800 Words: A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks (Part 1 of 2...I mean it)
(Cartman tells it like it is.)
They have Handel’s Messiah, we have “I Have a Little Dreydel.” So it goes. Great music by Jews is very different than ‘Jewish Music.’ We were shuckling in the Ghetto while Dufay, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Josquin, Isaac, Gombert, Willaert, Lassus, Victoria, Palestrina, Striggio, Taverner, Tallis, Byrd and Monteverdi (among so many others) wrote the great Christian masterpieces of the Renaissance. Even Bach and Handel predated the Jewish emancipation. The presence of Jews as musicians with any more prestige and education than Klezmerschpielern depended upon a world no longer ruled by religion. Every time Jews were let into the mainstream of cultural life, they were too late to the party to write Jewish music of equal value to the great music of Christianity. When Christian art and music dominated cultural life, it was the apex of civilization for its time. Both the authoritarian Christianity of the Middle Ages and the more humanist Christianity of the Renaissance represented the triumph of monotheism and order over the chaos of a Pagan world. A world with one god was a world in which every person the world over shared something in common and had at least one more reason to live in peace with his neighbor.
(The Christian Rock of 800 years ago. The first ever full setting of the Catholic Mass by Guillaume de Machaut. This is truly great Christian music, but how would we know it’s Christian if we didn’t know the text? Does it sound Medieval? Gregorian? French? Andalusian? Spanish? Arabic? Sephardic Jewish?)
When the historical emancipations of European Jewry began, Jewish artists were at an impasse which even now very few have solved. How can a progressive, educated, liberal minded artist create truly great art that openly declares an allegiance to parochialism, medievalism, and segregation? It’s hard enough for great talent to flourish in any religious community. What if a person’s talent leads him in a direction that contradicts the dogma of the religion? But how much more difficult would that be in a dogmatic community that has also been an embattled minority for two millenia? Even the relatively liberal Jews of 17th-century Amsterdam gave Baruch Spinoza a Cherem.
(Even a work as moving as Bach’s St. John Passion has strong anti-semitic overtones.)
For any artist for whom Judaism is anything more than an accident of birth, there is an uncomfortable truth that should trouble them far more than it seems to. All too few modern artists who create ‘Jewish Music,’ ‘Jewish Art,’ or ‘Jewish poetry’ seem to create anything worth remembering. Little of it sounds or looks particularly Jewish. It’s just like bad goyisher art, only it’s made for Jews. Go to any Reform Temple (once) and take in the unabashed awfulness of music by Debbie Friedman, Schlomo Carlebach or Safam. The only thing that separates it in quality from Christian Rock is that most people can’t understand the banality of the lyrics. Just as Christian Rock (or ‘Worship Music’) has done for Christianity, this music should strike us as bad news indeed. Whatever remains of Judaism’s greatest artistic traditions are being replaced by a bland, accessible music of which nobody with a brain would ever want to go within a hundred feet. What’s frightening about bringing the guitar into the mainstream of religious life is how successful it’s been at bringing people back to religion. Instead of people viewing religion as a fascinating and illuminating artifact of previous civilizations, people are convinced to believe in religion with all the devotion and literalness with which their ancestors believed 500 years ago. So it goes.
(Debbie Friedman. It’s sad that she’s dead. But her music makes me nauseous.)
When Martin Luther wrote the first Protestant hymns, his aim was more than simply musical. He needed a simple style of music that spoke directly to the layman to express a simpler vision of religion. There should be little doubt that Luther’s hymns still speak to us today. But there should be little more doubt that Luther’s hymns struck most Catholics of his day (if they heard Lutheran hymns at all) as absurdly trivial. These hymns call centuries of unconscious associations into our minds. From Luther we can hear the kernels of Bach, of the Anglican Hymnal, of Black spirituals, of Gospel music. We don’t simply hear Luther, we hear everything that came from him. As unlikely (and awful) as it might seem to us, people may one day hear Hillsong and hear the kernel of much much greater music that comes later.
(....Though I doubt it. Forever Reign by Hillsong.)
But the problem for Jews is compounded. Simplifying Jewish culture will never work for one reason: There is nothing simple about being Jewish. If you want a simpler religion, you have hundreds of Christian sects to choose from. Judaism is a religion built around 613 laws so complex and obfuscating that there are two-thousand years of commentary around the interpretation of every one of them - with heated debates between between many rabbis of each generation. No Jew could ever hope to master all the laws and commentary in a single lifetime. If anybody wants the secret of Judaism’s long-term survival, it’s all too simple: Jewish laws are so strange, and discovering a proper interpretation of the laws so time-consuming that a strictly Orthodox Jew would never have a chance in the hell he doesn’t believe in of fitting in with the rest of society.
