Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What is Jewish music?

Joshua S. Walden

jewish music

Each year increasing numbers of university courses and academic books and articles are devoted to Jewish music, a growing scholarly field that is also the subject of interest groups at the premiere North American musicological organizations, the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, as well as the focus of its own research organization, the American Society for Jewish Music.

The category of Jewish music is generally assumed to incorporate a variety of musical styles, including traditional religious and folk genres deriving from Jewish cultures (such as klezmer and cantorial song) and classical music composed with the aim of representing sonic aspects of Jewish cultures (for example, Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” and Mischa Elman’s arrangement of “Eili Eili” ).

A few decades ago, Jewish music was discussed without too much handwringing over the name of the discipline; in the 1950s the musicologist Curt Sachs defined Jewish music as “music by Jews, for Jews, as Jews.” Today, however, it is rare to find a syllabus or article on the subject that does not reopen the discussion, asking the question in the title of this post.

It is an important question, with the potential to provoke compelling conversations, but it is not to be recommended that we anticipate any satisfactory answer. Jewish music, quite simply, has meant different things to different people at different times in history and in different places across the globe. This is one reason why studying the subject is so exciting: it is a rich topic that continues to expand as we listen to, perform, and learn about it. It is also a vibrant culture that continues to broaden and develop today.

The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music takes the approach that the question “What is Jewish music?” is worth asking, but that we need not worry that there is no single answer. Chapters in the book deal with this question in different ways.

For example, Judah Cohen asks how organizations devoted to Jewish religious, philanthropic, and educational concerns have promoted particular definitions of Jewish music. James Loeffler views the principal debates over the term in the field of classical music in the years between 1850 and 1925. Lily Hirsch explores how war, internment, exile, and immigration in the early twentieth century influenced notions of Jewish music and its roles in Jewish cultures. And Philip Bohlman approaches questions of Jewish musical onotologies, while Edwin Seroussi considers music in relation to concepts of diaspora.

In addition to exploring historical meanings of “Jewish music,” the book also views the sounds and styles of music created for and by Jews and performed at Jewish religious and life cycle events in diverse settings across the world. Chapters treat music in the biblical era and the music of Jewish liturgy and the Reform movement; they focus on cantorial singing, klezmer, and Judeo-Spanish song; they recount the histories of Jewish involvement in classical music, especially in America, Europe, and Israel; and they describe music in Yiddish theater and cinema and the ways Jewish genres have been captured on – and shaped by – sound recording technologies from Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph to the MP3.

As these chapters demonstrate, the term “Jewish music” is a deceptively simple way to describe a subject of intriguing and global diversity. As it accompanies readers along the journey through the study of Jewish music, The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music aims to tell compelling stories about people, places, and sounds, to answer multiple questions while raising others, and to offer new points of view for future discussion.

About The Author

Joshua S. Walden

Joshua S. Walden is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Music (2016). He is a member of the faculty of musicology at the Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University....

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