What Makes Jewish Music “Jewish?”

Before I get into this post, there are two points of business:  

First, I’m happy to announce that Rochel, who commented

“My least favorite room is the kitchen. However, I do enjoy the workout that cleaning it entails!”

is the winner of the “Let My RV Go” novel giveaway.  Yay!  I’ve emailed you to let you know, so I hope to hear back from you soon!  Congrats!

Second, the lovely, inspirational and very talented Andrea Grinberg has featured me as a “Lady Wrap Star” over on her fabulous blog, Wrapunzel.  When I “met” Andrea through the interwebz, it was clear to me that we needed to be friends.  She’s a musician (cello), has a couple of blogs where she has inspirational, honest content, and was also nicknamed Spock.  She has this page called “Music That Changed my Life,” and links to seriously great music.  I was blown away.  Recently, I had the opportunity to meet her in real life (yay!), when she and her husband were in town, and it was just a pleasure.  Anyways, I answer questions about covering my hair and there are some pictures of me in tichels over on her site, so check it out.

~ ~ ~

Okay, so what makes Jewish music “Jewish?”  Jewish music, for a long time, has been strongly influenced by whatever cultures we were living in at the time of its composition.  Much of the music which has what many people consider a “Jewish” sound is really influenced by folk tunes from Eastern Europe.    So when someone complains that a song doesn’t “sound” Jewish, they may not be aware that the sounds of Jewish music have many different faces.  A Jew of Middle Eastern or North African descent would not necessarily recognize Eastern European shtetl music as Jewish.  This is an example of what North African Jewish music sounds like:

We can see that a “Jewish sound” is really dependant on the culture that it’s steeped in.  I remember learning that Chassidim used to take drinking songs from the Napoleonic army and turn them into niggunim (wordless songs used in devotional settings).  So, if any song from any culture can be assimilated into Jewish music, what would be considered a prerequisite for qualification as “Jewish” music?

Is it that the composer is Jewish?  There’s no dearth of Jewish composers out there:

  • Irving Berlin
  • Leonard Bernstein
  • Ernest Bloch
  • Aaron Copland
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Bob Dylan
  • George Gershwin
  • Morton Gould
  • Otto Klemperer
  • Gyorgy Ligeti
  • Frederick Loewe
  • Gustav Mahler
  • Darius Milhaud
  • Jacques Offenbach
  • Andre Previn
  • Arnold Schoenberg
  • Sholom Secunda
  • Kurt Weill
  • John Zorn

And that’s not even a remotely complete list.  Even if the music is not “recognizably” Jewish, does the composer’s Jewish identity have an impact on the piece?  Here’s a piece written for and performed by clarinetist Benny Goodman, written by composer Aaron Copland.  I absolutely adore this piece, and performed it on my senior recital.  There’s nothing in this piece that might be considered to “sound Jewish,” but it was written by a Jewish composer for a Jewish performer.  Does its mainly classical sound (I say mainly because it does get happily jazzy toward the end of the piece) preclude its definition as Jewish music?  Or does the sound of the piece make no impact in its classification?

Is it that the music is overtly religious?  There are a number of composers/singer-songwriters who have written beautiful and moving works with text either taken directly from religious texts, or inspired by Jewish teachings.  Some of them are:

  • Shlomo Carlebach
  • Abie Rotenberg
  • Yossi Green
  • Yosef Karduner
  • Moran Sabbah
  • Chanale Fellig
  • Velvel Pasternak
  • the Maccabeats (there’s a great example of taking non-Jewish music and “making it Jewish”)
  • Shaindel Antelis
  • Uncle Moishy
  • YBC
  • MBD
  • Avraham Fried

Here’s one of my favorite songs by Yosef Karduner, a musician who is also a Breslov Chassid:

The text of this song is taken from the book of Psalms, from chapter 113.  The translation:

He raises the needy from the dust, He lifts the destitute from the trash heaps to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of His people.