(Whose directions would you trust? Directions from somebody whose religion allows for a setting of ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ like this one by Bach?......)
Furthermore, the complexity that is Judaism’s natural state will only be accepted by a society that is comfortable with complexity. A society that is appreciative of complexity, education and individuality is a society that will find much common ground with the Jewish people. A society that views those concepts suspiciously is almost guaranteed to view Jews with suspicion. Unfortunately, Ultra-Orthodox Jews can seem strange to even the most liberal-minded people. But some people are quite comfortable with the strangeness of the ‘other.’ Some people are not. For nearly three millenia, Jews have lived at the mercy of other communities. Liberal communities warmed quite well to the differences of the Jewish people, illiberal ones did not (and let that be a lesson about getting into bed with the Religious Right). If all feelings of liberalism and tolerance were to desert the world tomorrow, there is not a single Jew in the world who would survive by this time next year.
(.....or directions from somebody whose religion allows for a setting of ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ like this one from Chris Rice?)
Thank God (no pun intended) we live in an extremely tolerant era, relatively speaking. In descending order, the countries with the 10 highest Jewish populations are Israel, the US, France, Canada, the UK, Russia, Argentina, Germany, Australia and Brazil. Each of these countries is a democracy, relatively speaking. There has never been a time where being a Jew among goyim has been so easy. And there has never been a time when there is less incentive to uphold Jewish traditions. No Jew need uphold a mitzvah in today's world if he or she doesn’t want to.
The fact that Judaism is a conscious choice for today’s Jews makes our generation of Judaism different than virtually every Jewish generation in History. Until the Holocaust, Judaism was a Scarlett Aleph. Whether or not Jews chose to assimilate, the Gentile world looked upon even the most assimilated Jews with suspicion. After the Inquisition forced Jews to convert or leave Spain, the Jews who remained were still stuck with epithets like ‘Marrano’ and ‘Tornadizo’, terms perhaps as offensive (if not more) to their society as ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot’ are in ours. In the Spain of the 1500’s, a Marrano was a Catholic convert of Jewish origin, a ‘Tornadizo’ a heretic who practices another religion in secret. Many Spanish Jews did practice their religion in secret. But many of those whom the Inquisition burned alive for practicing Judaism were neither secretly Jewish nor even Jewish by origin. In Spain, as everywhere else so far, we were stuck with the accident of our birth. Whether we viewed ourselves as Jews, the rest of the world refused to view us as anything else. We therefore were discriminated against, attacked and slaughtered for the simple crime of being something different.
(What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fe)
Well into the 20th century, Judaism had this unfortunate reason for continuing, and so did its culture. But it’s a reason which it no longer seems to have. In ages when the survival of your community is in doubt, every good work - whether in science or politics or culture - becomes an affirmation of why the community lives on. But in a world where your survival is nearly guaranteed, what urgency is there to uphold the magnificence of a culture? The tides of history are such that thousands of years of great Jewish music-making have been lost simply to posterity, but apathy might lead us to forget all the vestiges of older Jewish culture which we still have.
(The Selikos Epitaph. The oldest surviving musical composition. Would the Greeks have recognized this?)
Even among the Greeks and the Romans, we have only a handful of musical remains. It would be far too much to ask of history that we find remains of music from the people they conquered. Sure, we have the instruments of biblical times, but we have no idea what they played with them. The oldest example of Jewish composition is ‘Cantillation.’ Every Jew knows what cantillation is, even if they don’t know what it means. Cantillation is what every Bar-Mitzvah instructor calls ‘Torah Trope.’ But even in this, we have no idea if, or which, notated cantillation is accurate to what Cantillation was in the days of the temple. The system which most American bar-mitzvah students learn is the cantillation of the Litvaker Ashkenazim in Eastern Europe. But Litvaker cantillation is only one of at least thirteen distinct varieties of cantillation that are still practiced throughout the world today. How many other styles of cantillation were born and died over the millenia?
(Profanation. The second movement of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony. In this piece, Bernstein took the most boring thing in the world: the Eastern European Haftarah trope which every American Jew has to learn for his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah and turned it into some of the most exciting music ever composed)
We have more specific examples of the Sephardic/Mizrachi music of Spain, Northern Africa and the Middle East. But even from these later periods in history, we still have very little idea how their music sounded. Mizrahi music has now become perhaps the most vital force in Israeli contemporary music, as though Sephardic musicians finally have an opportunity to create a permanent literature that speaks for their civilization.
