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Jay’s Jams: Ya Hey, Vampire Weekend

A guest post by Hannah Sherman.

Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything

In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face
There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine
And I can’t help but feel
That I’ve made some mistake
But I let it go
Ya Hey

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

Oh, the motherland don’t love you
The fatherland don’t love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don’t love you
The zealous hearts don’t love you
And that’s not gonna change

All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career
And I can’t help but think
That you’ve seen the mistake
But you let it go
Ya Hey

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
You say “I am what I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning “Israelites”
Into “19th Nervous Breakdown”

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am what I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

Reflection

Picture it – Brandeis University, June 2013. That inevitable time had come.

Brandeis University

Halfway through my graduate studies as a dual MA in Jewish Professional Leadership and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, I had to choose a topic on which to create my capstone project on Jewish education. As someone who naturally thinks in terms of pop culture, referencing various topics in all my conversations, I knew I wanted to write a curriculum that actively engaged Jewish young adults by drawing connections between modern music and ancient Jewish texts.

This curriculum would provide an accessible entry point for today’s Jewish teens, taking something like Jewish text out of its compartmentalized status to allow students to see how Jewish texts continue to be a source of inspiration for modern songwriters. And so out of this came Text Study For A New Generation: A Musical Examination of Ancient Jewish Texts.

Wanting to choose songs that modern teenagers would want to listen to but that also had references to Jewish text, I set out on my journey, enlisting the help of friends, family, and colleagues. Ya Hey by Vampire Weekend became the epitome of everything I was looking for in a song and a text.

The most explicit reference in the song comes in the chorus, “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am.” God speaks these words to Moses after appearing in the form of a burning bush, beckoning Moses to return to Egypt to take the Israelites out of Egypt.

Artist: Deana Harvey

Moses questions God, asking what he should say to the Israelites when he approaches them to leave. God tells Moses to tell the Israelites: “I will be what I will be” (also translated as: I am that I am). God further goes on to tell Moses to say to the Israelites that he is the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and he shall be mentioned by this name (yud hay vav hay) in every generation.

In Ya Hey, the singer, Ezra Koenig, appears to be singing to God. With the first verse, the singer sets the stage by telling God that no one loves God, even Zion (the supposed holy land). In the second verse, he comments that God is there even in the dark of times. But the singer questions how God could love such people who don’t love God back.

Instead of the singer being let down by God which is a common theme in secular music, Koenig inverts this theme by having faith in God but being let down by people. God is always there but the people are the ones who don’t love God.

It is important to note that when we read from the Torah we don’t pronounce the Tetragrammaton (yud hay vav hay), instead saying “Adonai.” Ya Hey seems to be a phonetic reference to God’s name of Yahweh (yud hay vav hay) but because we can’t pronounce how it is written, it is changed to Ya Hey. The seemingly indistinct chanting at the end of the chorus appears to be a reference to the fact that we can’t pronounce God’s name. Because of that, the singer uses this chant to symbolize praising and singing to God without voicing the true name.

This song speaks to the complexity of emotions in the formation of relationships, in this case, between God and Moses and God and the singer. Because of this, Ya Hey is the perfect example of how ancient Jewish text continues to be a source of inspiration to modern songwriters.

Rate this song below!


Hannah Sherman is a self-described pop culture aficionado and Jewish professional geek. She is currently the Program Director at Santa Barbara Hillel, creating meaningful relationships with students and helping others forge their own relationship to both the Hillel community and Jewish life!