Jewish Music

Jewish Music, religious, folk, and popular music of the Jewish people.The historical experience of the Jewish people has led to a long and distinctive music tradition. Until the 1st century, Jewish spiritual and musical life centered around the city of Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel and site of the Temple, a Jewish religious focus. Three times a year pilgrims bearing the fruits of agricultural labor came to the Temple, where a hereditary caste of musicians, the Levites, performed intricate music as described in the Bible. The Jewish people also held small services in synagogues, where folk music may have been performed in a manner similar to the musical styles of neighboring Middle Eastern peoples.

The defeat of the Jewish revolt against occupying Roman armies in Jerusalem, and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple in 70, led to a scattering of the Jewish population in the 1st and 2nd centuries. During this period of Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews outside Israel), Jewish music entered a second phase that has lasted nearly 2000 years. Because of the Diaspora and a lack of historical documentation, a core of ancient Jewish music common to all communities cannot be identified. Until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews lived in communities throughout the world�in countries such as the United States, Canada, France, India, and China�as non-Israeli Jews continue to do today. Thus the Jewish people spoke many different languages and were strongly influenced in their everyday life, including in their music making, by the ways of their non-Jewish neighbors. However, Jews in these disparate communities continued to recite common sacred Jewish texts and to observe the daily and yearly prayers and rituals of those texts.

II. Secular Music

Throughout the world, the Jewish people have composed folk songs and dance tunes that differ only in detail from those of their non-Jewish neighbors. It is difficult to isolate purely secular influences in Jewish music because religion pervades Jewish daily life. For folk songs, Jews have used not only the local languages, but also their own colloquial languages, such as Yiddish in northern and eastern Europe (strongly based on the German and Slavic languages) and Ladino (based on Spanish) in southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. All of these Jewish languages are written in the Hebrew alphabet and are influenced by vocabulary and concepts found in sacred texts. Researchers have gathered Jewish lullabies, love songs, wedding songs, children's game songs, and other standard types of sung poetry, as well as instrumental tunes for holidays and weddings. The songs and melodies of German Jews sound very German, and those from Yemen very Yemenite, in details ranging from scales, verse structure, and rhythms to the tuning of instruments and the types of voice timbres (tone colors). Thus the pattern of assimilating foreign music may itself be the most distinctive feature of Jewish secular music. Differences born from local customs reside in the details of music making�from the way instruments are played and dance steps are executed, to the topics of songs�all of which may have strong Jewish cultural resonance.

III. Sacred Music

There are two major categories of sacred music among Jews: the chanted or sung performance of sacred text, and the composition and performance of new hymns and prayers beyond the ancient canonical scriptures.

The musical performance of sacred text includes a large range of materials, from the half-sung daily prayers that observant Jews must perform before washing or eating, to the mandatory weekly recitation of a passage from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in the synagogue. Traditionally, all males were required to learn performance skills for the recitation of many types of sacred texts in order to be considered functioning members of the Jewish community. At the bar mitzvah ceremony, a boy's performance before the congregation signifies his coming of age as a man. In recent decades, bat mitzvah ceremonies have been held for girls among nonorthodox Jewish communities. Women have also traditionally performed certain types of sacred text, often in a more domestic setting, but they did not have the same obligation as males to do so. Orthodox Jews, however, hold to the doctrine of kol isha, which stipulates that the sound of a woman's voice is a distraction for praying men. This gender distinction has come under strong attack and modification in recent decades, particularly in the United States, where women have achieved equal or nearly equal status with men in sacred music performance in a majority of congregations.

Despite local differences in the melodies used for chanting and singing sacred text, there has been only one system of notation for recitation of the Bible for the last thousand years. As Jewish life moved farther from its Temple center and the languages of sacred text were no longer used in daily life, guardians of the faith became increasingly concerned about the preservation of the meaning and power of that text. They devised a system of notation that would guide any reader in how to divide sentences and how to set off sections of text from one another, even if the reader could not understand the language itself. This system of cantillation, finalized about 900, has proved remarkably effective and has endured to the present day.

Religious music making also extends outside traditional circles. Jewish families customarily have sung a wide variety of religious songs outside the core of sacred scriptural texts. Such songs may be sung at home for the annual Sabbath observance or to mark annual holidays, particularly the Passover seder service. In synagogues, over the centuries, talented poets and musicians have created a large body of hymns and prayers that extend beyond the canonical books of the Bible. In European communities, an especially gifted singer could assume a leadership role offered by the congregation and star as a solo sacred singer called a hazzan in Hebrew, or cantor in English. From the 19th century to the mid-20th century, both in Europe and among Jewish immigrants in the United States, opera provided an important model for cantorial composition and performance.

A special type of religious singing developed among a subgroup of European Jews who, since about 1800, have stressed ecstatic, often wordless, singing as a way to achieve spiritual transcendence. Called Hasidim, these Jews follow the advice of powerful spiritual leaders and believe that music has special powers to raise a believer's awareness in a quest to approach the Divine.

IV. Jewish Music Today

Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Jewish music making has become more complex�a result of the formation of this nation-state based on Jewish identity that functions alongside the Jewish communities scattered around the world. Increased communication, particularly the increased availability of recordings, has meant that Jews from disparate communities can readily exchange musical influences. Within Israel, two musical trends have developed: an overarching Israeli music, whether symphonic or pop, that is part of the heritage of all Israelis, regardless of their country of origin; and ethnic musics that reflect the influences of the many countries from which Jews have emigrated. Tours by Israeli singers and the export of popular and sacred music recordings disseminate music created in Israel to the rest of the world.

The religious music of each Jewish congregation and community retains its distinctive sound and approach to the performance of sacred text and prayers. Local influences continue to be powerful in defining the sound of Jewish music. In the United States, American popular music is the dominant format in contemporary Jewish religious music. Jewish musicians from every sect draw on early rock music and the 1970s folk-rock sound for inspiration in setting religious texts. For example, in liberal congregations and informal settings such as Jewish summer camps, a modern cantor or song leader may be a young woman who is more familiar with mainstream American music making.

Another important movement has been the recent spread of klezmer bands, which are loosely based on the practice of professional eastern European and immigrant Jewish dance musicians of the early 20th century. Klezmer bands, popular throughout the United States and Europe, developed in the mid-1970s and have grown to employ a wide variety of musical sources, instruments, and approaches. Also, in the 1990s, a substantial Jewish population in Russia began rediscovering its musical tradition after a period of cultural suppression lasting 70 years.

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