Contemporary Jewish religious music

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For the purposes of this article, “contemporary” refers to the period from 1967 (Israel’s Six-Day War) to the present day, “Jewish” refers to the various streams and traits of Judaism practiced. Many Orthodox Jews use the term “religious” to refer to a strict adherence to Jewish law. For the purposes of this article, “religious” refers to the content and context of the music itself: liturgical or implicit references to the divine.

Jewish ethnomusicologist Mark Kligman notes, “The scope of contemporary Jewish music encompasses a wide range of genres and styles, including music for the synagogue, folk and popular music on religious themes, Yiddish songs, klezmer music, Israeli music, and art music by serious composers. Every sector of the Jewish community – from the most right-wing Orthodox to the most secular – participates in the Jewish music endeavor, creating, performing, and listening to the particular music that meets its taste and needs.”[1]

The question of what is Jewish music and what makes music Jewish continues to be explored in academic and artistic circles alike. It may be seen in the work of Velvel Pasternak, who has spent much of the late twentieth century as a preservationist committing what had been a strongly oral tradition to paper. Also, John Zorn's record label, Tzadik, features a "Radical Jewish Culture" series that focuses on exploring what contemporary Jewish music is and what it offers to contemporary Jewish culture.

History and influence[edit]

Hasidic influence[edit]

Within the traditional Jewish community, cantoral and chasiddic melodies were the musical standard.

In the 1950s and early 1960s recordings began to be made of noncantorial Jewish music, beginning with Ben Zion Shenker's recording of the music of the Modzitz chassidic sect [2] and Cantor David Werdyger's Gerrer recordings. The annual Israeli Hasidic Song Festival, first held in 1969, became a stage which saw the premières of pieces like Nurit Hirsh’s Oseh Shalom; Tzvika Pik’s Sh’ma Yisrael; and Shlomo Carlebach’s Od Yishama and V’ha’eir Eineinu.[1]

Israeli influence[edit]

With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, American Jews showed increasing interest in Israeli music. This trend dramatically accelerated with the Six-Day War. “The practice of singing Israeli songs in American synagogues, camps, and at social gatherings, which spread in the 1950s, accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s as young American Jews looked to Israel as a positive model for Jewish identity, and the songs’ popularity also served as a Jewishly unifying factor.”[1]

An additional influence was in the pronunciation of Hebrew both in worship and song. The Reform Movement, which previously had used Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew (reflecting a German-Polish tradition), switched to Sephardic pronunciation (reflecting the way Israelis spoke).[3]

Folk music influence[edit]

Largely influenced by the folk music revival of the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, a new genre of worship music grew out of the Reform summer camp movement. From almost the beginning of Reform worship, the music centered around the use of organ and choir.[3] Rather than the paradigm of organ and choir, the new music was composed for acoustic guitar and group singing.”[4] This new style focused on making the music "simpler, thoroughly democratic in its singability, largely Hebrew, and playable on guitar."[3]

This influence is also clear in the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach gained fame for bridging between the folk world and the traditional Jewish Hasidic tunes.[5]

Rock influence[edit]

At the same time as the folk revival made waves in Jewish worship, established composers like Gershon Kingsley and Ray Smolover utilized contemporary genres like jazz and rock in their compositions.[3] As in the broader world, the influence of rock music was debated and still is in some circles. Influence of the rock world came to the Orthodox world with bands like the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, founded in 1975 by American-born student-musicians at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.[6] The founding members were Avraham Rosenblum on guitar, Ben Zion Solomon on fiddle and banjo, Simcha Abramson on saxophone and clarinet, Ruby Harris on violin, mandolin, guitar, and harmonica, Adam Wexler on bass, and Gedalia Goldstein on drums; other student-musicians also played with the group between 1973 and 1986.[7] The Diaspora Yeshiva Band infused rock and bluegrass with Jewish lyrics, creating a style of music it called "Hasidic rock"[8] or "Country and Eastern".[9][10] The band was very popular on college campuses in the early to mid-1980s, and was famous in Jerusalem for its Saturday-night concerts at David's Tomb. It inspired later bands such as Blue Fringe, Even Sh'siyah, Reva l'sheva, Soulfarm, the Moshav Band, and Shlock Rock.

