Nora Golds lat­est book, The Dead Man, fol­lows the sto­ry of a com­pos­er of Jew­ish sacred music and a music ther­a­pist with an uncon­quer­able obses­sion. Nora is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

What is it about music? It can affect us like noth­ing else in the world. It has the pow­er to move us to tears, fill us with joy, or set our fin­gers tap­ping and our legs danc­ing. In his book Musi­cophil­ia, Oliv­er Sacks shows that music can ani­mate peo­ple with Parkinson’s dis­ease who can­not oth­er­wise move, give words to stroke patients who can­not oth­er­wise speak, and calm and orga­nize peo­ple whose mem­o­ries are rav­aged by Alzheimer’s or amne­sia: Lis­ten­ing to music is not just audi­to­ry and emo­tion­al, it is motoric as well: We lis­ten to music with our mus­cles,’ as Niet­zsche said.”

I have always loved music and it has always been an impor­tant part of my life. So per­haps it is no coin­ci­dence that my new nov­el, The Dead Man, is about a woman who is a com­pos­er of Jew­ish sacred music and also a music therapist. 

I did not grow up with Jew­ish music. I heard the sho­far once a year at shul, and on the hol­i­days we sang a few songs, but main­ly the music I heard at home was clas­si­cal. Jew­ish music is some­thing I dis­cov­ered on my own in ado­les­cence, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

I have heard Jew­ish music from most Jew­ish tra­di­tions and gen­res, and I love almost every kind. The type I lis­ten to the most, though, is Jew­ish-themed art (or clas­si­cal) music. I first encoun­tered this sort of music as a young adult after I moved to Toron­to, the home of the com­pos­er, Srul Irv­ing Glick. His music blew me away. I didn’t know any­thing like this exist­ed and it opened up a whole world to me. I’d been famil­iar, of course, with the music of Mendelssohn, and I knew he was Jew­ish. But just as not all fic­tion authored by Jews is Jew­ish fic­tion, not all music writ­ten by Jew­ish com­posers is Jew­ish music. So Glick’s music was a rev­e­la­tion for me. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, per­haps, Glick’s music shows up in my nov­el, includ­ing his bril­liant Music for Passover,” parts of which my fam­i­ly sang a few weeks ago at our Passover seder.

Anoth­er com­pos­er whose work I love is Sala­m­one Rossi, the extra­or­di­nary six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ital­ian com­pos­er who wrote the first Jew­ish-themed clas­si­cal music. I was intro­duced to Rossi at a con­cert per­formed by the Jew­ish choir Lachan. That con­cert offered a chrono­log­i­cal sam­pling of Jew­ish choral music, one piece per cen­tu­ry, start­ing with Rossi. I was so bowled over by this piece by him that I didn’t hear any­thing the choir sang after that. Need­less to say, Rossi’s music — like Glick’s — makes an appear­ance in The Dead Man.

Music can serve many func­tions: emo­tion­al, social, and cul­tur­al. Jew­ish music not only gives us Jews plea­sure and cathar­sis; it plays a role in bind­ing us togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty. Singing with oth­er peo­ple, for exam­ple, is a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence, com­mu­nal­ly and indi­vid­u­al­ly. I can’t even imag­ine con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life with­out music in it — at shul, at home, with friends. In my view, noth­ing could be more con­ducive to com­mu­ni­ty- and iden­ti­ty-build­ing than music.

Fur­ther­more, Jew­ish music binds us to our shared his­tor­i­cal past: one project I’m very excit­ed about, for exam­ple, is the ARC Ensemble’s Music in Exile” ini­tia­tive, where they research, unearth, per­form, and record the sup­pressed music of Jew­ish com­posers who were forced to flee Ger­many in the 1930s. Their work is an immea­sur­ably pre­cious gift to our peo­ple, restor­ing to us a miss­ing piece from our musi­cal past. 

As for our musi­cal future, what lies ahead for Jew­ish music? A few weeks ago I saw Steve Reich in con­cert and heard the per­for­mance of his mas­ter­piece, Tehillim. This was a remark­able expe­ri­ence, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly an easy one: it chal­lenged some of my most basic assump­tions about music. Reich, an obser­vant Jew, has pushed the bound­aries of Jew­ish music, and music in gen­er­al, quite a few inch­es, or maybe even miles, from where it was before. His Tehillim is dif­fer­ent Jew­ish music from any­thing you’ve ever heard. 

How excit­ing it is! I can­not wait to see what hap­pens next with Jew­ish music.

Nora Gold is the author of The Dead Man, Fields of Exile, and Mar­row and Oth­er Sto­ries. She is the edi­tor of the online jour­nal Jew​ish​Fic​tion​.net and the Writer-in-Res­i­dence at the Cen­tre for Wom­en’s Stud­ies of OISE/​University of Toronto.

Relat­ed Content:

Dr. Nora Gold is the prize-win­ning author of five books and the founder and edi­tor of the pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary jour­nal Jew­ish Fic​tion​.net. Her books have won both The Cana­di­an Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Award and The Vine Cana­di­an Jew­ish Book Award, and her writ­ing has been praised by Alice Munro, Cyn­thia Ozick, and Dara Horn.