All material found in the Press Releases section is provided by parties entirely independent of Musical America, which is not responsible for content.

Press Releases

Columbia U. Prof. T. Fruehauf Celebrates DiasĀ­poric Diversity of Jewish Music in the USA

November 19, 2020 | By Jewish Book Council

Jew­ish Music in Amer­i­ca — Dias­poric Diversity

Tina Frühauf?’s book, Expe­ri­enc­ing Jew­ish Music in Amer­i­ca: A Lis­ten­er’s Com­pan­ionfol­lows the ques­tion of what Jew­ish music can, should, and ought to be, by pro­vid­ing snap­shots of an exten­sive range of musi­cal gen­res and styles that have been cen­tral to the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence on US soil, begin­ning with the arrival of the first Jew­ish immi­grants in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry and the chant­i­ng of the Torah, to the sounds of pop today.

Imag­ine you are vis­it­ing a record store, actu­al or vir­tu­al, look­ing for ?“Jew­ish music in Amer­i­ca.” What would you find? In the same rack there might be can­to­r­i­al clas­sics sung by Yos­se­le Rosen­blatt and klezmer music; you might find Israeli folk music, and songs in Yid­dish and Ladi­no; you might see one of the CDs by Hasidic pop star Lipa Schmeltzer or stum­ble over John Zorn’s exper­i­men­tal sounds; you will cer­tain­ly find an abun­dance of clas­si­cal music by com­posers of Jew­ish her­itage. The inven­to­ry of a record store is as much a micro­cosm of Jew­ish music, as the Unit­ed States is a micro­cosm for the Jew­ish cul­tures of the world, from the Bukhar­i­an Jews in Queens, to the Syr­i­an Jews in Mia­mi, and the Per­sian Jews in Los Ange­les. This diver­si­ty began in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Ear­li­er, Jews in the New World were large­ly Sephardim; the Ashke­naz­im arrived there­after, fol­lowed and then par­al­leled by Jews from North Africa and the Mid­dle East. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, oth­er groups such as Yemenites and Ethiopi­an Jews set­tled in the US as well. With­in these groups some are reli­gious to var­i­ous degrees and some are sec­u­lar. Diver­si­ty is inher­ent in Jew­ish cul­ture, musi­cal­ly and otherwise.

Giv­en this diver­si­ty, how then does one under­stand the cat­e­go­ry of Jew­ish music? Like many terms, ?“Jew­ish music” is a con­struct, a con­cept that emerged in lat­er moder­ni­ty. In the US it first appeared in print in Sam L. Jacobson’s (1873 – 1937) essay, ?“The Music of the Jews” of 1898, pub­lished in the month­ly mag­a­zine Music. Since then, attempts to define Jew­ish music have faced many dif­fi­cul­ties and have stirred up controversies.

Like many terms, ?“Jew­ish music” is a con­struct, a con­cept that emerged in lat­er modernity.

 In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Abra­ham Zvi Idel­sohn, an eth­nol­o­gist, musi­col­o­gist, and com­pos­er born in Latvia, per­pet­u­at­ed the idea of the under­ly­ing cul­tur­al uni­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple through­out and in spite of their geo­graph­ic dis­per­sion over cen­turies. He put forth the notion that the music of the var­i­ous Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties con­veys the lin­ear­i­ty of a his­to­ry dat­ing back to ancient Jerusalem. This view has been con­test­ed based on the evolv­ing het­ero­gene­ity of the Jew­ish peo­ple in var­i­ous Dias­po­ras. More so, many Jews did not mere­ly con­tin­ue exist­ing tra­di­tions; rather, they cre­at­ed new ones — a process dif­fi­cult to accept by some com­mu­ni­ties, where preser­va­tion, not cre­ation, is the defin­ing norm. Music, used in sacred and leisure con­texts, has played a key role in ide­o­log­i­cal debates about tra­di­tion and innovation.

