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Secular Jewish music

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Subject: Jewish music, Jewish culture, Jewish dance, Contemporary Jewish religious music, Religious Jewish music
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Secular Jewish music

Visual arts
Yiddish Ladino
Judeo-Arabic Hebrew
Israeli English & American
Performance arts
Music Dance
Israeli Sephardi
Ashkenazi Mizrahi
Other aspects
Humour Languages
Symbols Clothing

Since Biblical times, music has held an important role in many Jews' lives. Jewish music has been influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time. Jewish musical contributions on the other hand tend to reflect the cultures of the countries in which Jews live, the most notable examples being classical and popular music in the United States and Europe. However, other music is unique to particular Jewish communities, such as klezmer of Eastern Europe.

Israeli music

Modern Israeli music is heavily influenced by its constituents, which include Jewish immigrants from more than 120 countries around the world, which have brought their own musical traditions, making Israel a global melting pot. The Israeli music is very versatile and combines elements of both western and eastern music. It tends to be very eclectic and contains a wide variety of influences from the Diaspora and more modern cultural importation. Hassidic songs, Asian and Arab pop, especially Yemenite singers, and hip hop or heavy metal (including a generally Israeli subgenre of folk metal called oriental metal).

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement, Jewish immigrants wrote popular folk music. At first, songs were based on borrowed melodies from German, Russian, or traditional Jewish folk music with new lyrics written in Hebrew. Starting in the early 1920s, however, Jewish settlers made a conscious effort to create a new Hebrew style of music, a style that would tie them to their earliest Hebrew origins and that would differentiate them from the style of the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe, which they viewed as weak. This new style borrowed elements from Arabic and, to a lesser extent, traditional Yemenite and eastern Jewish styles: the songs were often homophonic (that is, without clear harmonic character), modal, and limited in range. "The huge change in our lives demands new modes of expression," wrote composer and music critic Menashe Ravina in 1943. "... and, just as in our language we returned to our historical past, so has our ear turned to the music of the east ... as an expression of our innermost feelings."[1]

The youth, labor and kibbutz movements played a major role in musical development before and after the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948, and in the popularization of many of these songs. The Zionist establishment saw music as a way of establishing a new national identity, and, on a purely pragmatic level, of teaching Hebrew to new immigrants. The national labor organization, the Histadrut, set up a music publishing house that disseminated songbooks and encouraged public sing-alongs (שירה בציבור). This tradition of public sing-alongs continues to the present day, and is a characteristic of modern Israeli culture.

Israeli folk music

Termed in Hebrew שירי ארץ ישראל ("songs of the land of Israel"), folk songs are meant mainly to be sung in public by the audience or in social events. Some are children's songs; some combine European folk tunes with Hebrew lyrics; some come from military bands and others were written by poets such as Naomi Shemer and Chaim Nachman Bialik.

The canonical songs of this genre often deal with Zionist hopes and dreams and glorify the life of idealistic Jewish youth who intend on building a home and defending their homeland. A common theme is Jerusalem as well as other parts of Eretz Israel. Tempo varies widely, as do the content. Some songs show a leftist or right-wing bent, while others are typically love songs, lullabies or other formats; some are also socialist in subject, due to the long-standing influence of socialism on Jews in parts of the Diaspora.

Patriotic folk songs are common, mostly written during the wars of Israel. They typically concern themselves with soldiers' friendships and the sadness of death during war. Some are now played at memorials or holidays dedicated to the Israeli dead.


Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular (non-liturgical) Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. They draw on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. They are typically in Yiddish. The term "klezmer" was a derogatory term referring to low class street musicians. Often the klezmer performed with non-Jewish musicians and played for non-Jewish functions. As a result of this "mixing" the music constantly evolved through the fusing of styles. This practice still plays a major role in the development of musical style to include Jazz, as evident in Benny Goodman's music and even Texas music as evident in the music on the modern Austin Klezmorim.


Sephardic music is the unique music of the Sephardic Jews. Sephardic music was born in medieval Spain, with canciones being performed at the royal courts. Since then, it has picked up influences from across Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece and various popular tunes from Spain and further abroad. There are three types of Sephardic songs—topical and entertainment songs, romance songs and spiritual or ceremonial songs. Lyrics can be in several languages, including Hebrew for religious songs, and Ladino.

These song traditions spread from Spain to Morocco (the Western Tradition) and several parts of the Ottoman Empire (the Eastern Tradition) including Greece, Jerusalem, the Balkans and Egypt. Sephardic music adapted to each of these locals, assimilating North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode.


