What’s Jewish Music’s problem? What’s ours?

My, my, my… we are in trouble, aren’t we?
From the point of view of gossip alone, the already shaky Jewish music “industry,” already under constant fire, is now being made an ever-growing target by the mostly ignorant, but loud critics of their own definition of “wrong.”

Uuggghhhh… Where to start?
I’m not going to attempt to address it in one sitting, because I’ve gotten all sorts of hate mail and support mail for my work over the years, saying this is not such a simple fight. It should, however, begin with certain necessary definitions and observations that I’d like to touch on first. The rest is up to you:

In short, if anyone is is hoping to link to specifically pure-bred Jewish sources of of Jewish music available in this last century, they will come up very short and disappointed, unless they accept some hard truths.

Musical composition of any major consequence, in general, has historically depended upon other musical influences to shape it into a unique mixture. Many of those mixtures, intentionally or not, can often closely resemble one of its actual sources, a style created for another purpose, or even something it had no knowledge of.

Saying that certain uses of an organ in a song, for example, with chord structure and actual choice of sound settings on the organ itself are reminiscent of non-Jewish religious music, is a fair statement. Saying that using an organ at all is therefore wrong, is not fair, anymore than using an electric guitar is wrong due to it’s connections to paganism’s role in metal or modern Christian music.

If the requirement for Jewish Music (an ambiguous term, to say the least) is to resemble nothing else but Jewish sources, then roughly 60-75% of music created for Jewish entertainment, nationalism and prayer in the last 60 years must be eliminated.

If you are among those who object to “non-Jewish” music, you must know how to answer the questions of “what is…” and “what can be…” before you criticize music intended to contribute to the global Jewish community.

Finally, the term “goyish” has, unfortunately become an overly-used term that remains undefined, while its derogatory nature satisfies their anger at the present shortcomings of the Jewish music industry, which has been destroyed by their ignorance and sanctimony.

Those who have learned to hate non-Jews feel that “goyish” is the worst thing something or someone Jewish can be. In fact, musical influences created or used mostly by non-Jews or non-religious Jews for music not related to prayer have become the #1 source of influence in Jewish music this past century.

The issue has come to surround the fascinatingly un-defined term “goyish,” rather than the more understood and respected term of “improper.” “Goyish” is a paranoid term, in my opinion, suggesting that some underlying purpose of the “improper” influence is for the underhanded infiltration of a religion that conflicts with ours.

I can say, with 35 years of intimate involvement with just about every dimension of the Jewish music field, that much of todays so-called yeshivish¬†and chassidish¬†music (not all, of course), including many of those being used on the bima (prayer pulpit) contains influences in it’s musical arrangements, composition, performance and even words that I feel are “improper,” but often for reasons that have little to do with the influence of conflicting religions.

You should continue to comment here, there and everywhere. This is not going away and it’s going to get worse.

The furor is now reaching new heights and pretty soon, if you don’t already think that Jewish music’s pickings are slim now, just watch what happens when you let it happen.

Leaving the subjective art of music to be judged by the black and white will not work and it will prevent the many different musical talents out there from contributing their art to Jewish life. Do you think Judaism needs music? I’ll leave that question open.

7 thoughts on “What’s Jewish Music’s problem? What’s ours?”

  1. Whlie you’re at it, let’s not pretend that the Jewish music of a century and more ago was any less influenced by non-Jewish sources.
    Jewish music, like most folk music, has always had some parasitic tendencies. Maybe that’s what makes it good!

  2. From my own observations, I believe that too many people are charged by the premise of over-monitoring origins from the listeners’ side, the censors’ side and the creators’ side.

    The listeners are so scared by something they notice or that someone else may notice within a song, that will point out a connection to an undesirable source. That “someone else” is who I call the censor. Even if they only exist in the mind of a listener, it’s still an extremely strong influence on the listeners’ fears.

