Music of the Jewish People: Quintessentially Global and Disaporic

Jewish music and culture is quintessentially global and diasporic. Despite being a primarily insular, rather than evangelical, ethnic, cultural and religious grouping, a history of suppression, discrimination, expulsion and genocide has forced Jews into continual waves of exodus, dispersing them as migrants and refugees around the world. As a result, Jewish music, while maintaining a core vocal religious repertory, is highly diverse and syncretic, its traditions adapting and acculturating to new homes. At the same time, Jewish traditional musical forms have had a profound impact on other cultures all over the globe, most notably US jazz and popular music. The appeal of Jewish music beyond its communities is linked to its tragic character as the music of the exiles and the ghettos and to the otherworldliness of its Oriental soundworld and Near Eastern traditions. The most common forms of Jewish music in ‘World Music’ contexts today encapsulate these trends, in the earthy Ashkenazic folk music of the deprived Shtetlach known as klezmer and in the new wave of Israeli singers and Israeli-Palestinian collaborations which draw on exotic Sephardic traditions and oppositional forms like rap to engage with politics and advocate peace in the Middle East.

Population Profile

The global Jewish population totals around just 16 million, now close to what it was before the second world war. In the late 19thC, Jews were spread around the Middle East and across Central and Eastern Europe and North America, but, after rising anti-Semitism that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, the population is now concentrated in the state of Israel, in North America (USA and Canada) and in Britain and France, although there are sizeable communities in other places (incl. Argentina, Brazil and Russia). The most widely spoken languages amongst Jews are English, as the first or second language of the five countries with the largest Jewish populations (USA, Israel, France, Canada and Britain); and Hebrew, revived as the native language in Israel in the form of Modern Hebrew and spoken to some degree worldwide in the contexts of Jewish religious education.

‘Jewish’ is considered as a single self-identifying ethnicity, a lineage to the descendants of Jacob (who was renamed ‘Yisrael’), and the vast majority of Jews can trace their descent to the Semitic tribes of the region. However, it is worth pointing out that there is a key distinction between the Sephardi (from Sepharad, the name for ‘Iberia’ among Roman Jews of the region), who remained in the lands of Israel and the Middle East or travelled up into North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula and mostly spoke Ladino (a dialect of Old Spanish with Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Greek influences) or Arabic, and the Ashkenazi (from the Hebrew Ashkenaz, which referred to the area beyond the frontier of the Roman empire occupied by the Germanic tribes), who moved over to Central and Eastern Europe and mostly spoke Yiddish (a form of Medieval German mixed with Hebrew and Slavic words). While conversion is uncommon and arduous, there are some Jewish converts who may have no Semitic ancestry at all. The primary religion of the Jewish people is, unsurprisingly, Judaism, although it is worth highlighting that there are significant sub-sects within the religion, such as Hasidism, and that non-religious Jews often self-identify with Judaism in wider cultural terms, indicating an ambiguous interplay between Jewish religion, culture and ethnicity. In line with this, ‘Jewish music’ and ‘Jewish musicians’ do tend to be defined by their direct relation to the Jewish religion, but some, especially newer, musicians and genres may identify as ‘Jewish’ due to strong affinities with Jewish culture.

Cultural History

Ancient Jewish history is an amalgamation of historical archaeological knowledge and Biblical legend. The earliest historical accounts of the Jews start with the Israelites, the descendants of the Jewish patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel, who were reportedly enslaved and subjugated by the Egyptian Pharaohs (15thC). In the story of Exodus, the second book of the Torah(Law) of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophet Moses leads the Israelites to freedom (c. 15thC BCE) by calling on God to smite the Egyptians with ten terrible plagues and to part the Red Sea miraculously so they could escape to the desert. Here, Moses establishes Jewish religious law by obtaining rules and customs from God, including the Ten Commandments, and announces the divine election of Israel, confirming the holy line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel.