Mizrahi music usually refers to the new wave of music in Israel which combines Israeli music with the flavor of Arabic and Mediterranean (especially Greek) music. Typical Mizrahi songs will have a dominant violin or string sound as well as Middle Eastern percussion elements. Mizrahi music is usually high pitched. In today's Israeli music scene, Mizrahi music is very popular.


Deriving from Biblical traditions, Jewish dance has long been used by Jews as a medium for the expression of joy and other communal emotions. Each Jewish diasporic community developed its own dance traditions for wedding celebrations and other distinguished events. For Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, dances, whose names corresponded to the different forms of klezmer music that were played, were an obvious staple of the wedding ceremony of the shtetl. Jewish dances both were influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time. "Nevertheless the Jews practiced a corporeal expressive language that was highly differentiated from that of the non-Jewish peoples of their neighborhood, mainly through motions of the hands and arms, with more intricate legwork by the younger men."[2] In general, however, in most religiously traditional communities, members of the opposite sex dancing together or dancing at times other than at these events was frowned upon.

Not Jewish in form

The below two sections address instances in which Jews have contributed musically using originally non-Jewish forms or the forms used by the mainstream culture,

Jews in mainstream and jazz music

Jews have also contributed to popular music, primarily in the United States (and, obviously, in Israel), and in some specific forms of popular music have become or are dominant. This is true to a lesser extent in Europe, but some of the first influential Jewish popular musicians in the US were actually natives of Europe, such as Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill and Sigmund Romberg. The most visible early forms of American popular music in which Jews have contributed are the popular song and musical theater. Approximately half of the members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame are Jewish.[3] However, the latter especially has been dominated by Jewish composers and lyricists throughout its history and to a certain extent still today.

While Jazz is primarily considered an art form with African-American originators, many Jewish musicians have contributed to it including clarinetists Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (the latter two swing bandleaders made significant contributions in bringing racial integration into the American music industry[4][5]), saxophonists Michael Brecker, Kenny G, Stan Getz, Benny Green, Lee Konitz, Ronnie Scott and Joshua Redman, trumpeters and cornetists Randy Brecker, Ruby Braff, Red Rodney and Shorty Rogers, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, drummers Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, and Victor Feldman, and singers and pianists Billy Joel, Al Jolson, Ben Sidran and Mel Tormé. Some artists such as Harry Kandel were famous for mixing Jazz with klezmer as was modern Texas klezmer Bill Averbach. Since a great deal of Jazz music consisted of musical cooperation of Jewish and African-American musicians or black musicians funded by Jewish producers, the art form became "the racist's worst nightmare".[6]

Although the early Dixie Dregs), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater keyboardist), Mike Portnoy (drummer for Dream Theater and Transatlantic). Today, some Jews have begun to experiment with forms such as reggae and rap, and artists such as Matisyahu have used forms of secular culture to express religious ideas.

"Popular" music in Europe during the early 20th century would have been considered to be lighter classical forms such as operetta and entertainments like cabaret, and in these Jewish involvement was very large, especially in Vienna and Paris. Probably the most notable ethnically Jewish composer of operettas was Jacques Offenbach, a Roman Catholic convert; in the second half of the 20th century, Serge Gainsbourg's was one of the dominant figures in the evolution of cabaret music. During the more recent period with its different definition of popular music, Jews have to a lesser extent still contributed.

Popular music in Israel has also a been medium for Jewish secular musical expression. Many Israeli secular musicians explore topics such as the Jewish and Israeli people, Zionism and nationalism, agriculture and the land of Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israeli popular music for the most part uses borrowed American forms like rock and alternative rock, pop, heavy metal, hip hop, rap and trance. In addition to these and classical music, Israel is host to a wealth of styles of Mizrahi music, featuring the influences and contributions of Arab, Yemenite, Greek and Ethiopian Jews.

Israel has, since 1973, participated in the annual event Eurovision Song Contest, an annual, continental pop music event, every year (except when it clashes with Holocaust Memorial Day, as in 1980, 1984 and 1997) It has won 3 times, in 1978, 1979 and 1998.

