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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Perspectives on Jewish Music: Secular and Sacred, edited by Jonathan Friedmann. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.  162 pp.  $60.00.

 

Jonathan Friedmann’s Perspectives on Jewish Music is an anthology of five essays representing five very different perspectives. Each essay deals with the music of the Jewish people, and each betrays its own unique agenda. The five authors enjoy an uneasy coexistence between the covers and seemingly find common ground only in the index.

              Jeff Janeczko is an avowed diasporist, a polemicist espousing the cause of the cultures that Zionism attempted to displace. His essay focuses on Radical Jewish Culture, the title given to a series of more than one hundred recordings on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Zorn describes the series as “Jewish music beyond klezmer: adventurous recordings bringing Jewish identity and culture into the twenty-first century.” But Zorn’s label and Janeczko’s essay both seem to ignore the existence of other twenty-first century Jewish musical creativity. Janeczko shares with us his interviews with four of these composers, Jewlia Eisenberg, Ned Rothenberg, Steven Bernstein and Marc Ribot, all of whom are situated in the context of American popular music. Rothenberg states that his work’s Jewishness arose unexpectedly during the compositional process, that his art comes from a sense of identity that he could not escape. Was he aware of similar sentiments a century earlier by arguably the greatest Jewish composer, Ernest Bloch? “I notice here and there themes that are without my willing it, for the greater part Jewish, . . . this impulse that has chosen me, who all my life have been a stranger to all that is Jewish” (Bloch, 1911). While Rothenberg and others claim to be “multicultural omnivores,” there is a rejection of Jewish Orthodoxy, painting it glibly as “an easy path,” revealing perhaps most vividly the author’s lack of any deep exploration of traditional Judaism. And Ribot criticizes musicians who limit themselves to pre-war, Holocaust-related or Israeli themes. But by rejecting these three signifiers, is Ribot being just as limited?

              Mark Goodman’s essay deals with the popularity of folk-rock music in the sixties and its influence on Jewish worship. Goodman has quite a few facts wrong in his essay. For example, Reform Judaism did not emerge in the late nineteenth century, and most cantors from the Golden Age of Hazzanut were not captured by the Nazis, as he asserts. Occasionally he paints with too wide a brush; he posits, for example, that all of the “older generation” were merely spectators in the worship service. There are some curious omissions—why does he omit Herbert Fromm from his list of the great American composers of Reform liturgical music in the period from 1930 until 1960? And why did Goodman decline to include Orthodox Judaism in his study? He would have found that his assertion that “Orthodox Judaism still follows closely the centuries-old traditions of Judaism” doesn’t always apply in the area of synagogue song, where traditional nusah has also been abandoned in favor of tune singing.

              The editor, Jonathan Friedmann, has contributed an essay entitled, “Humility, Prayer, and the Cantorial Ideal.” Friedman seems to profess (and sadly he is not alone) that aesthetic values are antithetical to the values of sincerity and humility in prayer. He cites a phrase from the kaddish—“Blessed is He beyond all blessings and songs . . . that are uttered in the world”—as proof that Jewish tradition belittles the value of human song. One finds a similar expression in Nishmat Kol Hai (“Even if our mouths were as full of song as the sea and our tongues as full of joyous melody as the multitude of waves . . . we would be inadequate in our gratitude to You . . .”). Yet in the next paragraphs the liturgy continues, “In the assemblies [or “choirs”] of the myriads of Your people Israel, Your name shall be glorified, O our Sovereign, with joyous melody in every generation. For it is the obligation of all creature to give thanks and praise . . . even greater than the songs and praises of David son of Jesse, Your anointed servant. . . . For songs, praises and music are pleasing to You, . . . Who are a Connoisseur of songs and music. . . .” Basing his agenda on one phrase from a doxology might make an interesting sermon, but not a scholarly essay.

              The strongest essay in this collection is Vanessa Paloma’s study of the significance of gender in Sephardic ritual and its music. Paloma demonstrates how songs generally associated in many Sephardic communities with women found their way into certain parts of the male-dominated liturgy. She presents a nuanced explanation of the role of music in ritual and the diverse sources of liturgical melody in the Moroccan Jewish traditions. She cites the practice of men singing the liturgical kedusha to the tune of Rachel Lastimoza, a well-known Ladino romance from the repertoire of women’s songs. Moreover Paloma offers convincing evidence that the men who sing this contrafaction are aware of its source and its original lyrics. She states, “The mental simultaneity of sacred and secular texts in the mind of the worshiper is a concrete presence of unification of opposites . . . a Zoharic form of musical unification of masculine and feminine musical languages.”

              The final chapter is Friedmann’s transcription of Cantor William Sharlin’s reminiscences of his cantorial career. Sharlin was born in New York in 1920. We follow his brief but influential sojourn in Palestine from 1936 to 1939, his ambivalent relationship with traditional observance, his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, his musical studies and cantorial studies, his move from piano and composition to vocal studies, his enthusiasm for leading singing with guitar, his appointment as full-time cantor at the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, his career as teacher at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and his relationship with some of the great figures in Jewish music including Eric Werner and Max Helfman. Sharlin’s biography provides an interesting window into the evolution of American Jewish liturgical music over the course of the twentieth century.

 

Joshua Jacobson

School of Jewish Music, Hebrew College and

Department of Music, Northeastern University