Con­sid­er­a­tions on the mean­ing of Jew­ish music took a new turn when the mod­ern State of Israel was found­ed in 1948. Curt Sachs’s famous def­i­n­i­tion in 1957, ?“music by Jews, for Jews, as Jews,” cel­e­brat­ed for its poignan­cy and wide­ly applied, has also received much crit­i­cism. It begs an answer to the over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion of who is a Jew, and an answer that depends on who you are ask­ing. For some, Jew­ish­ness is in the genes, trans­mit­ted based on matri­lin­eal suc­ces­sion since the time of Ezra; for oth­ers, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is con­struct­ed by soci­ety, whether by mem­bers of the group or out­siders. Indeed, what does it mean to be Jew­ish in the mod­ern world? Cap­tur­ing Jew­ish­ness broad­ly, it can be under­stood as a racial, cul­tur­al, eth­nic, or reli­gious cat­e­go­ry. The dilem­ma of Jew­ish music comes down to what is con­sid­ered Jew­ish and by whom.

The answer then, to what ?“Jew­ish music” is, all depends on who defines it, when, and under what cir­cum­stances. Some insist on a Jew­ish rit­u­al con­text and tra­di­tion­al lan­guages — Hebrew, Yid­dish, Ladi­no — or melodies; oth­ers see the Jew­ish her­itage of the musi­cians as suf­fi­cient even when non-Jew­ish musi­cal influ­ences are dom­i­nant, and still oth­ers embrace music by non-Jew­ish musi­cians based on Jew­ish themes. The term also car­ries expec­ta­tions of ?“authen­tic­i­ty” or rather, orig­i­nal­i­ty, some­times lead­ing to heat­ed debates in the eval­u­a­tion of musi­cians, com­posers, and their works, espe­cial­ly in recent years when musi­cians pushed the lim­its of ?“Jew­ish music” through ever more eclec­tic bor­row­ing from sur­round­ing cul­tures. But music can also serve to delib­er­ate­ly pre­serve and pro­mote Jew­ish cul­ture in an ever-increas­ing­ly assim­i­lat­ed world.

Still, ?“Jew­ish music” remains the over­ar­ch­ing work­ing term of record in schol­ar­ship, the syn­a­gogue, and com­mu­ni­ties, used as short­hand for an expan­sive and dis­parate series of con­ver­sa­tions. It encom­pass­es a com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted rela­tion­ship between Judaism and sound from ancient times to the present day. This times­pan alone attest to music’s role as a prod­uct and process through which cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty can be con­struct­ed and Jew­ish con­scious­ness kept alive both inward­ly and outwardly.

Whether one defines it as music made by Jews, for Jews, in a Jew­ish style (what­ev­er that may be), or music with Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter, there will always be coun­terex­am­ples for any such sin­gu­lar def­i­n­i­tion. Jew­ish music is accept­ed as diverse, defy­ing any one def­i­n­i­tion. It ranges from reli­gious music to clas­si­cal music; it includes folk­lore and pop­u­lar music — all relat­ing to the notion of Jew­ish­ness. As such, Jew­ish music is omnipresent in Amer­i­ca, ready to be approached and enjoyed with an open mind and with respect.

Tina Frühauf is Adjunct Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and serves on the doc­tor­al fac­ul­ty of The Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. She is the edi­tor of the award-win­ning Dis­lo­cat­ed Mem­o­ries: Jews, Music, and Post­war Ger­man Cul­ture (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014) and has pub­lished wide­ly on Jew­ish musi­cal cul­tures. Her book Tran­scend­ing Dystopia: Music, Mobil­i­ty, and the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many, 1945 – 1989 is sched­uled to be released in Jan­u­ary of 2021.


More from Tina Frühauf



Law and Disorder by GG Arts Law

Career Advice by Legendary Manager Edna Landau

An American in Paris by Frank Cadenhead








Updates to artist manager rosters



Search Musical America's archive of photos from 1900-1992.