Periodically Jewish music jumps into mainstream consciousness, with the reggae artist Matisyahu being the most recent example. The 2007 Grammy Awards were a landmark in Jewish music, as the Klezmatics (a klezmer/folk group) became the first Jewish band to win a Grammy. Their music combines lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the famous American lyricist, with classical klezmer tunes.

Important figures[edit]

  • Shlomo Carlebach is considered by many to be the most influential Jewish songwriter of the last half century.
  • Michael Isaacson grew up in Reform Jewish summer camps and was the primary innovator in Jewish camp music. He has since established himself as a prominent composer of synagogue music.
  • Tofa'ah, founded in 1981, was the first all-women Jewish rock/jazz band. It sets traditional religious Jewish texts to its own compositions, as well as composes original Jewish inspirational songs. The band is unique in that it adheres strictly to the Jewish laws of kol isha and performs only for female audiences. Its work is featured in the archives of Hebrew University and the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance.
  • Debbie Friedman, another product of Reform Jewish summer camps, was the first woman to set religious Jewish texts in the American folk genre, rendering them easily accessible and popular across the denominations. Her settings of the prayers for the Havdalah ceremony and the "Mi Shebeirach" prayer are ubiquitous in virtually every Jewish community. Julie Silver and Rabbi Shefa Gold have both followed in Debbie Friedman's footsteps as prolific female composers of contemporary Jewish religious music in their own right.
  • Kol B'Seder, consisting of Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, also arose out of the Reform Jewish camp movement as one of the pioneering groups devoted to composing and fostering what is sometimes called “American Nusach: "the late 20th century refashioning of liberal Jewish worship to reflect the attitudes and beliefs of life in North America". Some of their well-known settings include "Modeh Ani", "Or Zarua", and "Shalom Rav".
  • Craig Taubman grew up in Conservative Jewish camps and has also contributed a great deal of music to the genre, such as his settings of "L'cha Dodi" and "Hashkiveinu".
  • Safam, a six-man band founded in Boston in 1973, prides itself on a "Jewish-American Sound:" a wide breadth of American musical styles while maintaining a decidedly Jewish flavor. One of the group's founders, Robert Solomon, is a prominent cantor and composer in his own right.

Modern trends[edit]

Trends in the Orthodox community[edit]

In recent years, the time lag in style between the broad music world and its adoption by the Jewish music world had been decreasing. Many groups and singers have released albums with noticeable influences from contemporary pop, rock music, etc. This is partly a result of a new wave of young Jewish musicians arriving out of yeshivas and universities. Examples of this trend include The Chevra with clear pop-boy band overtones and dance moves and Blue Fringe with its extended jam sessions echoing Phish and the Dave Matthews Band. Other examples include acts such as Chaim Dovid or Shlomo Katz who echo Shlomo Carlebach's musical style.

One type of music that is very popular among Orthodox artists and their listeners usually consists of a formulaic mix including brass, horns and strings. These songs are often a joint effort by a composer and an arranger with the singer having little to no input[citation needed]. Many of the entertainers are former yeshiva students who perform in dress suits. Many have day jobs or are studying in kollel and sideline singing at Jewish weddings. Musical background and training varies from no formal training to very high levels (though rarely academic).

Lyrics are most commonly short passages in Hebrew from the Torah or the siddur, with the occasional passage from the Talmud. Sometimes songs with original lyrics compiled in English, Hebrew or Yiddish deal with central themes such as Jerusalem, the Holocaust, Jewish identity, and the Jewish diaspora.