    Interestingly, the creators are doing both. They’re intentionally and unintentionally copying elements from not-necessarily-Jewish influences and placing them in their compositions and arrangements. They’re also either trying to hide that fact and sell it as a uniquely-exciting piece of music, while it’s not unique at all, or they’re hoping they can dodge the censors and hope their use is accepted. The result has been mixed. One person says “that’s really cool” and the other says “that’s much too cool and it shouldn’t be sold.”
    All three groups should respect what is and is not appropriate for themselves and not attempt to establish criteria for right and wrong. After that, they should allow the vast selection of tastes, styles and purposes that the Jewish music industry can offer to enter our lives as freely as knitted kipot enter a Chassidishe Shteeble (shul).
    If that fear could disappear (no, you may not use that lyric, it’s mine), then more buyers can loosen up and purchase Jewish music for what it’s supposed to be… entertainment.

  3. suppose there was no distinction between Jewish music and secular, that there just is music, what then would you say Jewish music should be any music widely used by Jews? [I think you’ll agree it goes beyond that] maybe music which ‘brings you closer to G-d’? [hmmm, what if idolatrous music brought you closer to G-d? what then?] perhaps only music that was composed by holy people? [then what about the rest of us?]

    as of now I have never thought up or heard of a satisfactory answer, what do you think?

  4. I’m going to do my best to take an abstract question and give it a decent answer.

    In music, there is always some distinction from one song to another and the ones that stand out as original are often the ones that survive. The others are just considered non-original and non…well, distinct!

    But there are often influences… there’s little escape from it and, when skillfully & judiciously used, music can benefit from it. Otherwise, it could ruin the music or just give it a short life. “What’s a mother to do?” Stop stressing, loosen up and open up a world for yourselves.

    I believe (since this IS a matter of opinion, like it or not) that any genre should be relevant to the audience it claims to be addressing. Jewish music should have music and words that innately present themselves to people as Jewish. Unfortunately for some of you, that’s as simple as it gets. That music will not mean the same to everybody. To some, it could mean a flavor of old European, to others it could be Ladino Spanish, Brooklyn American or Israeli Palmach, Reggae, Rock, Gregorian, Samba, Disco, Techno, Ragtime, Rap, House, R&B, Country, Baroque… you get the picture.

    We’ve been in many places the last two thousand years and have picked up many colors of dirt on our shoes, but we should still be confident that our Jewish tastes & messages will be unique enough to stand out in our music, even if that music inevitably has influences from our surroundings.

    Finding exact formulas & guidelines for Jewish music is a big mistake that we are suffering from now.

    If it’s a song, listen to the words and if the melody to convey its meaning in a way that we innately understand the Jewish nature of it’s message, leave it alone and enjoy it. If it was directly extracted from a “Silent Night,” your brain will know it and will probably become naturally uncomfortable. It’s not always such a blatant case, but you should trust that reflex in yourself. If the song doesn’t feel right to you, then you won’t appreciate the message. It doesn’t always mean the composer was out of line (though in the case of the “Silent Night,” most of us will probably agree he was).

    Maybe you just come from a different place emotionally, chronologically, religiously or geographically, and you don’t find it as easy as the other guy to derive enjoyment from it.
    A popular song is that rare one where the composer found one or more common denominators that appeal to many people across many or even all of those sociological boundaries.

    In these respects, I believe ALL music is the same. Trust your ears and your heart for what is “appropriate,” not “good or bad.” You’ll do the right thing for yourself. Leave the rules alone.

    Pesach is both the true New Year and the holiday of freedom. Start off the new year by freeing yourself from the bondage of what somebody else says about the music that inspires you.

  5. Here’s something to ponder (I have my own answer, but that’s not as important as yours):

    If you hear a song that does everything you want a song to do for you…inspiration, melody, lyrical poetry, artist’s performance, etc…. then some person digs out some obscure dirt about the origin of the melody or the style it’s modeled after, showing you that the original, though unknown to most, contains content contrary to what you believe in.

    Does the song sparkle a little less for you now, even though you know the original is not known to the people you care about?
    Should that person not have told you?
    Is the 2nd composer now at fault for revising that song?