Divine interventions aside, some historical records corroborate the exodus of the Israelites and their founding of their nation of Israel: the Merneptah Stele, a stone slab engraved with Pharaoh Merneptah’s military victories (13thC BCE), refers to the Egyptians laying waste to the nation of Israel and deciding to spare its seed, indicating that Israel and the Jews were significant enough as a nation and people by this time to have their defeat and survival mentioned. Over time, the Israelites rebuilt their society and, under the reign of King David (c.1010-970 BCE), they established a powerful kingdom. Under his successor, Solomon, they built the first holy Temple in Jerusalem, which housed the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments). However, from this zenith, the nation of Israel split into the states of Israel and Judah (928 BCE), and the Jews divided into groups led by different prophets. In this weakened position, invaders ransacked the states over the next centuries, with the Assyrians devastating Israel (8thC BCE) and the Babylonians plundering Judah, killing the Jewish leaders, destroying the holy Temple and exiling the Jewish people into Babylon (modern Baghdad) itself (6thC BCE). After the Persians conquered Babylon, King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, although many Jews decided to stay in Babylon, initiating the Jewish diaspora. The Jews managed to thrive under relatively tolerant foreign rule over the next few hundred years, building the second Temple and practising and developing their faith, until Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid King invaded Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple and imposed laws to suppress Judaism (175 BCE). However, the Jewish people rebelled successfully against this oppressive rule (164 BCE), re-establishing their own self-governing state of Judea and restoring the Temple, which is today celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah.

Judea was gradually taken over by the expanding Roman Empire (2nd-1stC BCE), which imposed harsh taxes on Jews and rules suppressing Judaism. The people lost faith in the priests, who became increasingly complicit with the oppressive rulers, and so people turned to the Pharisees (Scribes), who later became known as Rabbis (‘teachers’) and encouraged the practice of Judaism in everyday life rather than principally in the temple, leading to a decline in specific prayer rituals but also to the development of new Jewish practices, customs and scholarship. Despite this cultural flourishing, the Roman suppression of the Jews was unyielding, and Jewish uprisings ensued (1st-2ndC CE), which were mercilessly crushed. As punishment, the Romans raised the second Temple to the ground (70), killed and enslaved thousands and expelled the Jews from Israel, renaming it Palaestina (136). Exiled Jewish scholars prioritised compiling oral law into the Mishna(2nd-3rdC), a collection of Rabbinic teachings, idioms and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible that formed the basis of the Talmud(3rd-5thC), essentially a Jewish life guide. The Jewish people were relieved from continued Roman oppression by the Arab armies of Quraishi Caliph Umar, who conquered Jerusalem and allowed Jews to return to the now Muslim city. As the Moors, led by Tariq Ibn Zayad, took most of modern-day Spain from the Visigoths for the Kingdom of Al-Andalus (8thC), they established powerful Muslim cities like Córdoba in the south and, allied with the Arab forces, they benevolently welcomed Jews into their new lands, heralding a golden age of cooperation and collaboration between Jews, Moors and Christians; and Jewish culture and philosophy flourished in these cosmopolitan kingdoms.

However, an attempt by one ruler to forcibly convert all Jews to Islam (1086 CE) was taken an early sign of impending bad times, and provoked some Jews to leave for Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, it was the rise of militant Christianity in Europe that would drive the next phase of Jewish suffering. The Crusaders, mass military forces of allied Christian countries assembled to take the Holy Land (11thC), slaughtered many of the Jews who had moved to Europe on their way to Palestine; and, once they captured Jerusalem, they killed or enslaved the Jews that had been living under Islamic rule and banned Jews from the city. Following their lead, England, France, Spain and Portugal all gradually expelled or executed their Jews (11th-16thC) and the Venetians confined their Jews to a foundry named Geto Nuovo(it is from this that the word ‘ghetto’ derives). The following centuries brought a little relief: Jews were welcomed into the cosmopolitan Ottoman Empire which, when the Ottomans took Palestine (1517), meant they could return to the region to make aliyah (‘ascent’ i.e. to Jerusalem), and so many Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain made Jerusalem their new home. This initiated a renaissance in Jewish culture that included the restoration of Hebrew as an everyday, rather than religious, language. Jewish exiles were also gradually let back into England and France, and were allowed to move into Prussia, Austria, Greece, parts of Russia and Poland, where they developed the mystical Hasidic sect, though some also emigrated to North America (17th-19thC).

However, as new forms of anti-Semitism emerged, embodied in racist conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1894), the persecution of Jews resumed, and violent pogroms brought suffering to the Jewish people in Central and Eastern Europe, as recounted in the books of Sholem Aleichem, which formed the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Fearing the worst, Jews began leaving in vast swathes, making aliyah to Jerusalem or fleeing to Western Europe and North America, especially Britain and the USA. The East End of London became a hub of Jewish life and, here, Zionism, a movement advocating the creation of a protected Jewish state, made some headway. In the Balfour Declaration (1917), the British Government agreed that a national home for the Jewish people should be established in Palestine in reparation for centuries of suppression and discrimination under foreign rule and, at the end of the Great War (1918), the British had taken control of Palestine from the Ottomans and started to make preparations for the creation of the state of Israel. However, the region remained a British colony and the plans for a Jewish state did not materialise. With the onset of the Great Depression and the rising tide of European nationalism (1930s), the Jews entered the darkest chapter of their history. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany and Hitler became Chancellor (1930s), Jews were targeted for escalating discrimination which initially scapegoated them as the cause of all of Germany’s problems and eventually branded them an inferior and subversive race that warranted destruction.  This culminated in the Holocaust (HaShoah, ‘cata strophe’); the Nazi