Who is like Hashem, Our G-d, who is enthroned on high, yet deigns to look upon the heavens and the earth?

These lyrics are filled with hope – even when we are in the pits of despair, and you know, we’ve all been there at some time, in some way, Judaism teaches us that Hashem will be there to pick us up and take us to a place of honor.  And even though we believe that Hashem is omnipotent, and all that, we believe that He still concerns Himself with what’s going on down here.  Judaism teaches that Hashem isn’t an indifferent Creator who made the world and then just lets it run its course (that is, I believe, the Aristotelian view of G-d), but that He is intimately involved in our lives.  Karduner’s music reflects the joyousness of that belief.

What if the composer is not Jewish, and the musicians are not Jewish, but the music is a Jewish tune, arranged for a concert setting?  When I was in high school, the All-State choir did a classical rendition of Hava Nagila.  It was interesting to hear this song sung in a classical setting, by a choir of 800 people, no less.  Here’s the same arrangement, but by a smaller choir.  It does contains female singers, just as an FYI.  It’s definitely different than any version of Hava Nagila you might hear at a simcha!  Is that still “Jewish” music?

I was recently introduced to the Lowell Milken Archive of Music, which is an amazing resource.  Amazing. There’s a wide variety of music on this site, all taken from the over three centuries that Jews have lived in America.  You can look up works, volumes, photos, videos, articles, interviews with composers, and more.  It is extensive – more than 700 works from more than 200 composers.  I could get lost in there.

There are twenty volumes of music available.  The 19th volume contains musical reflections of the Holocaust.  Some of the works are in Hebrew, Yiddish, even Italian.  Some of the pieces are for voice, some just instrumental.  Included are art songs (those are songs for voice and piano, in a classical tradition), chamber works (that’s instrumental music, with strings and/or winds), and symphonic pieces (that’s with an orchestra).  You can listen to excerpts of the songs here.  With each piece comes information about the composer and the music.  The amount of information on this site is astounding.

Some of the other volumes are “Jewish Voices in the New World:  The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America;”  “A Garden Eastward: Sephardi and Near Eastern Inspiration;” and “The Classical Klezmer:  Rebirth of a Folk Tradition.”  There are sixteen more.  Wow.

What I like the best is that this is a venue for lesser-known composers to have their work remembered.  I highly doubt I would have ever come across most of this music had I not been introduced to the site.  It’s even a venue which showcases lesser-known works by well-known composers.  Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist, was not Jewish, but wrote a choral cantata based on the Ten Commandments.  Appropriately, this piece, composed in 2005, is called “The Commandments.”  The concept for this piece was

Conceived on the European battlefields of the Second World War and composed more than six decades later, this single-movement cantata serves to remind humanity of its responsibility to live by the precepts contained in the [B]ible’s Ten Commandments, and to encourage love’s ability to triumph over hatred.

I had no idea Brubeck ever wrote this piece, but I’m glad I learned about it.

While I can’t definitively answer the question “what makes Jewish music ‘Jewish’,” I would consider the music over at the Lowell Milken Archive of Music to qualify.    The songs over there don’t sound anything like Shwekey, but they are steeped in Jewish culture of all flavors.  I’m impressed at the extent of the collection found there, and equally impressed at the dedication to preserve this aspect of Jewish American culture.  Who knows, maybe one of my pieces will end up in there someday.

What’s your favorite Jewish music?  

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29 thoughts on “What Makes Jewish Music “Jewish?”

  1. Wonderful post. I can’t wait to listen to some of the things you recommend.



  2. Dun dun duuuun…Rivki takes on THE question! Thanks for your extensive listening list. I’m gonna save this and use it in my Yavne classes one day iy”H.

  3. I listen mostly to contemporary Jewish music – I like that the sounds I listened to before are available with “kosher” words. I also like traditional songs, especially those I learned in synagogue growing up, for example Shlomo Carlebach tunes.
    It’s so inspiring to me that words that are thousands of years old, indeed eternal, come to us through modern music, it’s like the past and present and future all wrapped up together.

