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WHY I TEACH THIS COURSE: Professor Josh Jacobson’s “Music of the Jewish People”

What the heck is “Jewish Music”? How can music be Jewish? Does music keep kosher? Is music circumcised? No—people can be Jewish, and that’s why I prefer to call my course, “Music of the Jewish People.”

In the 1960s there was a popular advertising slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levi’s rye bread.” We could certainly build on that concept to say, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love (or to study) Jewish music.” But let us probe a little deeper. Do you have to be Jewish to compose Jewish music? Do you have to be Jewish to perform Jewish music? Do people who were steeped in a tradition from childhood listen to music from that tradition differently than those from a different background? To probe even further, we could ask, is Jewishness a product of nature or nurture? Does DNA somehow affect one’s behavior, regardless of the environment in which one was raised?

I remember the first time I conducted Handel’s Messiah at Northeastern. After the concert one of the students in the chorus came up to me — an Irish Catholic woman by the name of Terry B. She said to me, “How can a Jew like you conduct Handel’s Messiah?” I stammered something about a musical performer being like an actor: You assume a persona while you are on stage, then you go back to being who you are. But maybe Terry had a point. Take three conductors of equal musical competence — one is a devout Christian, another is a devout agnostic, and the third is a devout Jew. Which of the three will deliver a performance of Handel’s Messiah that best represents the sentiments of the composer? It is complicated.

In his senior thesis at Harvard College in 1939, Leonard Bernstein wrote, “It is easily understandable that a composer…whose parents were immigrants, still maintains a close contact with the old racial traditions. If the traditions are part of his childhood, they are inevitably part of his life.” Now we might call “traditions that are part of your childhood” the product of nurturing, or perhaps culture. But the young Bernstein labeled them “racial traditions.”

At the same time that Bernstein was positing his racial musical thesis, a similar sentiment was being expressed across the Atlantic. Under the stewardship of Joseph Göbbels, the German Ministry of Culture had decreed that any music composed by a Jew, indeed, any music performed by a Jew, was “degenerate,” a perversion of the superior Aryan culture. All such music would be censored in the expanding lands of the Third Reich.

So is there such a thing as “Jewish Music”? If pressed, I define it as music that has been used by Jews more than by others—and therefore has become associated with Jews and therefore is more meaningful to Jews than to non-Jews. But we must keep in mind that what is traditional to a Yemenite Jew may be quite alien to a German Jew.

Perhaps any music that describes Jews could be considered Jewish music. In 1874, the Russian (non-Jewish) composer Modest Mussorgsky composed a tone poem called Pictures at an Exhibition, based on pictures that he had seen at a memorial exhibit of the artist Viktor Hartmann. Included in the exhibition were two pictures, titled “Samuel Goldenberg” and “Schmuyele.” One section of Pictures at an Exhibition, titled “Two Jews,” is an attempt to portray Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyele as Jews through musical tones.

If we are listening to vocal music, we can ask whether the composer has used a Jewish text. But how can a text be Jewish? Perhaps, it is in a language spoken uniquely by Jews, such as Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino. Perhaps, it is taken from the Jewish liturgy or elsewhere in the Jewish literary canon. Perhaps, it is a narrative about Jews, such as (non-Jewish) composer George F. Handel’s oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, a work that was banned under the Nazi regime because of its Jewish associations.

We can reject the notion that an artifact must be considered Jewish music simply because its composer was identified as a Jew. The song “White Christmas” does not qualify as Jewish simply because Irving Berlin (né Israel Baline) was Jewish.

But perhaps the definition lies not in the essence of the composition or even in the intent of its creator. Jewishness in music also lies in the ears of the beholder. Jewish Music is defined not by anything objective, intrinsic to its nature, but by how it is perceived, how it is received.

In my course we listen to all kinds of “Jewish music” — traditional liturgy, Israeli hip-hop, klezmer wedding dances, a Yemenite diwan, Yiddish theatre musicals, symphonies by Leonard Bernstein and songs by Bob Dylan. The goal is for students to engage with these cultural artifacts, to discover what makes them seem Jewish and how they reflect and create a sense of identity.

Read the rest of the Fall 2015 Haverim Newsletter here.

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Haverim Newsletter Fall 2015