(Layers on layers of music. An original Sephardi melody with Ladino text. With a Mizrahi band reinterpreting it to sound like a contemporary vision of what the music of the Andalusian Period might have sounded like)
Even the final pre-modern wave of great Jewish musicmaking, what we once called ‘Chazzanus’ is a dying art. The Chazzan (or ‘Cantor’) is a singer - often a trained opera singer - who prays to God on behalf of the congregation. He (and sadly in the old days it was always a ‘he’) might lead the congregation in some communal prayers, but he is ultimately no less an intercessor to God than a Catholic Priest. Chazzanut has its roots in very old ideas that are not popular in our time: in the very Catholic idea that people need a spiritual figure to speak to God for them, and in the very ‘Old Europe’ idea that people the ultimate enjoyment is to be found while sitting in respectful silence so an expert singer can sing something far more beautifully than any amateur could.
(Leib Glantz. Would that today’s lyric tenors could sing like this...)
The Chazzan is no longer a wanted figure on both sides of Judaism. Most orthodox Jews view cantors as an unnecessary barrier to God. Most conservative and reformed Jews view cantors as an unnecessary barrier to direct participation in the service. Increasingly, we are seeing the replacement of the chazzan. Orthodox congregants know all the prayers by heart already and simply chant them themselves. Conservative and Reform synagogues would rather have simple melodies that everyone can sing and responsive readings in the language of the congregants. So if that’s what works better for some people, bully for them.
(Shir HaMaalos. Sung by Yossele Rosenblatt, traditionally thought the greatest of all Jewish cantors - even if it’s bereft of vocal fireworks, this is one of the very few recordings that does true justice to the beauty and power of Chazzanus to move audiences. A simply stunning document.)
But I can’t help thinking that it’s one of the most unfortunate developments in modern Jewish history. A great Chazzan is one of the few Jewish ways to obtain an authentic spiritual experience without all the baggage of religious dogma. No one who has heard a great Cantor can ever forget the experience. A nonagenarian relative of mine, musically quite knowledgeable, has sworn to me that most of his greatest musical experiences were in the synagogues of Brooklyn. I believe him.
(The famed cantor Gershon Sirota died in the Warsaw Ghetto. This is a recording from 1903. The Unetanah Tokef, a Jewish High Holy Day Prayer. Recorded with Choir as Cantors always should be. If people could hear the recorded performances of Chazanim like this in better sound, it would likely take the entire world by storm.)
Chazzanut is music-making at its very rawest - with all the spontaneity and passion of great opera singing. Unfortunately, it is a greatness that cannot be well captured by recording. Orthodox Judaism strictly forbids recording a synagogue service. And so nearly all the great cantors had to record in a studio. And to make matters worse, the synagogue choir was usually replaced by a church organ (doubtlessly for financial reasons). Most of what we hear on recordings is a pale shadow of the greatness that must have transpired in every week in Shul.
(Somehow, somebody recorded Moshe Koussevitzky live during a service. Not very well...)
It’s yet another of Judaism’s cruel ironies that Jewish culture is moving away from building on a great cultural tradition at the very moment when the world would value it most. But like most things about Judaism, Chazzanut is a culture built to be appreciated by a precious few.
No, the chance for Jewish music to make its mark in an age of religion has passed. Once upon a time, religion was the world’s great force for progress. But progress has long since passed religion. No doubt, what we hear of Josquin and Ockeghem are pale shadows of what music lovers heard 500 years ago. How much more difficult would it be to recapture the musical greatness of a roving sect who only wrote down a small portion of the great music it made?
The vestiges of the old traditions are far too beautiful to not be preserved. New Chazzanim have to learn the secrets that made cantors like Rosenblatt and Leib Glantz so compelling and practice like mad so that other people can also experience what makes Chazzanus great. We have to have more Jewish musicians who learn Arabic instruments and research Sephardic music so that we can make a convincing recreation of what Andalusian Jewish music that sounds like something more than a skeletal outline.
(Pentecostal Music. Better than ever and a total contradiction to what I say in the paragraph below)
Personally, I’ve become more and more convinced that great religious art isn’t possible in an era when religion is a force that moves the world backward rather than forward. It isn’t unique to Jewish music, anybody who’s gone into a Church in the last ten years will know that the quality of Christian music is growing ever duller. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. And anybody who’s heard Pentecostal music knows that great religious music is not dead. Today’s Pentecostals play their old tunes with more musical skill and passion than you’ve long since ceased to find in your average jazz club.
The only chance for Judaism to make a mark on an inclusive world culture is to put the echoes of the old Jewish music into works of art that have a function that isn’t related to religion. It’s stil possible - maybe more possible than ever before - to create as much great Jewish art as it is to create as much great Christian art. But most artists don’t do it. Instead, they’ve liberated their work from the confines of religion. Perhaps they’re right to do so. But religion has produced too much good along with the bad to be banished from the present day.
(Perry Como’s Kol Nidre. Because I can’t help myself.)