The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Jew­ish Music

Joshua S. Walden, ed.
  • Review
By – July 29, 2016

The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Jew­ish Music, edit­ed by Joshua S. Walden, a musi­col­o­gist at the Peabody Insti­tute at the John Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, is a col­lec­tion of six­teen dis­crete essays on the his­to­ry of Jew­ish music explor­ing the inher­ent ambi­gu­i­ty of the term Jew­ish music’.”

Con­trib­u­tors to the edi­tion include musi­col­o­gists from around the world whose areas of exper­tise include ancient, mod­ern, and con­tem­po­rary music. The book’s six­teen chap­ters are divid­ed into three sec­tions. The first four essays of the first sec­tion explore var­i­ous ways Jew­ish music’ has been defined and con­ceived, and the his­tor­i­cal, social, cul­tur­al, and tech­no­log­i­cal influ­ences that have helped shape these often con­flict­ing under­stand­ings.” The final essay of this sec­tion, writ­ten by the edi­tor, con­sid­ers how sound repro­duc­tion tech­nolo­gies in record­ing and dig­i­tal media have for­ev­er altered the way that Jew­ish music is cre­at­ed and defined. Walden draws the his­to­ry of The Bar­ry Sis­ters, Clara and Min­nie Bagel­man, who were at the fore­front of a musi­cal fusion between klezmer and swing, as an exam­ple of the hybrid­i­ty of mod­ern Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in America.”

The next four con­tri­bu­tions focus on four gen­res of Jew­ish music: bib­li­cal, litur­gi­cal, Judeo-Span­ish song, and klezmer. Chap­ter six, writ­ten by Mark Klig­man of the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, traces the his­to­ry of Jew­ish litur­gy from bib­li­cal times to the present, uti­liz­ing bib­li­cal, rab­binic, medieval, and mod­ern sources. His essay also con­sid­ers the ten­sion that devel­oped between those who wished to cre­ate new litur­gi­cal music and oth­ers, usu­al­ly rab­binic lead­ers, who wished to pre­serve old­er tunes, most like­ly to pre­vent non-Jew­ish musi­cal prac­tice from influ­enc­ing litur­gi­cal practice.

The final eight essays of the third sec­tion chart a gen­er­al­ly chrono­log­i­cal course through the his­to­ry of a vari­ety of gen­res, places, lan­guages, and styles of Jew­ish music.” Lily E. Hirsch con­sid­ers the his­to­ry of Jew­ish music from 1925 to 1945. Her review explores the impact of war, the Holo­caust, and Nazi and Sovi­et poli­cies about Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the arts. This chap­ter leaves the read­er with a sense of awe at the abil­i­ty of Jew­ish com­posers and musi­cians to con­tin­ue their artis­tic expres­sion in the midst of mod­ern Jew­ry’s dark­est period.

The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Jew­ish Music is a con­cise and valu­able intro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. How­ev­er, the essays vary in their com­plex­i­ty. While none require an advanced under­stand­ing of music the­o­ry, some will chal­lenge a read­er with lim­it­ed expo­sure to music’s pri­ma­ry struc­tures or ter­mi­nol­o­gy. Nev­er­the­less, those inter­est­ed in the cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple will enjoy this book. In addi­tion, a read­er of The Com­pan­ion to Jew­ish Music will fin­ish its final pages with a deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of how music may serve as a unique van­tage point from which to explore the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple as a whole. 

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Chief Oper­at­ing Offi­cer of Jew­ish Fam­i­ly Ser­vice in Stam­ford, CT.

Discussion Questions