Dudeleh (Ribono Shel Olam)

Contemplative version, with guitar

Version with piano, tango style

Music, English translation and audio © 18 July 2022 Alexander Massey

Dedicated to my uncle, Paul Massey (z’l).

The poem that has become known as Dudeleh (also as A dudele) was written in Yiddish by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), one of the foremost rabbis of Chasidism.[1] Du is the informal word for ‘you’; –eleh as an ending can mean ‘little’, or be a way to increase the sense of tenderness and closeness. So this poem directly addresses God intimately and lovingly as du.[2]

Reb Levi Yitzchak took to heart the central Chasidic text “There is no place empty of God” (Tikkunei Zohar 57), that draws from Ps. 139:7: “Where can I flee from Your Presence?” Whatever underlying Reality the word God points towards, It both surrounds and permeates everything that exists. Reb Levi Yitzchak’s words express his passion, devotion and central preoccupation – to experience and know God in everything and at all times.

I find this text profoundly moving. On the one hand, Reb Levi Yitzchak uses the diminutive form dudeleh, suggesting that this song is ‘just a little something’ of no particular consequence. We could hear the numerous repetitions of du (you) as if they are part of a wordless nigun (like ‘doo doo doo’, or ‘yu yu yu’). But this poem takes us to the core of Reb Levi Yitzchak’s theology: God is One, there is no Other, God is Every Thing, Every Where, and available. Knowing that, and living that knowledge, is life-changing. The poem’s power comes from its clarity, open-heartedness and simplicity. To say these words, to sing them, can be transformative.

Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi made a lovely translation and adaptation of Reb Levi Yitzchak’s poem.[3] I have made minor adjustments to this to create the lyric for this song. Although Ribono shel olam means ‘Master of the Universe’, in Chasidic and neo-Chasidic circles, this is a colloquial way of addressing God, and indicates a personal and warm relationship. I have repeated the phrase four times at the start of the song, as a reference to the four kabbalistic worlds of assiyah (body), yetzirah (emotion), beriah (mind) and atzilut (spirit/union), to represent calling upon and experiencing the totality of God.

Legend tells us that Reb Levi Yitzchak would sing Dudeleh with his own melody at havdalah, that magical, twilight time when the world is suspended between Shabbat and the night that will take us into the new week. Dudeleh is a love song to God, to the ‘Shabbat bride’, to the Shekhinah, the feminine, in-dwelling presence of God. Perhaps, when we sing it, it can help us carry some of the soft enchantment and soul-enhancing benefits of Shabbat into the week that follows, and maintain a palpable and vibrant relationship with God.

Ribono shel olam – 
I’ll sing a little song, a song for you. You, you, you, only you.
Where can I find you? Where could I not find you? You, you, you, only you.
Wherever I go, you, you. Whenever I’m still, you, you.
When all goes well, or when things go ill, you, you, you, only you.
To East, you, to West, you, to North, you, to South, you,
to Heaven, you, to Earth, you, below, you, above, you.
You, you, you, always, only you.

Footnotes

[1] The mystical Jewish movement called Chasidism dominated Eastern Europe, Poland and Ukraine in the 18th century, and continues to inspire Jews even now, nourishing the roots and new shoots and fruits of neo-Chasidism and Jewish Renewal.

[2] To reflect this intimacy, I have chosen to spell ‘you’ with a lower case ‘y’. A capital ‘Y’ would suggest formality, deference and distance, all qualities that are contrary to what this poem is expressing. The archaic form ‘thou’ seen in older translations of scripture is commonly misunderstood as a formal address. However, in the English language of the time when the translations originated, ‘thou’ was the intimate and casual form of address of familiarity, while the word ‘you’ was reserved for formal relationships, especially between people of different status. In modern times ‘You’ (capital Y) on the page can feel like a deferential way to address God as our superior, while ‘you’ (lower case y) can be indicate a more friendly relationship.

[3] Zalman Shachter-Shalomi & Netanel Miles-Yepez (2010) A Merciful God: stories and teachings of the Holy Rebbe, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Albion Andalus, Boulder, p.87-8