Jew­ish fam­i­ly of musi­cians from Rohatyn, mod­ern-day west­ern Ukraine, most of them mem­bers of the Faust fam­i­ly, 1912; edit­ed by Simona Zaretsky

Tina Frühaufs book, Expe­ri­enc­ing Jew­ish Music in Amer­i­ca: A Lis­ten­er’s Com­pan­ion, fol­lows the ques­tion of what Jew­ish music can, should, and ought to be, by pro­vid­ing snap­shots of an exten­sive range of musi­cal gen­res and styles that have been cen­tral to the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence on US soil, begin­ning with the arrival of the first Jew­ish immi­grants in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry and the chant­i­ng of the Torah, to the sounds of pop today.

Imag­ine you are vis­it­ing a record store, actu­al or vir­tu­al, look­ing for Jew­ish music in Amer­i­ca.” What would you find? In the same rack there might be can­to­r­i­al clas­sics sung by Yos­se­le Rosen­blatt and klezmer music; you might find Israeli folk music, and songs in Yid­dish and Ladi­no; you might see one of the CDs by Hasidic pop star Lipa Schmeltzer or stum­ble over John Zorn’s exper­i­men­tal sounds; you will cer­tain­ly find an abun­dance of clas­si­cal music by com­posers of Jew­ish her­itage. The inven­to­ry of a record store is as much a micro­cosm of Jew­ish music, as the Unit­ed States is a micro­cosm for the Jew­ish cul­tures of the world, from the Bukhar­i­an Jews in Queens, to the Syr­i­an Jews in Mia­mi, and the Per­sian Jews in Los Ange­les. This diver­si­ty began in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Ear­li­er, Jews in the New World were large­ly Sephardim; the Ashke­naz­im arrived there­after, fol­lowed and then par­al­leled by Jews from North Africa and the Mid­dle East. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, oth­er groups such as Yemenites and Ethiopi­an Jews set­tled in the Unit­ed States as well. With­in these groups some are reli­gious to var­i­ous degrees and some are sec­u­lar. Diver­si­ty is inher­ent in Jew­ish cul­ture, musi­cal­ly and otherwise.

Giv­en this diver­si­ty, how does one under­stand the cat­e­go­ry of Jew­ish music? Like many terms, Jew­ish music” is a con­struct, a con­cept that emerged in lat­er moder­ni­ty. In the Unit­ed States, it first appeared in print in Sam L. Jacobson’s (1873 – 1937) essay, The Music of the Jews” of 1898, pub­lished in the month­ly mag­a­zine Music. Since then, attempts to define Jew­ish music have faced many dif­fi­cul­ties and have stirred up controversies.

Like many terms, Jew­ish music” is a con­struct, a con­cept that emerged in lat­er modernity.

In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Abra­ham Zvi Idel­sohn, an eth­nol­o­gist, musi­col­o­gist, and com­pos­er born in Latvia, per­pet­u­at­ed the idea of the under­ly­ing cul­tur­al uni­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple through­out and in spite of their geo­graph­ic dis­per­sion over cen­turies. He put forth the notion that the music of the var­i­ous Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties con­veys the lin­ear­i­ty of a his­to­ry dat­ing back to ancient Jerusalem. This view has been con­test­ed based on the evolv­ing het­ero­gene­ity of the Jew­ish peo­ple in var­i­ous Dias­po­ras. More so, many Jews did not mere­ly con­tin­ue exist­ing tra­di­tions; rather, they cre­at­ed new ones — a process dif­fi­cult to accept by some com­mu­ni­ties, where preser­va­tion, not cre­ation, is the defin­ing norm. Music, used in sacred and leisure con­texts, has played a key role in ide­o­log­i­cal debates about tra­di­tion and innovation.

Con­sid­er­a­tions on the mean­ing of Jew­ish music took a new turn when the mod­ern State of Israel was found­ed in 1948. Curt Sachs’s famous def­i­n­i­tion in 1957, music by Jews, for Jews, as Jews,” cel­e­brat­ed for its poignan­cy and wide­ly applied, has also received much crit­i­cism. It begs an answer to the over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion of who is a Jew, and an answer that depends on who you are ask­ing. For some, Jew­ish­ness is in the genes, trans­mit­ted based on matri­lin­eal suc­ces­sion since the time of Ezra; for oth­ers, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is con­struct­ed by soci­ety, whether by mem­bers of the group or out­siders. Indeed, what does it mean to be Jew­ish in the mod­ern world? Cap­tur­ing Jew­ish­ness broad­ly, it can be under­stood as a racial, cul­tur­al, eth­nic, or reli­gious cat­e­go­ry. The dilem­ma of Jew­ish music comes down to what is con­sid­ered Jew­ish and by whom.

The answer then, to what Jew­ish music” is, all depends on who defines it, when, and under what cir­cum­stances. Some insist on a Jew­ish rit­u­al con­text and tra­di­tion­al lan­guages — Hebrew, Yid­dish, 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. The term also car­ries expec­ta­tions of authen­tic­i­ty” or rather, orig­i­nal­i­ty, some­times lead­ing to heat­ed debates in the eval­u­a­tion of musi­cians, com­posers, and their works, espe­cial­ly in recent years when musi­cians pushed the lim­its of Jew­ish music” through ever more eclec­tic bor­row­ing from sur­round­ing cul­tures. But music can also serve to delib­er­ate­ly pre­serve and pro­mote Jew­ish cul­ture in an ever-increas­ing­ly assim­i­lat­ed world.

Still, Jew­ish music” remains the over­ar­ch­ing work­ing term of record in schol­ar­ship, the syn­a­gogue, and com­mu­ni­ties, used as short­hand for an expan­sive and dis­parate series of con­ver­sa­tions. It encom­pass­es a com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted rela­tion­ship between Judaism and sound from ancient times to the present day. This times­pan alone attest to music’s role as a prod­uct and process through which cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty can be con­struct­ed and Jew­ish con­scious­ness kept alive both inward­ly and outwardly.

Whether one defines it as music made by Jews, for Jews, in a Jew­ish style (what­ev­er that may be), or music with Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter, there will always be coun­terex­am­ples for any such sin­gu­lar def­i­n­i­tion. Jew­ish music is accept­ed as diverse, defy­ing any one def­i­n­i­tion. It ranges from reli­gious music to clas­si­cal music; it includes folk­lore and pop­u­lar music — all relat­ing to the notion of Jew­ish­ness. As such, Jew­ish music is omnipresent in Amer­i­ca, ready to be approached and enjoyed with an open mind and with respect.

Tina Frühauf is Adjunct Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and serves on the doc­tor­al fac­ul­ty of The Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. She is the edi­tor of the award-win­ning Dis­lo­cat­ed Mem­o­ries: Jews, Music, and Post­war Ger­man Cul­ture (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014) and has pub­lished wide­ly on Jew­ish musi­cal cul­tures. Her book Tran­scend­ing Dystopia: Music, Mobil­i­ty, and the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many, 1945 – 1989 is sched­uled to be released in Jan­u­ary of 2021.