Jews in classical music

Before the Jewish Emancipation, virtually all Jewish music in Europe was sacred music, with the exception of the performances of klezmorim during weddings and other occasions. The result was a lack of a Jewish presence in European classical music until the 19th century, with very few exceptions, normally enabled by specific aristocratic protection, such as Salamone Rossi (whose work is considered the beginning of "Jewish art music").[7] Although during the Classical period small numbers of Jewish composers were present in Amsterdam, Southern France and Italy, the vast majority of Jewish classical composers were active during the Romantic period (following the French Revolution) and even more so in the 20th century.[8] Paul Johnson summarizes the dynamics of this cultural pattern:

The Jewish musical tradition, for instance, was far older than anyone else's in Europe. Music remained an element in Jewish services, and the cantor was almost as pivotal a figure in local Jewish society as the rabbi. But Jewish musicians, except as converts, had played no part in European musical development. Hence the entry, in considerable numbers, of Jewish composers and performers on the musical scene in the middle decades of the nineteenth century was a phenomenon, and a closely observed one.[9]

Likewise, music historian David Conway notes that

At the start of the nineteenth century there were virtually no Jewish professionals in music and the standard of music in Jewish synagogues was generally appalling. Yet by the end of the same century throughout Europe Jews held leading positions as conductors, soloists, producers, music publishers and patrons of music; a Jew [ Meyerbeer ] was the most successful opera composer of the century, and the Jews were commonly held, what would have seemed nonsensical a hundred years earlier, to be a 'musical people'.[10]

However, the origin of Gregorian chant, which was the earliest manifestation of European classical music, was Jewish choral music of the Temple and synagogue, according to a large number of analytical liturgists[11] and music historians.[12]

After Jews were admitted to mainstream society in Aaron Copland from the United States, Darius Milhaud and Alexandre Tansman from France, Alfred Schnittke[14] and Lera Auerbach from Russia, Lalo Schifrin and Mario Davidovsky from Argentina and Paul Ben-Haim and Shulamit Ran from Israel.

There are some genres and forms of classical music that Jewish composers have been associated with, including notably during the Romantic period Leo Ornstein helped develop the tone cluster, Morton Feldman and Armand Lunel were noted composers of chance music (the latter is also considered the inventor of spatialization), and Mario Davidovsky was famous for writing a series of compositions mixing acoustic and electronic music. In addition, Lera Auerbach, Alfred Schnittke and John Zorn have worked with Polystylism and other forms of Postmodern music, and Modernist Miriam Gideon combined atonalism and Jewish folk motives in her pieces.

While orchestral and operatic music works by Jewish composers would in general be considered secular, many Jewish (as well as non-Jewish) composers have incorporated Jewish themes and motives into their music. Sometimes this is done covertly, such as the clarinet glissando in his Rhapsody in Blue is a reference to klezmer. Finally, many non-Jewish (mostly, but not all, Russian) composers have composed classical music with clear Jewish themes and inspiration, such as Max Bruch (Kol Nidre), Sergei Prokofiev (Overture on Hebrew Themes), Maurice Ravel (Chanson hébraïque in Yiddish, Deux mélodies hébraïques - including "Kaddisch" in Aramaic and "Fregt di velt di alte kashe" in Yiddish),[17] Dmitri Shostakovich (Second Piano Trio, From Jewish Folk Poetry and Symphony No. 13 "Babi Yar")[18] and Igor Stravinsky (Abraham and Isaac - used the Hebrew Masoretic text of a passage of Genesis, and was dedicated to the Jews and the State of Israel). Many operatic works by non-Jewish composers show a direct connection with and sympathy for the Jewish people and history, like Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah and Verdi's Nabucco.

In addition to composers, many Jews have been prominent music critics, music theorists and musicologists, such as Guido Adler, Leon Botstein, Eduard Hanslick, Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, Julius Korngold, Hedi Stadlen and Robert Strassburg. Jewish classical performers have most frequently been violinists (as can be expected from the violin's importance in klezmer), pianists and cellists. Notable examples are Isaac Stern, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Rose, respectively. Beginning with Gustav Mahler and most frequently today, Jewish conductors have also been prominent, with many like Leonard Bernstein achieving international stature. As of January 2006, the principal music directors of the American Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Berlin State Opera, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Pops Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Tonhalle Orchestra (in Zurich) are of Jewish descent (respectively Leon Botstein, Mariss Jansons, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Slatkin, Lorin Maazel, Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Zinman). A few notable cantors also worked as opera singers, such as Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker.

Case study in secular Jewish culture: Jewish identity in 19th-century central Europe

A page from the score of the oratorio Die Jacobsleiter (Jacob's Ladder) (1917-1922, unfinished) by Arnold Schoenberg.

Research regarding the Jewish identity of composers usually focuses on the assimilated German-speaking Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler; the former, although the grandson of the most famous philosopher of the Haskalah, was baptized and raised as a Reformed Christian, and the latter converted to Roman Catholicism in order to remove his most powerful obstacle to success (anti-Semitism) in musical Vienna. While in both cases the conversion was made in order to assimilate with European Christian society and therefore leave persecution in favor of prosperity, Mendelssohn wrote overtly and unapologetically Christian music (Symphony No. 5 "Reformation", St. Paul Oratorio and numerous chamber and other vocal pieces), and on one occasion he even changed his appearance in order to avoid looking like related Jewish composer Meyerbeer. Mahler also wrote Christian-inspired music in the fifth movement of the Second Symphony (although this highly spiritual piece has also been interpreted as fundamentally Jewish at its core[19]), the fifth movement of the Third Symphony, the fourth movement of the Fourth Symphony and his Eighth Symphony.

However, the issue in both cases is not so simple: although his father urged him to drop the name "Mendelssohn" in concert programs to purge any reference to his Jewish past, Felix "retained the name... despite his father's protests, and though undoubtedly a sincere Lutheran, retained a respect for his Jewish history. His professional and social success may have emboldened him to be more forthrightly pro-Jewish than other converts".[20] Mahler wrote what have been perceived as Jewish references in his works, including klezmer-like passages in the third movement of the First Symphony and first movement of the Third; in addition, the previously mentioned fifth movement of the Second Symphony includes a passage that many believe imitates shofar blasts with a programmatic text resembling the Unetanneh Tokef prayer.

The most compelling reason why Mendelssohn and Mahler are commonly considered Jewish composers are because they have been repeatedly identified as such both by anti-Semites and Jews. In both cases contemporaries (respectively, Richard Wagner in his Das Judenthum in der Musik, and the virulent Vienna press and Austrian anti-Semites such as Rudolph Louis[21]) argued that no matter how much the composer in question attempted to pass himself off as a good Austrian/German and a good Christian, he and his music would remain fundamentally and unalterably Jewish (in the context, with an obviously negative connotation). Therefore, when Nazi Germany suppressed what they considered "degenerate music", both Mendelssohn and Mahler were banned as Jewish composers; they were contrasted with "good" German composers like Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner[22] (to a lesser degree concerning Wagner but especially in the case of Beethoven, the fact that the Nazi propagandists claimed that deceased, and therefore unable to object composers are personifications of their ideology does not mean that they would have approved of such a label). The claim of "fundamental Jewishness" was repeated, but with a completely opposite meaning, by 20th century Jews like Leonard Bernstein (regarding Mahler), who viewed that the dual Jewishness and success of the composers is something to be championed and celebrated.[23] A persuasive argument to the Jewishness of Mahler comes from his wife, Alma Mahler:

He [Gustav] was not a man who ever deceived himself, and he knew that people would not forget he was a Jew.... Nor did he wish it forgotten.... He never denied his Jewish origin. Rather he emphasized it.[24]

Regarding Wagner himself, it often seems ironic to some that many of the most influential and popular interpreters of his work have been Jewish conductors such as the aforementioned Mahler and Bernstein, as well as Bruno Walter. It has been noted that there is a "love of contemporary Jewish conductors for Wagner".[26] While much has been written about Wagner's anti-Semitism in his writings and music, and the Nazi appropriation of his music, research in recent years has analyzed the possibility that Wagner was himself of Jewish ancestry, and explored Wagner's interaction with and attitude towards the Jews through a multi-sided perspective.[27]

Much less complex and disputed is the Jewishness of Arnold Schoenberg. Although he was brought up as a Catholic and converted to Protestantism in 1898, during the rise of the Nazis in 1933 he openly embraced and returned to Judaism. The result was a number of later works dealing with Judaism and the Holocaust, such as A Survivor from Warsaw, Kol Nidre and Moses und Aron. During this time Schoenberg also began to concern himself with the historical situation of the Jewish people in his essays and other writings.

Both Mahler and Schoenberg were Jewish composers who converted to a form of Christianity to avoid anti-Semitism, but were still attacked by the anti-Semitic elements of Viennese society as fundamentally Jewish and therefore a corrupting and perverse influence. According to Paul Johnson,

The feeling of cultural outrage was much more important than anti-Semitism as such; or rather, it turned into anti-Semites, at any rate for the moment, people who normally never expressed such feelings. It was he Jew-as-Iconoclast which aroused the really deep rage... Mahler had begun it; Schönberg carried it on; both were Jews, and they corrupted young Aryan composers like Berg - so the argument went.[28]

Again, although these critics meant their identifications of Mahler and Schoenberg as Jewish in an offensive way, this context provides a legitimate reason to claim them as Jewish composers today, though now in a neutral or positive sense. Despite the three above examples, however, a majority of Jewish artists and intellectuals in Austria, Germany and France during the 19th century and early 20th century assimilated culturally either by keeping the Jewish religion but living a mainstream European lifestyle (as Moses Mendelssohn had wished in earlier decades) or renouncing religion in favor of secularism, but retained at least the identification of Jewishness. It is the dual existence of people who disassociated themselves with Judaism yet remained affiliated with the Jewish people, and those who wished to retain the Jewish religion but eliminate any distinct Jewish culture by blending into Gentile society in this region and period (as opposed to Eastern Europe at the same time, where both the Jewish peoplehood and religion were preserved) that show the complexities of both Judaism and secular Jewish culture.

See also


  1. ^ Menashe Ravina, "The Songs of the People of Israel", published by Hamossad Lemusika Ba'am, 1943
  2. ^ Yiddish, Klezmer, Ashkenazic or 'shtetl' dances, Le site genevois de la musique klezmer. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  3. ^ Jews in Music on Accessed 12 February 2006.
  4. ^ Benny Goodman, on the Austin Lindy Hop site. Credited as PBS biography. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  5. ^ Amy Henning, Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet.
  6. ^ Jews & Jazz. Academy BJE, NSW Board of Jewish Education. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  7. ^ Western Classical Music, Jewish Music Institute, 29 October 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  8. ^ ibid.
  9. ^ Johnson, op. cit., p. 408.
  10. ^ Conway, David. "'In the midst of many peoples' - some nineteenth-century Jewish composers and their Jewishness.(Cultural Histories)(Biography)." European Judaism 36.1 (Spring 2003): 36(24). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. UC Irvine (CDL). 09 March 2006
  11. ^ Kevin J. Symonds, On The Hebraic Roots of the Gregorian Chant. Self-published 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  12. ^ Stanley Sadie, Chant, The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music (London:Macmillan). The relevant passage is reproduced on the Internet Archive, archived March 26, 2005 from the site of Reich College of Education, Appalachian State University, North Carolina.
  13. ^ Libo and Skakun, op. cit.
  14. ^ a b With the exception of those living in isolated Jewish communities, most Jews listed here as contributing to secular Jewish culture also participated in the cultures of the peoples they lived with and nations they lived in. In most cases, however, the work and lives of these people did not exist in two distinct cultural spheres but rather in one that incorporated elements of both. This person had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent, and therefore exemplified this phenomenon par excellence.
  15. ^ Quoted in to Teach HumanitiesLa JuiveUsing on the site of the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Broadcast Information Center. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  16. ^ Alex Ross, "The Ray of Death", The New Yorker, November 24, 2003. Reproduced online. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  17. ^ Ruben Frankenstein, Ravel's Chants hébraïques, Mendele: Yiddish literature and language, Vol. 4.131, October 8, 1994. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  18. ^ James Loeffler, Hidden Sympathies, Accessed 12 February 2006
  19. ^ Adam Joachim Goldman, Measuring Mahler, in Search of a Jewish Temperament, The Forward, August 23, 2002. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  20. ^ David Conway, Mendelssohn the Christian; preparatory work to his doctoral dissertation provisionally entitled Jewry in Music. Notes say "from a recent article in European Judaism magazine", but give no date. Accessed 12 February 2006
  21. ^ Francesca Draughon and Raymond Knapp, Gustav Mahler and the Crisis of Jewish Identity. Echo, Volume 3 Issue 2. Published by UCLA. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  22. ^ Nazi Approved Music, A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust. Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  23. ^ Francesca Draughon and Raymond Knapp, op. cit.
  24. ^ Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters (trans., New York 1946), pg. 90; quoted in Johnson, op. cit., pg. 409.
  25. ^ Lili Eylon, The Controversy Over Richard Wagner, Jewish Virtual Library, credited to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. 2005. Accessed 12 February 2006
  26. ^ Elaine Baruch, Was it Self-Hatred that Fueled Wagner's 'Anti-Semitism'?, The Forward, March 2001 (exact date not given). Accessed 12 February 2006.
  27. ^ David Conway, 'A Vulture is Almost an Eagle': The Jewishness of Richard Wagner and Wagner's Magic Lamp: an ongoing mystery...; preparatory work to his doctoral dissertation provisionally entitled Jewry in Music. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  28. ^ Johnson, op. cit., p. 410.
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