    I’m sure other questions will occur to you. Go ahead…

  6. Does Judaism need music? Of course. Going back to the days of the Temple, music was an integral part of worship. Jews have, throughout the centuries, taken every invention, and found ways to use it in the service of God. That’s great. Growing up as a music student, one of my teachers said that “Stevie Wonder didn’t invent the II-V”. Neither did Duke Ellington, neither did Bach. Is the II-V “goyish’ because Bach used it church music?

    All music is (at least somewhat) derivative of what came before it. If Jewish music never took from the influences around it, it’d have died long ago.

    However, there is a line a Jewish recording artist should not cross. If one parodies contemporary popular songs in order to attach Jewish themes to them (bringing an expanded audience to both the song and to the musician re-recording it), the musician profiting from use of the original work must pay due respect (and money) to the composers and publishers of the original work. If one doesn’t, one is stealing in the name of God. Agreed? If so, how does that impact the many independent productions in the world of Jewish music that have profited (illegally) from the use of parodies of popular music? How great a tribute to God can it be if the music is stolen?

  7. Dana–

    Well, to be fair, profit from Jewish parodies have come to fewer people than you may think. The albums themselves rarely, if ever, make profit, especially if they’re produced properly. Even experienced parody giants like Lenny Solomon and Seymour Rockoff will tell you the same thing.

    Speaking for myself, even though my Variations and Impressions albums brought me some recognition and concert business, there were no sales profits to speak of. Historically, some publishers have actually contacted Jewish parody artists in an attempt to uncover unshared profits, only to find there were none to share. As far as permission is concerned, parody law allows the recording to be done without permission. A requested share is based on distribution percentage which, especially now, is quite complicated, considering the nature of free copies and digital distribution (my parody albums intentionally have none).

    The real crime with parodies, in my opinion, is when the art (yes, it’s an art) is placed in the hands of those who are a.)ignorant of how to write a quality lyric, b.)insensitive to what is truly appropriate and c.)resort to laziness as a substitute for talent or experience.
    I’m genuinely embarrassed by the parodies some have released on the Jewish market just to have their name on something.

    Even worse, look at parody on the pulpit. Jewish songs are no exception. You and I both know the abuse Shlomo Carlebach’s work continues to suffer at the hands of ignorant synagogue warblers (card-carrying cantors or not) who pretend to understand how to force-fit unrelated prayers to his melodies (which most sing incorrectly as well).
    [*Quick note here: I acquired paid permission from Shlomo before I recorded Shifchi in 1988. How many others did the same when recording his songs?]

    Take, for another example, those who experiment with parody on the pulpit, using secular songs as inappropriate as “Pick A Bail O’ Cotton” or the theme song from “Titanic” (see recent post on
    Truah-Jewish Music Blog
    ) because, while supposedly speaking to G-d as our messenger, they attempt to entertain us with their cleverness at the same time. Tragic ignorance mixed with an almost complete irreverence for prayer’s purpose. ‘Nuf said here.

    I worked hard on the albums I recorded and often found myself interrupting the sessions to re-write lyrics in order to dignify the product. I wasn’t always 100% successful, but after recording over 50 parodies, I can say that the majority of them came out far more professional and purposeful than the overnight hacks whose CDs gather dust on the shelves because they manufactured a cheap, badly written, tasteless product that, in one sweep, disgraces music, entertainment, the English language and often Judaism itself. They also help to compromise the integrity of the Jewish entertainment business they force themselves into like party crashers. Because of them, buyers now have more of an excuse to avoid alternative Jewish music.

    Musical parody is simply supposed to be another form of entertainment. Done well, it has proven to entertain and even inspire thousands of people. However, the original song comes with a its own pre-made popularity and, since it’s cheap to record(badly), it also invites the untalented and inexperienced to jump into the music business for five minutes, long enough to throw garbage into the market and hurt the rest of us who actually know what we’re doing.

    It should also be noted that most popular lyric websites on the internet do not provide proper composer credit. Rather, most only credit the artist most known for performing the song. All of the GV parody albums credit the original composers as well as the revisers, both on the CDs (since 2002) and on the lyric page of my website (Veroba.net).

    Thanks for writing in. Always a pleasure to share views with well-informed friends.

What do you think?