‘Final Solution’ resolved to wipe out the entire Jewish race and carried out the deadliest genocide in world history by murdering more than 6 million Jews through pogroms, executions by death squads and systematic extermination in death camps like Auschwitz. Beyond the inconceivable human cost, it also virtually extinguished the Ladino language, as the Jewish communities of Greece and the Balkans were almost completely wiped out and it significantly diminished the presence of Yiddish which, before World War II, had been a major Jewish language.

Following these horrors against the Jewish people, the British, now under pressure from the United Nations, implemented their vision for a sovereign Jewish state through a partition of their colony of Palestine, separating the region into two nations: the Jewish state of Israel and the Arab nation of Palestine (1948). However, as soon as the British withdrew their military and declared Israel’s independence, all surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Syria,) invaded, and Israel was forced to fight its first in a series of struggles against invasion (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). Today, Israel has developed into a culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse nation and armistices have prevented open warfare in the region, although Israeli-Palestinian relations remain incredibly volatile, with atrocities still regularly committed on both sides including illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, mass Palestinian intifada (‘shaking off’; uprisings), Israeli invasions of Gaza (2005, 2008, 2014) and relentless cross-border rocket attacks from anti-Semitic Islamist terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Throughout this long and turbulent history, the thread of traditional culture has always been adapted and maintained by the Jewish people, wherever they have found themselves, and they continue to do so not only in Israel but in the Jewish diaspora throughout the world.

Music Culture

Jewish Music vs Jewish Musics

There is an important distinction between Jewish music and Jewish musics, the former a standardised core devotional repertory used for direct religious worship and the latter a whole range of semi-religious festive music and non-religious folk music created in Jewish cultural frameworks but which may or may not have a role in Jewish religion and whose performers may or may not even be practising Jews. The majority of Jews today inhabit countries that are relatively tolerant and highly multicultural, and so the link between Jewish peoples and cultures and the Judaic religion can no longer be readily assumed. The distinctions between Jewish music and Jewish musics can, at times, be rather fluid: semi-religious Jewish music and Jewish folk and popular musics occupy an ambiguous position in religious thought, and the inclusion or exclusion of such musics in worship and/or festive holiday celebrations varies across different denominations and across the times, places and contexts of particular religious communities.

Devotional Jewish Music

Musical expression has long had a presence in Judaic religious worship. The Hebrew Bible itself features one of the most ancient forms of musical notation: neumes (‘Biblical accents’), diacritical musical signs that elaborate the chanting of Old Hebrew text, representing certain notes, sets of notes, melodic contours and melodic functions (e.g. cadences), whose renditions vary by context. In the stories of the Bible, key spiritual leaders are also identified as musicians: Jubal, son of Lamekh, is mentioned as playing the lute and long flute in the book of Bereshith (Genesis)and King David is revered both as a sovereign ruler and as a legendary musician and poet, being credited with about half of the Book of Psalms (73 out of 150) and, according to one of the Dead Sea scrolls, 3600 tehilim (songs of praise).

Music is used in direct religious worship at the Synagogue by virtually all Jewish denominations in the form of unaccompanied vocal recitation, Biblical cantillation and sung prayers whose content is explicitly liturgical. These traditions are governed by the Chazan (cantor), the Synagogue prayer leader. In Orthodox denominations, the Chazan is an exclusively male position while in Reform, and other more liberal sets, a woman may take up the role of cantor. The Chazan leads the recitations of prayers and blessings at the three daily religious services of Shacharit (Morning), Minchah (Afternoon) and Ma’ariv (Night), which are patronised by the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob respectively, supplemented on Shabbat(Sabbath on Saturday), with the (additional)Musafservice immediately following Shacharit.Depending on the denomination, the services may also include vocalisations of Rabbinic teachings and Jewish devotional poetry. The whole congregation often joins in the sung recitations for well-known prayers like the Sh’ma Yisrael (‘Hear, O Israel’). The Shema is the affirmation of Judaism and its central tenets including monotheism for which the congregation usually stands to symbolise the act of testimony and their community identity. Bowing, kneeling and other forms of prostration are not practised, except on Yom Kippur. The cantoralso vocalises a portion of the Torah(Law) at certain services: at the Shacharit on certain days and always on the Shabbat (the ‘festive’ day of ‘rest/cease’) and other festive holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah; and at the Minchah services on Shabbat and Yom Kippur. These vocalised portions are organised cyclically so that the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) is fully recited every year, and are designed to encourage zachor(‘remembering’ creation and liberation) and shamor (‘observing’ religious laws). The Biblical cantillations are relatively demanding in terms of musical content as they require the Chazanto deliver the vocalisations following the neumes but also in accordance with wider artistic customs of modal singing, including melismatic vocality, certain scalic structures, idiomatic phrasings and characteristic moods. As such, a Chazanneeds not only a profound knowledge and awareness of Jewish scripture and scholarship but also a strong, clear and flexible singing voice and a good understanding of the neumes, modality and devotional musical practices.

