Avi Finegold ponders the definition of Jewish music – with a playlist you can listen to now

The text below the Spotify playlist also appears in the Summer 2024 issue of CJN quarterly magazine. You can also listen to the playlist on Apple Music.

Most people know something about Jewish food, or at least they think they do. They may even have some opinions about it: which version of certain recipes they prefer, which version is more authentic. But the truth is, almost no food is indigenous, intrinsically Jewish. Whether you’re thinking of Ashkenazi classics like matzo balls, bacon, or bagels, or staples of Israeli cuisine like falafel and hummus, what we think of as Jewish food comes from The living environment of the Jews.

The same argument applies to Jewish music. When we tend to think of klezmer or Middle Eastern models that represent Jewish music, it’s not a big leap to point to existing sounds in folk or art music (regardless of the context in which the music was made).

The inherently Jewish character of “Jewish” music is often related to the lyrics, not the music itself, but is borrowed from prayers or psalms. But the rest—what the music actually sounds like—is influenced by the environment around us.

Much of what is called Jewish music today is a continuation of this trend. We still often hear artists grafting Jewish lyrics onto existing musical genres. So we have Matisyahu performing middling reggae with lyrics taken from Hasidic origins, or Nefesh Mountain, an ace bluegrass band with a Jewish summer camp vibe.

Does it matter that a casual listener may not even know it is Jewish music? The fact that we can ask this question highlights the reality that lyrics and intent are not enough to Jewishize music.

Zale Newman, a Toronto hedge fund manager with deep roots as a Jewish music performer and producer, believes that the way music is used — the context in which it is performed — determines its Jewishness. “We only use music on very special occasions,” he told me recently. “So we use it for dances, weddings, etc. We use it for serious moments, like part of cleaning… We want to reflect happiness, sadness, or seriousness.

Long before the iPod, I had some kind of headphone firmly planted on my skull and wondered what that meant for all the other music we listen to. Today, most Jews, even those who have “been Jewish” most of their lives, don’t just listen to Jewish music; I think that speaks to how integrated The Sound of Music is within and outside the Jewish community.

Perhaps surprisingly, this brings me to the question of haredi music.

Here are some truths about contemporary Orthodox music: it is one of the only musical genres to have an audience dedicated to listening to it, it has managed to create a specific sound that is instantly recognizable, and despite its unrefined melodies it still Irresistibly catchy. All of this makes it a good lens through which to examine some of the questions raised above about what makes music not just incidental but quintessentially Jewish.

If you’re unfamiliar with the genre I call “contemporary Orthodoxy,” it’s a unique voice that has been building momentum for over 30 years. Like other genres, it has its superstars: Mordechai Ben David, Yaakov Shwekey and Lipa Schmelczer are all He is one of the biggest names. Lyrically, the music draws primarily from biblical and liturgical sources, layered with original lyrics in English that needed to be rewritten. Contemporary Orthodoxy has its origins in carol music and Hasidic songs, fused with the folk and rock music of the 1970s and 1980s. As time went on, technology became more advanced, synthesizers became more complex and cheaper, and sounds continued to evolve. Nowadays, it’s become ubiquitous not only in the Orthodox community, but often permeates ordinary Jews (you know if you’ve ever danced the “Mashiach” dance) and occasionally becomes popular around the world (check out the Miami TikTok boys’ choir).

There is no doubt that this is not just music reserved for simchas and prayers; It has seeped into daily life. Contemporary Orthodox music is the soundtrack of people’s lives—the sonic tablecloth of many Jewish shops and homes. I like to imagine that the writers of these songs, when they wrote the song they hoped would be the next hit, wondered if it would sound good at or during a wedding. Musaf service – but if a 14-year-old connects it alone in his bedroom, or a middle-aged parent drives their kids to school they’ll feel the need to turn it on.

This is a great example of creating a framework for Jewish musical ideas. For many Jews, many times when they listen to Jewish (or “Jewish”) music, it is more out of a sense of nostalgia and tradition, or a sense of obligation, or out of necessity. This doesn’t negate the Jewishness of this music, but it doesn’t bode well for it as a living, evolving part of the culture, either.

What I call orthodox contemporary can be said to include several different sub-genres. On the one hand, our sound is firmly rooted in the arena rock and power ballads of the 1990s and early 2000s. It feels modern enough (as it’s not 60s folk music) but retro enough without being too modern and, by extension, “non-Jewish”. Because of its emphasis on strong melodies, it’s also very easy to sing: the person leading the Mussaf or a group at the Shabbat table can really get into it. Interestingly, the Jewish version of this subgenre sounds very similar to Christianity
Evangelical worship music. Orthodox Jews and evangelicals often don’t realize this, but if you play samples of each other’s music, you’ll quickly hear the similarities. The similarities make sense: both have their roots in late 20th-century pop music, and both have the goal of inspiring people to worship.

We then provide music for weddings and other joyous occasions. This is heavily influenced by electronic dance music (EDM) and other genres that originated as club music. This is danceable and heartfelt music that has some practical implications for the Orthodox world. It is usually producer driven and created on a computer and keyboard rather than in a studio with a full orchestra. In a world where cost-effectiveness is a virtue, having music that can be written by one person and performed at a wedding without the need for a full band (or any band) has its merits.

Makes some sense – but not entirely. In the non-Jewish world, EDM is the last thing you want to hear at your wedding. But maybe that’s what’s interesting about it. Maybe this is a community of young people showing what they might be like if there were no religious boundaries – maybe wayward Orthodox youth actually sneak away to attend rave parties, or maybe the weddings they attend are part of this experience Kind comparison. This is perhaps a vivid example of how culture can reveal a community’s actual preferences over its stated preferences.

It is necessary to talk about gender here. If all you know about haredi music is the music played at weddings and shops, you’re likely to assume that the world is male-dominated. While music for the general public is certainly exclusively male, more and more orthodox women are creating music for other women to listen to. These women felt constrained by the sacred notion that a woman’s voice could only be heard by other women, and they made music within those boundaries, accepting the constraints of tradition without being completely suppressed. This book Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through Art in the Digital Agepublished earlier this year by ethnomusicologist Jessica Roda; in it, Roda discusses how these women were empowered and chose to perform, even for limited audiences.

Some of these female singers, such as Bracha Jaffe, have large followings in the community, posting beautifully produced videos on YouTube and playing large concerts. Others choose to keep a low profile, circulating their music in private WhatsApp groups and using only their first names to avoid censorship. What is remarkable about this phenomenon is that this performance type exists due to the fusion of old, new, public and secular factors. Historically, when women of the Ashkenazi community gathered together to pray, Chazent, or female prayer leaders, who direct services even if they do not include the prayer portion traditionally restricted to male minyans. Orthodox girls’ schools also have a long history of staging plays or musicals, and many current performers got their start at these schools. But it’s impossible to ignore feminism’s wider role in society, which is to support these performers and enable many women to have their voices heard.

Music can both hold a mirror up to society, revealing its values, and can also be a gateway between different cultures. Orthodox groups like to think of themselves as insular and adhering to unchanging ancient traditions. But Orthodox music paints an entirely different picture: a community absorbing new ideas, sometimes slowly, sometimes with breakneck speed. While many rabbis may condemn the sounds played at Jewish weddings—certainly some rabbis do—these sounds are not going away. The desire of the community clearly outweighed any decree. Then again, the voices that seep in are selective: Contemporary Orthodoxy’s lack of hip-hop influence speaks to the community’s deep unease with African-American culture. None of this exists in a vacuum.

These writers and musicians know that their audiences understand their wider cultural world. They may not be the most sophisticated music makers, but they definitely have the ability to hear sounds that may not be part of the culture and incorporate them into it.

There is a term that Jewish musicians, especially cantors, like to use: Negan Misinai. The term means “melody from Sinai” and is used when the composer of a piece is no longer known due to age or other vagaries over time. I used to think this was a lovely way to approach these songs, especially since many of them are fairly universal. Then I heard haredi
The rabbis, in their discourses on holiday prayers, described these as melodies sung by the Israelites at Mount Sinai. I later refrained from walking up to him and asked him if he really believed that these people were listening to songs based on 17th-century Eastern European folk scales during their greatest moment of national revelation. I now realize that the real answer to this distorted understanding is for leaders to theorize and denounce whatever they want. Anyone who dances at a wedding knows the truth. Teenagers who listen to music on AirPods know the truth. Chasid, who decided to learn the bass, knew the truth. klezmer and Hazza Nuts The music of the future is the dance and synagogue music of today.

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