 18th century Eastern and Central Europe—think of “If I Was a Rich Man”’s biddy-biddy-bums emanating from a Broadway stage for the very first time. Are there essential aspects to a Jewish melody—Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi or otherwise?  

Accessibility

Today, the nign has inspired numerous Jews of diverse backgrounds, communal affiliations and gender identities as a form of artistic and spiritual expression. What about the nign makes it feel accessible to so many different kinds of people? 

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