What Makes Music Jewish

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Cantor Emily Wigod Pincus

Toward the end of the 19th century, some Jewish musicians who had been trained in the classical, European tradition discovered artistic possibilities in the folk-song of their people. They were of eastern European origin, had been educated in a Jewish atmosphere, and had grown up with Jewish folk-song. In parallel with the nationalist movements arising at the time, there was a newly revived Jewish national movement. This stirred their own consciousness and turned their interest to their people’s songs.

The political, the artistic, and the religious were intertwined. The pain and anger at having been subjected to severe restrictions on their lives, pogroms, and forced concentration in a segregated region of Russia called the Pale of Settlement, gave birth to an intense nationalist identity during the 1880s onward. Instead of trying to break free from their Jewish identity or to change their Judaism to make it more like Christianity or secular culture, a group of Jewish intellectuals decided to raise it up and put it in conversation with modernity. There was a flowering of Yiddish literature, a Yiddish theater movement started, and a wealth of Yiddish newspapers and periodicals sprang up.

The musical group tasked itself with cultivating Jewish folk-song for solo and piano accompaniment, later for choir and instruments, but also with creating original compositions. In 1908, a Society for Jewish Folk Music was organized in St. Petersburg, with the aim of collecting folk songs and arranging them in artistic forms. The goal was to create, not only through the new settings, but also through the curation and preservation of the old tunes, a uniquely Jewish music. The society began to publish the work of its members and started a movement that spread to Moscow, Poland, Austria, and later Palestine and the United States. Its impact on the course of Jewish music was profound, despite the fact that due to the outbreak of World War I, the original society existed formally for fewer than 10 years. The art music movement it fostered inspired a new interest in the music of Ashkenazi Jews throughout Europe and America, laid the foundations for the Jewish music and Klezmer revival in the United States, and was a key influence in the development of Israeli folk and classical music.

And people have been arguing about what makes music “Jewish” ever since. Here is what Abraham Idelsohn, one of the most influential forbears on the study of Jewish music, had to say on the topic:

Artistically successful arrangement of folk-song depends not merely upon faithful adherence to the melody….the musician must have absorbed the spirit of the tune, and be moved by the emotions which gave it birth, so that, instead of caricaturing the melody by reason of unsuited harmonization, he give it fuller expression through instrumental accompaniment. He needs must preserve the simplicity of the folktune…the value of all artistic labor in the realm of folk music rests with the composer’s regard for and preservation of the song’s own character…so imbued must he be with the spirit of the song from which his theme sprang….

As you can see, Idelsohn had a pretty exacting idea of how to make “Jewish” music. Although you may not have thought about it much, most of us do the same: This is “real”; that is “fake.” This is “authentic” and that is not. This is good and that is bad, etc. This spring, I will offer three classes on Yiddish, Sephardic and Israeli art music. Our first goal will be to enjoy the music that will be performed and listen to it for itself. But as we proceed through, we will also ask: How does it affect us? Is it good? Is it Jewish? Is there a difference? What is the basis for our connection here? Stay tuned….February 26 at 7:00: Yiddish Art Music, April 23 at 7:00: Sephardic Art Music, and May 14t 7:00: Israeli Art Music.


Originally published in the January-February 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.