As a solution to the Jewish law against men hearing women singing, Jewish boys choirs became popular in the 1970s. Among the more notable of these groups are Pirchei London, the Toronto Boys Choir, the Miami Boys Choir, and the Yeshiva Boys Choir. Currently the Miami Boys Choir led by Yerachmiel Begun is perhaps the most popular, with a number of albums amongst the top record sales in Orthodox Jewish circles. In addition, some female Orthodox musicians, including singers like Julia Blum, Kineret, and Ruthi Navon and groups such as Tofa'ah, Ashira, and Bulletproof Stockings, have found success performing for women only.[11][12][13]

In addition to Matisyahu, some well-known Orthodox contemporary Jewish musicians include Yossi Green, Martin Davidson, and Abie Rotenberg; well-known producers and arrangers of this type of music are Yisroel Lamm, Ian Freitor, Daniel Kapler, Eli Leshinsky. Popular artists include Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, Benny Friedman, Lipa Schmeltzer, Shloime Dachs, Dedi Graucher, and Yaakov Shwekey.

Trends in the Reform and Conservative communities[edit]

The Reform Jewish summer camps continue to be a source of contemporary Jewish worship music, where artists like Craig Taubman,[14] Dan Nichols,[15] Rick Recht,[16] Josh Nelson,[17] Alan Goodis and others have shared their newest compositions with the latest generation of campers. Nichols and Recht are among the leading Jewish rock singers of the present day and remain extremely popular among Jewish summer campers. Sam Glaser, Sue Horowitz, Noam Katz, Beth Schafer, Julie Silver, Peri Smilow and others have contributed significantly to modern Reform Jewish music and have been included in Ruach, the biennial music compilation produced by the Union for Reform Judaism.[17]

Children's music[edit]

A large body of music produced by Orthodox Jews for children is geared toward teaching religious and ethical traditions and laws. The lyrics of these songs are generally written in English with some Hebrew or Yiddish phrases. Country Yossi, Abie Rotenberg, Uncle Moishy, and the producers of the 613 Torah Avenue series are examples of Orthodox Jewish musicians/entertainers whose music teach children Jewish traditions. Parallel performers exist in Israel with the lyric in Hebrew or Yiddish.

In the Reform and Conservative communities, there has been a body of contemporary children's music written in the last 20 years. Children's music tends to focus on teaching Jewish values and ethics, Hebrew alef-bet and vocabulary, and teaching about the holidays. Though well-known Jewish songwriters like Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman have written many children's songs, there are some who focus almost exclusively on this genre, like Peter and Ellen Allard and Shira Kline.


  1. ^ a b c Kligman.
  2. ^ Kligman, p. 96.
  3. ^ a b c d Schiller.
  4. ^ Dreyfus.
  5. ^ Marsha Bryan Edelman (2003). "Reinventing Hasidic Music: Shlomo Carlebach". Archived from the original on 2006-12-15. Retrieved 2007-02-06.
  6. ^ Besser, Yisroel. "We All Get Another Chance". Mishpacha, March 12, 2014, pp. 48-58.
  7. ^ Harris, Ruby. "The Diaspora Yeshiva Band's impact on Jewish Music". Jewish Magazine. Retrieved 27 January 2010.
  8. ^ Tilbury, Neil (1989). Israel, a travel survival kit. Lonely Planet. p. 193. ISBN 0864420153.
  9. ^ "Biography". Diaspora Yeshiva Band. 2014. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  10. ^ Gelfand, Alexander (8 May 2008). "A Jewish Pop Band Worth the Wait". The Forward. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  11. ^ Kligman, p. 27.
  12. ^ Roslyn Dickens (2006). "A Melody of Their Own: Orthodox Women and the Performing Arts" (PDF). Jewish Action. Orthodox Union.
  13. ^ John Shepherd (2005). Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volumes 3-7. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 81.
  14. ^ Brown.
  15. ^ Charlotte Observer, July 6, 1994.
  16. ^ Daniels.
  17. ^ a b Union for Reform Judaism, Wikipedia.