What IS Jewish Music?

I’m going to leave much of this answer to those responding.
My point here is to show the differing opinions out there and, certainly, share my own.

Whoa, baby, do I have my own…

I’m an American, born-and-bred, growing up on Beatles, cantorial, Walt Disney, zemiros, Dean Martin, Shlomo Carlebach, Peter, Paul and Mary, CSNY, EW&F, ELO, Marvin Gaye, Gerrer and Modzitzer, Sherwood Goffin, Ruach and Joni Mitchell… an often-depressing combination of cultures for a growing musician…and that’s just spanning one decade of almost five.

I made a career combining (!) many of these elements. Finding a balance is still an artistic and personal struggle, but it also involves dealing with the constantly-changing morays of Jewish audiences.

My next question should be “what is American Jewish music?” Answering that question (and arguing it, I expect) may very well involve responses to the first one.

8 thoughts on “What IS Jewish Music?”

  1. let’s try it this way – what Jewish music is NOT:
    it does not depend on the SINGER (non-jewish singers will also sing jewish songs and vice versa – which does not make it jewish music.
    it does not depend on the WORDS (since you can take a perfectly holy verse from tanach and sing it to the most horrendous of tunes)
    and it does not depend on the TUNES (since there are beautiful songs that have questionable tunes)

    so basically there’s nothing that makes a song jewish or not. and should you say that it IS jewish, there are billions of shades of gray in that one area ranging from ‘a hint of jewish’ to ‘real heimishe niggunim’.

    this is not a question that comes with an answer.

  2. Gershon, a simple question to you.

    What music can you point to and say: this is definitely not Jewish music and does not belong in a Jewish home.
    Now, you can answer me that its all a matter of taste and so on. Even going along with that, can you point to something and say, according to your own opinion, (your taste) that this one is not Jewish?

    A question, not a challenge.

  3. Absolutely. Hope you're ready…this is just a piece of it!

    Most obviously, two examples of NON-Jewish music are White Christmas & The Christmas song (both written by Jews, incidentally). I believe they are clearly non-Jewish by virtue of their subject matter. Many Jewish homes listen to it as good music (which it is, like it or not) and some prefer to hear it on the radio, where it disappears as soon as it's done. OK…

    Interestingly, though, have you read the translation to the wildly popular song "Chazak?" The first section, quoted directly from Isaiah 41 (also found in haftoras Lech L'cha) is non-Jewish. In fact it is ANTI-Jewish. Go ahead…check it out without my telling you my own interpretation. For proper context, be sure to read the sentences around it, but you'll see what it says. There is an explanation, though, if you want it.

    Also…as I've mentioned elsewhere, there is a matter of "inappropriate." That is more subjective, but some are more obvious than others. Things with profanity, in my opinion, should not be associated with ANYthing religious, Jewish or otherwise. A teenager once submitted a song to me for one of my albums. At the time, he had some issues and his parents, who forgot to read it, asked me to consider it and possibly connect him to Jewish music. It was a parody of a rap "tune" which had profanity in it to begin with, so the choice was already questionable. His lyrics, written about life as a frum teen in Yeshiva, contained a couple of mid- to upper mid-level curses, so I nixed it completely. It was clearly Jewish and full of true feelings, but clearly (to me) no good for the impressionable youth he wanted me to reach. The parents apologized, by the way.

    Then there's the matter of love, which many feel is fine when dealt with, non-sexually, of course, in a respectable manner, possibly relating to love between man & G-d or to his fellow man.

    Depending on your comfort zone and your interpretation of halacha (Jewish law), you should exercise care in the content you connect with religious music.

    I believe emphatically that sources often considered non-Jewish, like mainstream rock or pop, are victims of silly witch-hunts, though some are clearly inappropriate.

    Classical composers like Wagner were outspoken anti-semites, but people don't often question Mozart. Whose music do you ban from the house? I say, copy your Wagner album onto your iPod and throw out the cover. You can always look him up on Wikipedia.

    The melody and the association of its original subject matter should work according to the organic musical responses attributed not just to Jews but all humans. Everyone has their own musical preferences, but misinterpreting those preferences unilateral religious judgments, especially on music that poses no real objection to Jewish life, is a dangerous mistake that has consequences far beyond art.

    In general, all this being said, be VERY careful what you "ban" from your home. Make sure your family has a clear identification with the reason behind the impropriety of what you are banning. If the undesirable association you are making is too indirect, they will listen and seek it, if they like it. That means, even without a CD or iPod or whatever…it's coming into the most profound and influential parts of your home…their minds. Unless it's TRULY contrary in a DIRECT fashion, you're fighting the wrong battle with the wrong enemy.

  4. Gershon,

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful response and after some though, here’s my summary on your answer.

    As I thought when writing my question, you have one issue with music on your mind relating to its Jewishness: The text of the lyrics, meaning, anything containing religious themes relating to other religions, profanity or a tasteless choice of words.

    Some would include grayer areas such as love songs as you mentioned. Fine.

    As a follow up question, if you don’t mind, I would like to ask you this:
    Would you, as your personal preference, call any song non-Jewish if I would remove the original lyrics?

    This time again, this is a question as to your personal preference because, once we go into overall correctness, the boundary becomes very flexible. I’m just trying to gauge whether you would consider any tune whatsoever.

    Just one more thing, if you don’t mind. Your mention of “Chazak” among others is never a good comparison, simply because, as you said, what people listen to does not necessarily constitute Jewish music.

  5. Chris–
    You wrote:
    “Would you, (as your personal preference,) call any song non-Jewish if I would remove the original lyrics?”

    Do you mean if I removed the words from a Jewish song would it no longer be Jewish, or… are you asking if I consider a non-Jewish song without the words still non-Jewish? Do you mean something else?

    I don’t fully understand the question, BUT…

    I do believe that, if it requires this much analysis to respond, we may be already be taking the semantics of Jewish/non-Jewish issue too far.

    Either a song’s message succeeds or it doesn’t.

    Intellectualizing first in order to determine what it does for you personally can not only be a waste of time, but it can deprive you of some valid and genuinely inspirational entertainment.

    If a song reminds you of something that goes against what the words are about, then it’s not working…for you.

    I believe if a song is truly inappropriate, that reaction will occur innately in the mind of the listener, without the need of other outside verbal stimuli trying to redirect that reaction.

    “Doesn’t this taste horrible?” would prevent most people from tasting whatever it is. Let the person decide without your help how it tastes.

    My career depends on trying to predict as many of those natural, internal reactions as possible before I make, perform or release a song.

    Unfortunately, people are dictating to me and to listeners what they feel is intellectually right and wrong, without allowing us to think for ourselves.

    I hope this helps address your question (at least a little bit).

  6. Alright, I finally ‘get’ what you mean.

    This also means that its quite possible that, to some people at least, a song that you sing would be totally inappropriate for them. This would likewise go for a Modzits’er song as well.

    I must agree that you have strong insight here.

What do you think?