Devotional music is also employed as part of festive community celebrations for Jewish religious holidays. Megillot, five sung stories (Solomon (labelled as ‘Song of Songs), Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) contained within the Ketuvim (Writings) scriptures, are sung for varying purposes at specific festivals throughout the year. The Esther recitations, for example, are sung during Purim, which commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people from the threat of genocide in Ancient Persia (4thC BCE). The performance involves the sung recitation of the story of Esther: Haman, Prime Minister to King Ahasuerus of Persia and his secretly Jewish wife Queen Esther, swears to annihilate the Jewish people ‘in a single day’ after Mordechai, leader of the Jews, refuses to bow to him, but, at the feast that night, Esther reveals her Jewish identity and inspires the Jews to rise up and overthrow Haman. Like the Torahcantillations, the melodies follow the diacritical neumesin the religious scriptures, and the cantor has to shape the phrases and modalities to characterise the personalities and dramatise the events as they unfold. As this megilla is a favourite, the congregation often sings along and, additionally, shake rattles every time Haman’s name is uttered as a gesture of scorn. Through participation, the congregation celebrate their community heritage of resilience to adversity, but the cathartic performance has of course become that much more poignant in the wake of the recent genocidal horrors of the Holocaust.

Similarly, devotional music features at family gatherings on Jewish religious holidays. Vocal recitation and devotional song are used to celebrate Jewish history, culture and identity at the Seder (‘Order’), the annual duty of retelling of the story of the Exodus on the first night of Pesach (Passover) using the Haggadah (‘Telling’), the text that outlines the customsof the Pesach Seder. The Haggadahitself includes a number hymns, such as Dahyenu (‘It Would Have Been Enough For Us’), sung at the end of the story of exodus to give thanks for liberation, Eliyahu Ha-Navi (‘Elijah, the Prophet’), sung with the door open when the Cup of Elijah is poured in symbolic anticipation of his messianic return, and Adir Hu (‘He is Mighty’), sung to close the Seder which expresses hope for communion with God and for His Temple to be restored. Other devotional songs are also customarily sung after the Sederitself, over the fourth glass of wine, such as Echad mi yodeiya (‘Who knows one’), a cumulative song where each verse builds on the previous one (i.e. Verse One: ‘One is our God, in Heaven and on Earth; V2: ‘Two are the Tablets of the Covenant, One is our God…; V3: ‘Three are the Patriarchs, Two are the Tablets…; V4: Matriarchs; V5: Books of the Torah; V6: Sections of the Mishnah; V7: Days of the Week; V8: Days before Circumcision; V9: Months of Childbirth; V10: Commandments; V11: Stars of Joseph’s Dream; V12: Tribes of Israel; V13: God’s Principles). The song acts as a form of fun and entertainment, and a display of skill as singers attempt to remember the song from memory and sing the entire thirteenth verse in one breath, but it also enumerates Jewish teachings and enforces cultural norms.

Outside of explicitly religious contexts, devotional music also features at ritual life events to reinforce religious commitment and dedication in wider Jewish cultural life. At the Bar Mitzvah (‘Son of the Commandment’), the coming-of-age aliyah (‘ascension’) ritual for boys (aged 13), vocalisations of the final portions of the week’s reading from the Torah, as well as traditional chants from the Haftarah which draws on the teachings of Nevi’im (Prophets), allow the boys to express personal religious devotion, prove their knowledge of the religious law, symbolise their maturation into manhood and their passage into the religious community. In liberal contexts, theBat Mitzvah (‘Daughter of the Commandment’), the equivalent coming-of-agealiyahritual for girls (aged 12), is performed by girls in exactly the same way and with the same purposes; in Orthodox or Chasidic contexts, the Bat Mitzvah is completely different and does not feature vocalisations because, as women are excluded from the practice in the religious community, they do not need to show their knowledge or devotion to religious law.

In funerary contexts, prayer songs like the Kaddish(‘Sanctification’) and El Male Rahamim (‘God full of compassion’) are performed to symbolise community solidarity. The Kaddish, which praises God and yearns for the Kingdom of Heaven,is sung by the mourner at the funeral, and in the synagogue for the next 30 days, as a means to express love and respect for the deceased and to show acceptance of Divine righteousness even in such painful times. The El Male Rahamim is then sung as a cantillation by the Chazan as an emotional and spiritual tribute to the departed, as a means of endowing them with religious favour and as an emblematic gift from the community to the mourner. The bereaved internalise the cantillation of the prayer song and sing it themselves as devotion to the departed when they visit their graves or in subsequent memorial services. The elaborate cantillation of El Male Rahamim composed by cantor Joshua (Osia) Abrass has become amongst the most widely used after it was sung by virtuoso cantor Solomon Razumni to commemorate those who lost their lives in the devastating Kishinev pogrom (1903).

The one notable exception to vocal exclusivity in devotional music for all religious denominations is the use of the Shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet). The Shofar is used as a call to prayer and in auspicious repentance rituals on the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). A tokea (blaster) plays tekiah (one long unbroken blast), sh’varim (three long broken blasts), teruah (nine rapid blasts) and tekiah gedolah (a triple tekiah lasting for as long as the tokea can manage but at least nine seconds) at Rosh HaShanah. The instrument is considered sacred because it features in the Torahas Moses ascends the mountain to commune with God and as the tool Joshua and his forces use to bring down the walls of Jericho. The breath of the tokea represents the breath of life that God used to create the universe in the book of Bereshith (Genesis) and the blasts are meant to wake up the soul for repentance. By symbolising Akeda(Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son which God rewards by allowing him to sacrifice a ram instead), it blasts also remember human devotion and thus calling on God to be forgiving of humanity’s trespasses.

Beyond this Jewish music common to all denominations, other devotional music traditions have a central place in the worship practices of the major mystical Jewish sects. Mysticism has existed in Judaism since its earliest days and mystical experiences, such as prophetic dreams and visions of angels, are rife in stories from the Torah. As in the mystical factions of other religions, such as Sufism in Islam, music is widely regarded in Jewish mystical sects as a unique spiritual channel for transcending perceivable reality to achieve communion with the Divine. The Kabbalah (‘tradition’, from the triliteral root Qof-Beit-Lamed, ‘to receive/accept’), a Sephardic mystical cult developed amongst Iberian Jews (13thC), embedded music at the heart of their mystical aesthetic practices and metaphysics. The Zohar, the core Kabbalistic text, outlines the concept of deveikut(‘to be one with the Divine’, spiritual transcendence), attained through, amongst other devotional practices, music, song and meditation. This lifelong practice of deveikut is embodied in the story of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ from the book of Bereshith(Genesis), where Jewish patriarch and prophet Jacob has a revelatory dream of a ‘ladder of perfection’ stretching from earth to heaven which angels use to perform ratso v’shov (‘going out from and coming back to’) to carry God’s messages between the earthly and spiritual realms. The songs in the Zohar, and Kabbalistic music more generally, employ the Aramaic language to express spiritual devotion but also use musical symbolism to imitate the act of ratso v’shov, for example using melodic contours in micro phrases where the melody climbs up and down again in ascents and descents, and deveikut, using melodic direction across entire performances where the music climbs higher and higher as the spiritual expression intensifies. Amongst the mekubbal (Kabbalah practitioners), music is not only symbolic of this spiritual journey and of deveikutbut also serves as a ladder itself for traversing the layers of reality, communicating with God and thus climbing towards spiritual perfection.

Out of Kabbalistic mysticism arose Hasidism, another Jewish sect that, unlike Kabbalism itself, is widespread today. Hasidism was founded by Baal Shem Tov(‘Master of the Good Name’) Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer amongst the Lubavitch community in Poland (18thC) and, spreading across Central and Eastern Europe and North America, it developed into a major mystical Ashkenazi sect, immediately recognisable by appearance (its dress code of dark frock coats and hats for men and very modest dress and wigs for women; and the long beards and payot(long uncut sidelocks of hair) sported by its male devotees). Rejecting what it regarded as the human-centric and overly ascetic and elitist religious intellectualism of the Mishna in favour of spirituality, simplicity of faith and direct communion with God, it propelled devotional music to an even more central role of music in its ecstatic mystical worship.

A key devotional musical practice in Hasidism is the niggunim (‘melodies’), wordless meditative songs chanted to induce a trance-like state and incite the soul to commune with the Divine. Hasidism also adopted many of the Kabbalistic songs, including a number of the specific songs of the Zohar, translating them into the Ashkenazic language of Yiddish. Due to its open aesthetics, Hasidic devotional music has been more open to musical change and experimentation: cantor Pinchas Pinchik composed elaborate and dramatic tone poems that, drawing on Zoharic prayers, soar heavenwards and returns earthwards, such as the favourite ‘Roza D’Shabbos’; and Israeli singer Ruth Weider later recorded a version of the song as ‘Roza’, causing controversy due to the Hasidic tradition of kol ‘isha (‘the voice of woman’) which dictates that women are not supposed to sing devotional music in the presence of men.

Jewish Folk Musics

Beyond devotional forms of traditional Jewish music, there are a vast variety of folk musics maintained, performed and developed amongst Jewish communities around the world. Some are semi-religious, reflecting not only aspects of Judaic religion but also the social contexts of their settings, while others are ostensibly secular, drawing on Jewish cultural tropes and traits but without any direct connection to the religion of Judaism. Folk musics, unlike most of the devotional repertoire, can generally be more clearly divided between the two major streams of Jewish culture: Sephardi and Ashkenazi. The distinctions in socio-cultural context between those who stayed within the Arabic settings of Israel, the Middle East, North Africa and the Kingdom of Al-Andalus and those who moved over to Western milieu of Central and Western Europe and on to North America led to different paths in terms of the syncretic development of their major folk music traditions and their communal purposes for folk traditions.

The dominant Ashkenazic folk music tradition, and perhaps the best-known Jewish musical form, is klezmer. Derived from an amalgamation of the Yiddish words klei (‘instrument’) and zemer (‘song’), klezmer emerged in the Middle Ages as a syncretic combination of Jewish devotional traditions and European and Jewish folk musics, integrating ‘Oriental’ Jewish and ‘Occidental’ Christian soundworlds. Klezmer was born in the ostracised urban Jewish ghettosand the deprived agrarian Shtetls(Jewish market towns) of Eastern Europe. As musicians amongst the new Jewish arrivals heard the songs of Christian troubadours and wandering folk minstrels, the started to integrate some of those tunes into their own existent music traditions.

Stylistically,klezmer varied according to different places and tastes, and indeed on the stock of musicians available and their musical backgrounds, but common trends include: the use of European folk tunes mixed with Jewish devotional inflections (e.g. flattened 2nds) and, especially Hasidic-style vocalities (e.g. catchy, meditative phrases); the use of Jewish modality (e.g. freygish (or Ahava Raba)mode (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D-E), similar to Arabic Hijaz makam, that uses primary chords of I, II and VII to emphasise the flattened second and the seventh is also sometimes raised to create a second augmented interval; it ‘sounds’ like it blurs ‘major’ and ‘minor’ tonalities in the way its pitches, its conventional melodic contours and its base tetrachords juxtapose ‘minor’-sounding melodies and ‘major’-sounding harmonies); free melodic counterpoint (the lead plays the tune while the sekundoften plays in counterpoint with a countermelody, a heterogeneous elaboration of the tune, improvisatory imitations or even sometimes another separate well-known tune); syncopation (either a syncopated melody over a straight accompaniment or a straight melody over an asymmetrical (but regular e.g. 3-3-2) accompaniment); multipart tunes (e.g. ABAB, ABCABC, or even forms like ABCB, where different melodies thread together to constitute a single tune; sections often contrasted with different modes, rhythms and tempi); and flourishing codas (e.g. virtuoso displays from singer or tune-player, such as rapid chromatic runs or glissandi, as the harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment accelerates in tempo and percussiveness to a frenzied climax, often finishing with three staccato strikes of 8-5-1). Klezmer song and dancetunes can be sung by voice with texts in Yiddish that draw on shteyger(paraliturgical poetry) but mainly reflect on the contemporaneous cultural life and even politics (themes of e.g. social exile, suffering and poverty), or can be played by fiddles and other strings (e.g. the tsimbl (a hammered dulcimer), and they are always accompanied by some form of harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment, including guitar, balalaika, piano, cello and/or bass, and cimbalom/tats (cymbals), frame drum and box drums sometimes add percussive accompaniment; later, the clarinet became a prominent melody instrument and the accordion and brass instruments became commonplace in the accompaniment.

Musical purpose is relatively fluid in klezmer: song tunes can be used for dancing and dance tunes can be used for listening. There are certain forms designed to display musical virtuosity (e.g. the doyne, a semi-improvised tune performed with a great deal of freedom for ornamentation and embellishment, and the taksim, a unmetered display tune of free improvisation based on Arabic and Near Eastern makammodality). Traditional folk dances that became established inklezmer include the freylechs (‘happy’), the sher (‘scissors’) and the horah (‘round dance’): the freylechs is a lively, gradually accelerating, group dance; the sher is a marching 4/4 individual, couple or group square dance; and the horah is a slow, syncopated, limping (3-3-2; X..X..X.) circle dance, influenced by Romanian folk tradition, where dancers hold each other’s hands in a circle that spins with each participant following a sequence of three steps forward and one step back.

Klezmertook on an important role as entertainment and as a form of community building in the ghettosand the Shtetls. Indeed, the klezmer kapelye (‘gang’; band) was conceptualised as a form of amusement in the mould of the leyts (‘jester’, entertainer) but also as an important artform to be nurtured in the klezmorim (Jewish guilds which focused on the art of labushaynski (playing music)). The traditionbecame so integral to the cultural identity of these communities that many congregations demanded the incorporation of klezmer into religious services and festivities. At first, rabbis ordered the cantors to resist in order to maintain the sanctity of vocalisation as the sole form of musical expression in worship. However, over time, some rabbis softened their position, and so cantors started to embrace the use of klezmer in religious contexts as a quasi-religious cultural form that complemented the devotional repertory in its cultivation of community solidarity. Indeed, some conservative cantors who continued to block klezmer were sacked by their congregation, and became wandering ascetics singing their devotional music in contexts beyond the Synagogues. Over time, tanzhauser(dance halls) were introduced as dedicated spaces for the performance of klezmer song and dance, as well as the practice of other folk traditions like theatre and card playing. Yet, most of all, klezmer became deeply associated with life-cycle and rite-of-passage rituals, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvot, and batkhn (ceremonial bands) developed specific repertoires of songs and dances designed to provide entertainment and support participatory singing and dancing at these events. Today,klezmer is often regarded as a quintessential

representation of Jewishness, and a great number of diasporic Jewish musicians drawn on klezmer in new hybrid popular musics forms, such as New York ensemble The Klezmatics who mix klezmertunes with contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish popular music styles and London-based Hasidic world fusion duo Zöhar who mix klezmer, as well as other Jewish musical expressions like cantillation, into their brand of electronic dance music.

In many respects, Sephardic folk musics were far more immersed in the traditions of their hosts. Sephardic musicians in Iberia sang Hispanic romances(poetic ballads) and canciones(lyric songs), albeit they sang them in Ladino, their dialect of Old Spanish infused with Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Greek influences, replacing Christian textual content with Jewish cultural and religious motifs. They adapted the musical style in line with Jewish musical aesthetics, including their idiomatic melodic intricacies, unmetered pulse, melismatic ornamentations and distinct modalities. Cantors, along with their devotional recitations, sang semi-religious coplas(Hispanic poetic songs organised around rhyming couplets), which were indigenised into Jewish culture in similar ways to the romances and canciones. Specifically, coplas were sung as part of the ketubá (the ‘marriage contract’) in nuptial ceremonies, and the songs helped to symbolise the union not only of the couple of the wedding but also the union between God and the people of Israel solemnized at Mount Sinai. The social inclusion of Jews in the Islamic kingdoms meant that Sephardic populations were comfortable assimilating into the culture of their host societies and felt less of a need to establish their own distinct communities. This, along with the affinities between Islamic and Jewish musical systems (e.g. the similarities between practices of unmetered melismatic singing and between Jewish modality and the Arabic maqam), encouraged Sephardic musicians to engage with and perform secular repertoire from Islamic musical traditions, including Moorish folk and art music; and Jewish musicians even became celebrated performers in the Islamic courts. After Christian forces re-conquered Iberia, Sephardic Jews were expelled from the peninsula (1492), and many moved to the Ottoman Greek city of Saloniki, which soon became the global centre of Sephardic culture. The musicians maintained the Andalus Ladino songs, but also increasingly took up traditions from Asia Minor, including Ottoman art music and even belly dancing forms, explaining the popularity of the Turkic tune Üsküdar amongst Sephardic Jewish communities.

Through the waves of aliyah to Jerusalem and the inauguration of Israel a Jewish nation state, music in Israel today encompasses all these Jewish traditions, as well as its own new hybrid forms that have resulted from this diverse mix. Amongst the most famous song associated with Israel is ‘Hava Nagila’ (‘Let Us Rejoice’). The source of this Hebrew song is contested, but most evidence suggests that it was composed by cantor Abraham Idelsohn, or by one of his cantorial students, at the Hebrew University in Ottoman Jerusalem (20thC) by adding Hebrew words, folk-derived rhythms and Phrygian modality to an existing Hasidic niggun (‘melody’). The song’s use of the common Hebrew language, its pan-Jewish outlook and its infectiously catchy tune enabled it to become a ‘Jewish anthem’ for all denominations. It later became closely associated with the Zionist movement and thus, subsequently, the state of Israel itself, and the song is now a favourite at weddings, Barand Bat Mitzvot and just about any kind of Jewish cultural event across the Jewish diaspora. Zionist musicians particularly developed the association between ‘Hava Nagila’ and what became the Israeli hora, a national form derived from the Ashkenazic hora folk dance which elaborated on the circle dance routine by linking the arms behind each other’s shoulders, by adding stylised movements to the steps of the left foot, by dancing it in large groups that develop concentric circles and by quickening the tempo to bring an even greater sense of ecstatic cheer to the dance. For Zionists, and, subsequently, Israelis, the dance and its accompanying music symbolised, and enacted, the restoration of a unified Jewish community and identity through common cultural custom. Israel popular music often draws on a range of Jewish traditional musics, including klezmerbut also other Ashkenazic and Sephardic styles. Israeli world music performers, like Yasmin Levy and the Idan Raichel Project, tend to mix Jewish traditions with Palestinian and other Middle Eastern musical forms, and collaborate in performance with musicians from these countries, in a political statement of tolerance and peace that symbolically seeks to build bridges and emphasise commonality and cultural affinities through music.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017


Sources & Reading Suggestions

100 Voices: A Journey Home [Documentary Film] (Mod3Productions, 2010).

A Jumpin’ Night at the Garden of Eden [Documentary Film] (1988).

A Tickle in the Heart [Documentary Film] (Neapel, 1996).

Fiestaremos! Judy Frankel and the Sephardic Music Tradition [Documentary Film] (The National Center for Jewish Film, 2008).

Great Cantors of the Golden Age [Documentary Film] (NCJF, 2006).

Hatikvah Music International [Online Resource], <>.

Israel Rocks: A Journey Through Music of Visions and Divisions[Documentary Film] (NCJF, 2000).

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Klezmer [Documentary Film] (BBC, 2012).

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Music and the Holocaust [Online Resource], <>.

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Stan Getz: A Musical Odyssey [Documentary Film] (NCJF, 2000).

The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground [Documentary Film] (Roots First, 2010). 

The Last Klezmer [Documentary Film] (Yale Strom, 1994).

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Cohen, Judah, Sounding Jewish Tradition: The Music of Central Synagogue(New York: Central Synagogue, 2011).

Cohen, Judah, The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

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Pinnolis, Judith, ‘“Cantor Soprano” Julie Rosewald: The Musical Career of a Jewish American “New Woman”’, American Jewish Archives Journal, 12 (2010).

Rubin, Emanuel and John Baron, Music in Jewish History and Culture (Sterling Heights: Harmonia, 2006).

Rubin, Ruth, Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Sapoznik, Henry, Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World(New York: Schirmer, 2006).

Seroussi, Edwin et al., ‘Jewish Music’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Shiloah, Amnon, Jewish Musical Traditions (Detroit: State University Press, 1998).

Slobin, Mark, American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Slobin, Mark, Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Slobin, Mark, Tenement Songs: the Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

Strom, Yale, The Book of Klezmer (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2002).

Summit, Jeffrey, The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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Sources of Images

Merneptah Stele: Centre for Online Judaic Studies

Jews awaiting extermination in the gas chambers of Auschwitz: Yad Vashem

Chazan and service at Synagogue: Times of Israel

Purim rattle: Michael Jacobs, 2005

Seder table setting: Bill Wetzel, 2009

Bar Mitzvah: Glen Kay, Grafted-In Ministires

Shofar:Peninsula Temple Beth El

Rabbi Yisroel Hopsztajn, a leader of Hasidic practice in Poland: National Library of Israel

Rabbi Moishe Sternbuch: Reuven Chaim Klein

Pinchas Pinchik: YouTube

Klezmer musicians: Violin Online


Dancing the Horah: Temple Emeth

The Klezmatics: The Music Hall

Israeli Jews dancing the hora: Jewish Music Research Centre

The Idan Raichel Project: Unconn Hillel, Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts