Jewish Liturgy: Time, Text, Music, and Identity

Here are some iPad-generated infographics. Consider them as “conversation starters”…

The Jewish Liturgical Ecosystem

The Time/Text relationship in Jewish liturgy

The Texts of Jewish Liturgy

Music in Jewish Liturgy: "chants" and "tunes"

Musical Expressions of Jewish Identity


Jewish Music | 10 Competing Notions

Let’s scan through ten (at times competing) notions of “Jewish Music” that have emerged during the last, well, 500 years.

Background information for this discussion can be found in this (and last) week’s reading, especially the “Jewish Music” entry in Oxford Music Online, which opens with the following statements.

‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today . Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn’s work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. This approach was perpetuated in later attempts to write a comprehensive overview of Jewish music from a historical perspective (e.g. Avenary, 1971–2). Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.

Below, I attempt to highlight some of the connections that “Jewish music” elicits. I’m not pretending to be exhaustive, and I’m also having some fun in choosing related visual and musical examples to make my points.

1. Jewish music as “Musica Haebreorum”: the notion of a “music of the Hebrews (the Jews)” really begins with Christian Humanists and their heirs.

An example I particularly like (also because it has been eminently understudied, so far), and that one can read online, is from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (Source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23): Bottrigari specifically addresses il Canto degli Hebrej (“the song of the Jews”) and the musical rendition of the “masoretic accents” that govern the singing of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue liturgy. (Image source).

Il Canto degli Hebrej in E. Bottrigari, Trimerone (1599)

2. Jewish (musical) antiquity

“Jewish music” is by default associated with antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it? Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many many more after him, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).

See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí), in which the rather modern Sephardic Jewish past is presented as Medieval:

3. The Wissenschaft des Judentums (19th cent.) and the invention of “Jewish Music” as a Jewish notion

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship was the construction of the “Italian Jewish Renaissance” as a golden age of musical production, and of Jewish music as “art music.” Listen below to Salamone Rossi, ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta)

4. Jewish music as “Music of the Jewish People” (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity), as found in the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music” and in related Zionist musical agendas.

Lazare Saminsky (Odessa 1882- NY 1959), composed Conte Hebräique (Hebrew Fairy Tale) in Palestine in 1919, en route from Russia to America (via the UK).

5. Jewish music as “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by Richard Wagner) brings with it a certain passion for singling out “the Jewish elements” in the music of eminent composers of Jewish descent. This is a trademark of many 20th-century scholarly contribution to the field.

An excellent (albeit not scholarly) summary on the relationship between Wagner and modern Jewish sensibilities can be found in the form of a satire in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Episode 3: Trick or Treat (October 7, 2001) (note when Larry David whistles “Springtime from Hitler” from the Producers). Link courtesy of my friend Kathleen Wiens (UCLA).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerated Music” and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be purified from their influence.
Well, these are the Nazis… See them enjoying their right to free speech in John Landis, The Blues Brothers (USA 1980):

A book published in Nazi Germany, listing Jewish music professionals, is included in the music holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and can be made accessible to interested students.

7. Jewish music as lost (or suppressed) music: in the view of post-Holocaust cultural agendas, any sample of Jewish culture is worthy of attention, and the enormity of the historical legacy of the Holocaust trumps any aesthetic consideration.
Watch, for example, this news report on Francesco Lotoro’s KZ Musik project, conducted with the support of the European Union:

8. Jewish music as revival. In her essay, Sounds of Sensibility (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outlines several implications related to the (American) revival of “Klezmer” music.
In his fascinating eulogy of Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the protagonists of the American revival of Ashkenazi culture, Canadian writer, Michael Wex, thus articulated the special relationship that late 20th-century Jewish revivalists had with tradition:

[Adrienne Cooper] had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.

The New-York band, Klezmatics, turned the socialist song, Ale brider into an anthem for Queer rights. Here, they sing it together with Israeli folk music (and protest song) icon, Chava Alberstein, in Berlin, Germany:

9. Jewish music as “soul” and “fusion” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “masses”).

Here’s an example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman:

10. Jewish music as “world music” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “elites”).

An example by Moroccan-Israeli cantor and singer, Emil Zrihan:

Disclaimer: A previous version of this entry is cross-posted here.

Week 5 | Listening Guide

This week we continue to explore the world of “Jewish music” (keeping in mind that this expression is a construct, rather than a definite cultural entity). We will continue to listen to the anthology introduced last week, and also focus specifically on the sounds of Jewish liturgy.

As discussed last week, liturgical sounds introduce us into one of the most intimate aspects of Jewish culture, in which text and music, material and spiritual cultures, tradition and innovation, seamlessly coexist.

Jewish liturgy takes place every day, and thus expresses the experience of every day life, just like the many objects of material culture that we have examined in the weeks past. And at the same time, it voices the most complex aspects of religious life, thus addressing an intricate texture of literary traditions (first and foremost, the Hebrew Bible), of spiritual yearning, and of cultural creativity and aesthetic expressions. Finally, liturgy is a performance, in which music is central. In its performative aspects, liturgy and its music reflect a variety of social dynamics, ranging from inter-generational conflicts to gender relations, to politics and, as we will see in focusing onnocturnal rituals, inter-cultural exchanges.

Titgadal wetitqadash betokh Yerushalaim | Jerusalem in Hebrew Prayer and Song (available on bCourses)

Building up from last week’s listening experience, this compilation, which is based on a concert program presented in Berlin, Germany, in 1995, focuses entirely on liturgical and para-liturgical songs (refer to Grove, “Jewish Music” III:1 to fully assess the importance of these terms) of various Jewish musical traditions as they are presented by traditional culture bearers (rather than re-created by artists). Make sure to also refer to the CD notes to learn about each track and the ideas that informed the concert program (curated by Edwin Seroussi, and also available via bCourses).

While listening, focus on two aspects:

  • Diversity of sound: as in last week’s listening materials, very diverse worlds of sounds are brought together as part of one culture (“Jewish (musical) culture);
  • Unity of (theological) message: each selection expresses the two ­thousand year longing for Jerusalem and the return to the land of Israel, as represented in Jewish liturgical texts.

Are  these  two aspects  reconciled  in  the concert  program documented  in  this CD? Probably not in terms of sounds: the traditions represented in the concert are indeed very different from one another). Yet, perhaps,  such a  relation can be only understood within the comprehensive notion of “Jewish music” summarized in the assigned sections of the Grove article on this topic: a host of diverse cultures with distinctively similar (textual, material social, political) practices across the span of a diasporic landscape.

In listening to this week’s compilation, make sure to focus on the following tracks:

1. Shofar blowing: the only Biblical musical instrument that remains in Jewish liturgy

5. Lekha dodi: liturgical poem for the Sabbath liturgy, text by kabbalist scholar Sh. Alkabetz (melody from the Turkish tradition)

12. Arim al shefayim koli: a Moroccan kinah (dirge), part of the vast repertoire of liturgical poems sung on the 9th of Av (the liturgical commemoration of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, and later by the Romans in the 1st century CE)

13. Yerushalaim ir mehulalah – Hohil yom yom eshtahe: Moroccan song medley praising Jerusalem and the city of Tiberias

15. Mimekomkha malkenu tofi’a: Ashkenazi prayer for the return of God’s rule over Zion and Jerusalem (a line from this prayer gives  the Hebrew  title  to  the CD:  titgadal wetitqadash bethokh yerushalayim, or “May You be exalted and sanctified within Jerusalem”)

19.  Im nin‘alu:  a poem by Sh.  Shabazi   from  the Yemenite  tradition of  sacred poetry  (Diwan),  which was popularized as a “dance hit” in the 1980s by Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza (you may want to listen to her subsequent versions, easily found on YouTube). 

Ben Zion Shenker: Midnight Selichot, Live (1963)

The selichot service, built around a string of penitential piyyutim (called selichot, or petitions), is one of the great Sephardic/Ashkenazi liturgical divides. While Sephardic Jews recite them, before dawn, during the forty days that precede the New Year, Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting them the Saturday night (typically at midnight) before the New Year (and then continue in the early mornings during the following days).

What is with this ’round midnight custom? To be continued, but first…

Week 4 | Listening Guide

This week we are listening to:

Musical Traditions in Israel: Treasures of the National Sound Archives

All tracks are available on UC Berkeley’s bCourses website, as well as online at the links below. (My recommendation is to use bCourses).

It is a compilation of ethnomusicological field recordings highlighting the collection of the National Sound Archives (NSA), which were established in 1964 at the National Library of Israel (

The NSA house hundreds of thousands of recorded items, documenting a host of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other musical traditions represented in modern Israel, as well as Jewish musical traditions across the global diaspora.

This compilation (originally issued on audio cassette, then on CD, and now available online: constitutes a veritable “audio tour” of both Jewish and Israeli sounds, presenting an intensely diverse traditional musical landscape through the performances of original culture bearers (or informants).

Most recordings (not all) were collected in Israel. Some were collected by Israeli researchers who conducted their fieldwork abroad.

The CD booklet (also available on bCourses) gives specific details about the following traits:

Title or incipit (beginning words of a song) of the piece recorded
Typology and occasion of the performance (i.e., vocal, instrumental, for the liturgy, for weddings, etc.)
Informants’ names and other biographical information
• Name of the researcher/s who conducted the fieldwork, date and place of recording
• NSA Call number

a) Tracks 4, 5 and 6 highlight the role of music in the transmission of traditional lore in Judaism: from father to son, from teacher to pupils, as well as in individual study.

b) Tracks 2, 3, 8, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 22 offer the diverse sounds of liturgical music from the synagogue traditions of Europe, Asia and Africa. They represent Ashkenazi (originally from central and eastern Europe), and Sephardic (originally from the Iberian peninsula) musical traditions, along with those of the Jews from the Islamic world (at times called mizrachi, or “oriental” Jews, in Israeli Hebrew).

c) Tracks 1, 7 and 23 are Jewish wedding tunes (from Morocco, Yemen and Eastern Europe), which represent a variety of “para-liturgical” traditions (the term is described in this week’s reading assignment)

d) Tracks 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 19 represent some of the most important non-Jewish musical traditions that are rooted in Israel (Bedouin, Greek-Orthodox, Palestinian-Arab, and Samaritan).

While listening to these tracks (choose at least one from each group), you may want to focus on different aspects:

1. Soundscape: what kind of musical world (European, Asian, African, etc.) does the music represent?
2. Performance style: solo or group singing, instrumental accompaniment, etc.
3. Language: Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, a Jewish language (Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish, etc.), other.
4. Context: What occasion is the music destined to? Who is/was the audience? Why was it recorded?

It may well be that the only common characteristic to all these musical examples is that they are all transmitted by oral tradition.

In terms of sound, they indeed are extremely diverse…

Who would want to define this mosaic of diverse sounds as “Jewish Music”?

(Ideas about these issues are found in this week’s readings: Grove Dictionary of Music Online, “Jewish Music”).

Jewish Nightlife | Unannounced Response Exercise #1

Complete the two-part assignment below, and post your responses to this document within 30 minutes from the beginning of the exercise, listing your name and student Number.

  1. Survey/Review

Select a term from one (any one!) of this week’s assigned readings that was unfamiliar to you, and briefly describe its meaning and what sources you used to clarify it. If all terms in the readings were already fully familiar to you, chose the one you felt was the least so 😉

  1. Comparative Approach/Use of Class Resources (+ a treasure hunt)

Cultures of the Jews (assigned reading this week) mentions a depiction of three ritual duties pertaining to women (baking challah bread for the Sabbath; observing ritual purity; and lighting the Sabbath candles).

  1. Find the exact mention in Culture of the Jews
  2. Go on a “treasure hunt,” and locate a similar item in “Gourmet Ghettos” (which we “visited” on Monday)
  3. Briefly describe each of these two items (the one in the reading and the other in the exhibition) by highlighting the following elements:
    1. Place of origin (embrace the complexity of the Jewish diaspora in describing geography)
    2. Historical period (here, too, be critical of possible assessments)
    3. Language(s)
  4. List which ones among this week’s assigned readings can best help shedding light on each of the two items discussed in this assignment (the one in Cultures of the Jews, and the one in Gourmet Ghettos), and provide a full bibliographic citation for each reading (i.e., Author, Title, year: page number/s; bibliographic format is your own choice). Hint: you may need to refer to both EJ entries, and to Idelsohn…

Once you are ready, post this assignment to (just below this text). Remember to add your name to the completed assignment!

Personal computers or other devices may be used to complete today’s assignment. If you are without a portable device, you may pair with another student in the class. In this case, list both your names under the completed post. 

How Languages Evolve (And How Hard it is to Represent That)


This excellent summary is a valuable resource in our “mapping diaspora” project this week.

Following the thought process explained in the video, we see how the two-dimensional mapping approach (the visual representation of linguistic evolution as a “linguistic tree”) suggested at the beginning is valuable, and, at the same time, it simply does not work.

Looking at the advantages and the disadvantages of linguistic approaches to the evolution of language is a great way to introduce a discussion of the multi-dimensionality of (Jewish) culture!