  4. Great post, so much amazing information! Im going to reshare…you ask what makes Jewish music. The question really is, why it matters? If one wants to be inspired in a certain direction in the realm of spirituality, torah observance etc then there is a sub genre for that. If one wants a jewish ‘hergesh’ from their music there is a sub genre for that too, whether they choose chasidic, or middle eastern or bucharian music will depend on their cultural background. Then there are those purists who might want to only listen to, or play music for a baby that that has a jewish source, i.e. written/composed and performed by a jew. lets not forget that some great hits that we consider jewish music at its best was taken straight from secular sources, for example Yidden and Piamentas Asher Bara. Then we have Matisyahus music. Did it morph into something else, as he did? There is so much to say on this topic, i hope i have some time to expand on this later. Until then, i dont think there is one answer. So many diff jews, so much diversify, we all can find something inspiring to listen to….thanks!

  5. Amazing post! Thanks! I heard (from a Neve rabbi who shall remain nameless) that Jewish music conveys ideas and ideals that are important in Judaism (I believe he mentioned enjoying some Rascall Flats songs). While yes, having the words come from Jewish sources could technically make it a Jewish song, any song that is in line with what we believe as Jews could also be considered “Jewish”. I think, also, Jewish music would have to have been made to cater to a Jewish audience. Copland is awesome, but he wrote for anyone, while Karduner made it personal for Jews. Personally, for my playlists, I name songs written/performed by Jews “Jewish” while others that still have a good message I call “Kosher”.

    Great post!

  6. Several years ago we were invited by a friend of ours to hear some “Jewish Soul” music. It was alone clarinetist who played some of the most wonderful music. My friend’s mother, who had to be in 80’s sat through the whole thing with eyes closed most of time moving her head and swaying to the music. It obviously meant a lot to her. We enjoyed it immensely.

  7. I love yosef karduner–looking forward to listening to thsi song and checking out a few more! I also love simcha music, especially when it’s late and I need to cook!

  8. Very thorough post – I like how you talk about Jews as not just being from Eastern Europe! However, when I think of Jewish music, I think of the nigunim I learned from my father’s family. In particular, a little humming tune that my Zeide used to sing. Of course, he was from Poland originally. We have a family tune to Eishet Hayil, also through my Zeide. It turns out there is a shteibel in Borough Park that is from Glogov, Poland (where my Zeide is from), and they sing the same tune.

    If you give me some Gershwin, then I will really enjoy myself.

    1. Thank you for sharing that poignant memory. You’re so lucky to have musical family traditions! How did you find out about the shteibel that sings the same tune? That is cool. I also enjoy some Gershwin. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform both Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris. Those are some fun pieces to play!

  9. What an incredible post! Should be in a Jewish magazine. I’m serious. So thorough and the essential question is true for literature, too. Is the work Jewish just because the writer is Jewish or should the content be Jewish?

  10. Good post. I think your covered a good range of ideas. I personally think that people who think all music composed by a Jew is intrinsically “appropriate” are short-sighted. I think that what people mean to say is that they want music that will be spiritually appropriate, but simply looking for a frum Jewish composer doesn’t mean anything about the content of the music. Each tune expresses a different emotion. Most of modern Jewish pop music takes beautiful ideas in the form of Pesukim and gives it bland, nondescript, and unrelated pop tunes. Whereas a song like Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” is not written by a Jew, but has both lyrics and a tune that are spiritually inspiring and connect one to God.

  11. You must check out the person who is responsable for what will become the definitive source for synagogue music of eastern Europe.
    The name of the author/composer is shalom Kalib. If you are to go further in this, you must go and pay a visit to him. He lives in Baltimore and is the biggest mench you could ever know.
    He has some real criteria for what is and isn’t Jewish music.
    Whether or not you will ultimately agree or disagree with him is immaterial.
    He has an encyclopedic mind with all things jewish music.
    Good luck.

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