What defines Jewish music?

From Shlomo Carlebach to Debbie Friedman to Yiddish tunes, there is a vast history to explore.

ARED STEIN blows a shofar as Rabbi Naomi Levy plays a drum at the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration in LA, 2015 (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

ARED STEIN blows a shofar as Rabbi Naomi Levy plays a drum at the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration in LA, 2015
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

What is Jewish music?

Tina Frühauf, the author of Experiencing Jewish Music in America, states: “Whether one defines it as music made by Jews, for Jews, or in a Jewish style (whatever that may be) or music with Jewish subject matter, there will always be counterexamples for any such singular definition.”

In other words, it’s complicated. Tina Frühauf is a scholar who researches music and Jewish studies and is on the faculty of Columbia University and the City University of New York. She introduces her book with a discussion of the difficulty in defining something as multifaceted as Jewish music. Just as there are different interpretations as to “who is a Jew?” Frühauf explains, there are many different answers to the question “what is Jewish music ?”

“The answer to what ‘Jewish music’ is, then, all depends on who defines it and when and under what circumstances. Some insist on a Jewish ritual context and traditional languages (Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino) or melodies; others see the Jewish heritage of the musicians as sufficient even when non-Jewish musical influences are dominant, and still others embrace music by non-Jewish musicians based on Jewish themes.”
Experiencing Jewish Music in America is part of the Listener’s Companion series, edited by Kenneth LaFave and published by Rowman & Littlefield. This series aims to provide non-academic readers with an understanding of major musical genres and the work of the foremost artists and composers in these genres. The series includes volumes as different as Experiencing Beethoven and Experiencing The Beatles, with a wide range of musical genres in-between.
Experiencing Jewish Music gives the reader a stimulating review of the history and sociology of Jews in America through the diversity of their music. The book is organized into chapters such as “Sounds of the Synagogue,” “Seasoned with Song – At Home and at the Jewish Table,” “The Yiddish Stage,” “On the Concert Stage” and others. As one delves into the book, the great significance of music in Jewish life, including American Jewish life, becomes very clear.
For many people, Jewish music refers to the melodies of the traditional prayers and Torah reading in the synagogue. In America, Jewish music began when the first Jews in America began meeting for prayer services in 1695 in what was then the Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam, which became New York City. This congregation became Shearith Israel, also known as the Sephardi and Portuguese Synagogue. Although little is actually known about the melodies of those years, “we can safely assume that the sounds the congregants heard during weekly gatherings on the Sabbath were the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible….as well as the recitation of statutory prayers by a single unaccompanied prayer leader.”
Music in synagogues changed and evolved just as Jewish life in American changed and evolved throughout the decades. The tunes to the prayers are many and diverse, influenced by the geographical and historical backgrounds of the congregants and the denomination of the synagogue. Today there are thousands of synagogues in the US and each one is unique. 
“Religious music in America has evolved over the course of 350 years,” writes Frühauf. It appears that religious music has evolved just as the community itself has evolved and changed. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, and each one of these categories include a multitude of sub-identities. Then there are Orthodox, hassidic, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and again, many sub-identities. In the first chapter, “Sounds of the Synagogue,” the author wonders whether there is a “unique form of American synagogue music”. She then spends about five pages discussing the musical career of Deborah Lynn Friedman, who was a “performer, composer, recording artist, teacher, and passionate Jewish visionary.” 
FRIEDMAN PUT the words of the Jewish liturgy to music, and her work has had a strong influence on synagogue music, mostly within the Reform movement, but her repertoire is sung in synagogues and camps of other movements as well. She also sold a half-million albums and performed at major venues like Carnegie Hall. When Friedman died of a neurological condition in 2011 at the age of 59, there was an outpouring of grief and memorial events were held in many parts of the US.
The book mentions other musicians who had a strong influence on synagogue music in the post-World War Two era in the US and includes Shlomo Carlebach, who had a strong influence on synagogue music in the Orthodox world. Carlebach’s music has become even more popular in the Orthodox world and in parts of other movements following his death in 1994.
“Debbie Friedman, Shlomo Carlebach and their contemporaries initiated one of the many transformations that synagogue music in America had undergone in its history… synagogue music embraced popular music and engaged congregants with hassidic tunes, folk and Israeli compositions, blues and jazz, and many other styles. As the Jewish community of America continuously changed and transformed, so did its sacred music.”
Of course, as the author discusses in her introduction, Jewish music is not only the melodies of the traditional prayers sung in the synagogues, but a range of other types of music as well. One kind of Jewish music that reflects the lives of the Jewish immigrants to the US in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century is the music of the Yiddish stage. As the Jewish community became more settled in the US, Yiddish theater culture began to grow. With the increase of Jewish immigration from Europe, performances of Yiddish theater became more common and with these performances, Yiddish music.
Centered in New York City, Yiddish theater companies also traveled to other cities to perform in front of Jewish audiences. Yiddish theater, explains Tina Frühauf, can best be understood as “a product of its time and its people. It is imbued with the history of the Yiddish-speaking Jews living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, their persecution and emigration to the United States, their struggles to adapt to a new life and language, while first maintaining and then losing ties to their former homelands. It thus charts the evolution of a community in its acculturation to and influence on America.”
As the Jewish population integrated into American life, Jewish musicians made their way into Broadway plays, Hollywood movies, concert stages, and many other venues where music is performed. The author includes the stories of prominent performers and the plays, movies and concerts in which they performed. These stories have a great deal to tell us, not only about the music of the individual performers, but also about the Jewish communities they lived in.
In recent decades, Jewish musicians have composed music for films without Jewish themes, and non-Jewish composers composed music for films that do have Jewish subjects, such as Sophie’s Choice or The Pianist. Would this music be considered “Jewish music?” The question itself reflects the challenge in defining American Jewish music.
I have been a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel since they first became popular more than 50 years ago. They are both Jewish, so does that make their music “Jewish music?” Although I cannot be sure, I believe that if Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel were asked this question, they would say no. Still, there are lines in some of their lyrics that I have wondered about, such as the following lines from “Slip Slidin’ Away”:
“God only knows,
God makes His plans,
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man.”
Of course, these lines could be considered universal and not specifically Jewish, which is probably what Paul Simon intended when he wrote them. To me, these lines sound Jewish, which more than anything reflects what Frühauf repeatedly emphasizes in her book: The definition of what is Jewish music depends on who is defining it and under what circumstances. 
By Tina Frühauf
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers