Phonograph records, once dismissed as “canned music,” today hold a high estate—indeed they represent a kind of official canon of…
Phonograph records, once dismissed as “canned music,” today hold a high estate—indeed they represent a kind of official canon of public taste. In this sphere, Jewish music occupies an uncertain position. The best part of Jewish music has never been recorded. Much of what has been recorded is no longer available; whatever is available can be purchased only in a few stores, usually in solidly and traditionally old-style Jewish neighborhoods.
Are we to assume then that Jewish musical tradition has found no foothold among Jews in this country?
The widespread musical activities of temples and Jewish organizations would contradict this. Why then are recordings of Jewish music so meager—and so largely limited as to outlets?
Jewish musical tradition stems from so many different countries, is so variegated, so colored stylistically by the various regions in which it was created, that it has not been profitable under the conditions of mass production to record pieces of Jewish music in their original native forms. Here the record companies have taken the usual way out; most of the Jewish compositions they have recorded represent the most obvious selections from synagogues, Jewish theaters, and social halls. Most of this music consists of watered-down versions of genuine Jewish melodies. Produced with an eye to the widest consumer market, such music has found only a relatively small number of interested customers among American Jews; for, quite rightly, most Jewish music-lovers have felt that what was offered them was not worth serious consideration.
In any case, record companies seem to have concluded that there is no sizable market for Jewish music. They have restricted production and concentrated exclusively on the market provided by the more recent immigrants from Poland and Russia. These do not make very high demands—the process of acculturation keeps most immigrants too busy to cultivate their tastes. And the companies do not even attempt to exploit Jewish recordings for exotic quaintness, as they have done with such other “ethnic” music as the Irish or Italian.
Whenever something is produced in mass—even if only for a relatively small group—a few valuable and genuine items will find their way into the output (often upon the insistence of the performing artists themselves). But these items usually occur accidentally, without plan or purpose. Thus, although the Eastern European mood prevails in the recordings of Jewish music, the musical tradition of the Ashkenazim as a coherent style is completely absent in execution. Needless to say, all performances are strongly influenced by American “arranged” music, and lack the individuality of genuine tradition.
The absence of Palestinian folk songs on records is harder to explain, considering the extent of the Zionist movement in America. But then Zionists have always preferred to talk about, rather than investigate, the content of traditional Jewish art.
In the following survey, which takes in all recordings likely to be available in stores in Jewish neighborhoods or that can be ordered through any dealer directly from the factory, I have attempted to classify records according to type and style. That this attempt can only result in an approximation is largely the fault of the present situation with respect to records. The reader should be aware that the following classifications are by no means exact.
Synagogue music is the most important in the Jewish tradition because it stems, at least in theory, from a background common to all Jews. In American synagogues a distinction must be made between Reform and Orthodox musical practice. Since the hazanim from Eastern Europe show the greatest vocal qualities and an extremely sensitive feeling for style, even the Reform temples have employed them extensively. Thus the hazanim were gradually influenced toward a modification in some degree of their traditional style and toward a partial acceptance of the moderate reform in synagogical music instituted in the g9th century by the great Austrian cantor and composer, Salomon Sulzer.
This reform was the result of the rejection of the concept of Galut nationalism in Jewish art, which involved the sharp separation of Jewish culture from the culture surrounding it. Sulzer also rejected the earlier and more radical Reform tendency to supplant the Eastern synagogical chant with secular German tunes. Sulzer tried to reconcile East and West and his essential achievement was to reshape the traditional cantorial song. (I am not concerned here with his changes in the order of prayer, or with his discarding of the chant to the Pentateuch and other such measures—only with his reorganization of musical style.) True, Sulzer deprived the traditional Eastern song of its native flavor, but it seems doubtful whether it would have survived at all had he not reshaped it melodically according to the requirements of Western classical harmony.
The American hazanim, more closely tied to the East and less proficient musically than Sulzer, have not introduced any conscious reforms. They sing as the occasion and their respective positions require. Always expert in improvisation—which only too often has made them run away with themselves—they have disregarded Sulzer’s veto against such practice and have managed to rescue some of the Eastern flavor without antagonizing the younger and more modern generation.
Hazanim like Zevel Kvartin, Josef Rosenblatt, and Mordecai Hershman were idols of the Jewish America of the 19200’s, more because of their vocal and virtuoso accomplishments than because of the style in which they sang synagogical music. All of them made excursions into operatic fields and none of them was successful there. As hazanim, however, they preserved some features of the traditional melodic line—if, indeed, with a certain lack of taste in phrasing and with the accompaniment of romantic clichés in the harmonies of the instrumental groups that supported them. These features often combined to distort the essence of synagogical music and to direct it toward the false sentimentality of the Al Jolson notion of a cantor.
Of the above-mentioned trio, only the records of Rosenblatt and Hershman are still available; those of Kvartin, who had the best voice of the three and also best followed cantorial style, are all out of print. Both Rosenblatt and Hershman have been recorded by Columbia, and all their discs are worth hearing. Rosenblatt has made two discs: Y’hi Rotzon (8224-F) and Oshamnu Mikol Om and Rachel Mevakeh Al Boneho (8225-F). Hershman is more copiously represented; you can hear him in Tal and Hashem, Hashem, Eli Rachum Vechanum (57050-F), Akavyu Ben Mahlalel Oimer and Habeit Mishomaim Ureh (57050-F), Sh’ma Koleinu and Al Tashlicheinu Lees Ziknoh ( 57052-F), which last are his most genuine renditions. Hershman can also be heard, with organ accompaniment, in Brochos Fun Halel and Modim Anachnu Loch (57053-F), and Aneinu and Halbein Chatoeinu (57054-F). And with orchestral accompaniment, he sings Umipnei Chatoeinu and Ovinu Malkeinu (57055-F), and Misratzeh B’Rachim and Eilu Devorim (57057-F). The last two records are the least genuine and most sentimental of all.
Columbia has also put out a vocal album by Victor Chenkin, under the title “A Victor Chenkin Recital” (M-435), in which several synagogical songs in the style of the hazanim are competently sung, among them the famous Kaddish.
An album produced by Asch and called “Songs of Israel” (610) features Cantor Leibele Waldman in the perennial favorites, Kol Nidre and Eli, Eli. Both songs are typical examples of Western influence, despite their insistence on the minor key and some pseudo-modal harmonic turns. The same Cantor Waldman can also be heard on a recently recorded Disc album entitled “Cantorials” (900), which are more in keeping with the synagogical tradition of the United States, despite a rather pompous and out-of-proportion organ accompaniment.
Among newer releases, the most important is an album by Decca (A-41) in which Moshe Rudinow sings “Traditional Hebrew Prayers” to organ accompaniment. Mr. Rudinow is cantor of New York’s Temple Emanu-El and his selection is most representative of modern synagogue service. His album, featuring compositions by such outstanding Jewish synagogical composers as Sulzer, Louis Lewandowsky, and Joseph Achron, is on a high musical level, for all the music it contains has been either composed or arranged by competent musicians, and Mr. Rudinow himself is a singer of note. Moreover, this Jewish music is translated so completely into Western terms that it begins to constitute a new, separate, and valid phase of Jewish musical tradition. As such, it is definitely preferable to the occasional distortions of such old-style cantors as Rosenblatt and Hershman, who mix Eastern traditional melody with Western elements, but do not integrate them. Mr. Rudinow’s album includes some of the best-known passages from the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur services, among them Kol Nidre, and an excellent example of cantillation on the Pentateuch, in a passage taken from the book of Exodus.
Cantor Jonah Binder is concerned with a special segment of synagogue music in his album “Sabbath Prayers” (Disc 1901). Accompanied by a chorus, the cantor offers a semblance of the Friday night service as one might hear it in most American synagogues of the conservative type. Although neither the presentation nor the music impress the listener as spectacular they will probably be felt as the most coherent and authentic demonstration of Jewish religious life on records. Their average quality gives one the feeling of being at home to a possibly greater degree than some of the other musically superior recordings.
In addition to the commercial recordings, there is also a privately prepared album of twelve sides that was produced last year by the Hebrew Union College on the occasion of its seventieth anniversary. Entitled “Israel Sings,” the album features outstanding items from the Eduard Birnbaum collection, which is in the college’s possession and is composed of scores of a great deal of synagogical music, chiefly in the Ashkenazic manner. Birnbaum himself was a cantor who performed in such German cities as Magdeburg, Beuthen, and Koenigsberg (where he died in 1920). The recordings, distributed directly to collectors by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Cincinnati, have been prepared and supervised by Eric Werner, the college’s music director. They are accompanied by a booklet furnishing explanatory notes. “Israel Sings” is important, yet disappointing. Important, because it demonstrates that the reconstruction of temple singing can be done only by private, institutional agencies and not by commercial companies. The disappointment lies, among other places, in Dr. Werner’s attempt to rearrange the melodies of the original manuscripts in a way alien to their musical essence. One finds this most disturbing in the magnificent Hasidic melody, En Kelohenu, which, although sung with fine feeling by Cantor Emil Rosen, is deprived of much of its power and strength by the tinkling harp accompaniment devised by Dr. Werner. (Incidentally, the performance is one of the crucial factors in the restoration of traditional Jewish music; much needs to be done to remedy the sloppy practices of some of the Hazanim now in America and at the same time to discourage the “modernization” of time-honored melodies.)
“Israel Sings” is, however, superior to commercial recordings in the selection of its material. Although the Ashkenazic influence is prominent throughout, a fair historical picture is also given of the music of Western European Jewry and of the influences that played upon it. Thus here is the monody, Eulogy on the Death of Moses, which was probably composed in the 12th century; another selection shows how the Catholic music of Palestrina influences Salomone Rossi’s Shir-Hama-Alos around the turn of the 16th century; a strange mixture of Handel’s texture with Jewish modality is found in Yishlam Shalem B’Sholom Rav by the early 18th-century Sephardic composer, Abraham di Caceres; while the influence of Italian opera even affects the Lithuanian cantor, Nissi Beltzer, in his Lo Omus, composed in 1824; and the influence of Mendelssohn and the German Romantics, so decisive in 19th-century Ashkenazic music, appears in Abraham J. Lichtenstein’s Ma God’Lu Ma-Asecho Adonoi. This constant succession of external influences that often reached the point of obliterating native Jewish idiom symbolizes the tragedy of the Jew who, in attempting to integrate himself in Western culture, often surrendered his own identity.
By and large the performances in “Israel Sings” are by competent people—Frederick Lechner, who alternates between the Central Synagogue of New York and the Metropolitan Opera; Pearl Besuner, also of the Metropolitan; Cantor Abraham Shapiro, and others. Less satisfactory is the chorus, which tends to emphasize the middle voices over the upper and lower parts in Rossi’s composition. As for the program booklet, it says little that is relevant to the music, besides being incorrect in its oversimplifications—to say that “the Roman plain-song came out of Palestine” is a vulgarization of historial facts.
It is a pity on the whole that this album is not more authentic than it is. Private institutions might realize that if they are to compete with commercial companies, they can do so only by featuring better performances and better music—not by surpassing the commercial companies in errors of taste. Yet despite all these reservations, one recommends “Israel Sings” as practically the only existing approximation of a historical survey of synagogue music.
Some of the synagogical melodies have become quite popular outside of Jewish circles, and have been adopted by secular singers and salon orchestras of all kinds. They are presented in hybrid forms, in arrangements that accept only the melodic structures and cramp these into the clichés of the fireside ballads of the 80’s. None of these last can actually be considered Jewish music, and I mention them here only for the sake of completeness and to point out the difference between these products and the genuine cantorial approach.
Thus there are the two songs that non-Jews and many Jews, too, consider “representative” Jewish music—Kol Nidre and Eli, Eli. The latter is played by the Boston “Pops” Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler, coupled with Rachem on a Victor disc (12536); and it can also be heard on two Decca records, one performed by the Decca Salon Orchestra (3023), and the other by Fred Waring’s Glee Club and Orchestra (29120). Eli, Eli is also on a Columbia disc (257-M) played by the Sandler Trio and coupled with Kol Nidre, which can be heard on a Decca record too (5046) played by the Decca Salon Orchestra, and on a Victor record (DM-680) played by the cellist Pablo Casals, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Landon Ronald. The last is a beautiful performance, but can hardly be called Jewish music.
In his excellent book, Music of the Ghetto and Bible, Lazare Saminsky carefully describes the differences between Hebrew and Judaic music. Saminsky writes: “The Judaic type is grounded in the sharply rhythmic and ultra-expressive, orientalized idiom showing an abundance of borrowed and neutralized traits. The Hebrew order is rooted in the traditional religious melos with its rich and calm ornamental recitative, with its fine major turns so characteristic of the old synagogual song.” Accepting Saminsky’s definition, we find two types of genuine Judaic music: the Hasidic song and dance, and the folk song. Very little of this music has been recorded, but what has gone down on discs is less falsified than synagogue music. True, in the modem polished interpretation, a great deal of the primitive ecstatic quality and mysticism of the “Dybbuk” atmosphere has been lost. But at least a considerable part of the essential musical structure has been preserved.
Among recorded Hasidic music I consider Decca’s album, “Traditional Hebrew Melodies” (104), most genuine and representative. Irving Schlein, a capable musician wellversed in Jewish music, conducts the Hebrew Folklore Sinfonietta in Reb Schmuel’s Chassidic Nigun and Reb Schmuel’s Nigun, Arabian Nigun and Dance, Unser Rebenu, the Dance of Reb Meyer, and M’lavah Malkoh. Unfortunately, the music is presented instrumentally—not only in the dances, but also in the songs, whose true nature is thereby distorted, for they are intended for the voice alone. On the other hand, they could have been executed authentically only by Hasidim. Consequently, the album—which also contains some folk songs to be discussed below—is about the best possible under the circumstances.
Less musical, but quite adequate in spirit, is the rendition of Ch’sidishe Nigun by the Boibriker Kapelle on a Columbia disc (8221-F). Several items of the “Victor Chenkin Recital” (Columbia M-435) could fall into this category: Freilachs, Der Rebbe Elimelech and Sha . . . Stil! Mr. Chenkin’s rendition is too artful, however, to give any valid notion of the intention of Hasidic music.
As for folk music, I wish to mention here only those items that are on a higher musical level and that are still alive today in Jewish communal life, without having been more or less artificially introduced by commercial interests, or the Jewish theater and cabaret. In this category fall mainly Eastern European and Palestinian songs. The subject matter of the first runs the whole gamut of human emotions—most notably those connected with love and children (for example, lullabies)—while the Palestinian songs are preoccupied with the daily activities of the community.
Musically, the Eastern folk song, like the Hasidic song, stems from the 18th and 19th centuries. Rhythmically rich, it depends partly on vocalization and free improvisation, and only seldom does it imply any harmonic consequences, be they modal or Western. When recorded, these songs are performed generally in modernized arrangements; this costs them a great deal of their flavor, especially when they are rendered by instruments that adhere to a strict score instead of by the free voice with its limitless register of expression. Instrumental performances of Jewish folk songs are given by the Hebrew Folklore Sinfonietta in the Decca album of “Traditional Hebrew Melodies” (104). The album includes two lullabies: Schluf, mein Feigele and Ai-le, lu-le, Feigele, and two love songs: Her nur di schein maidele and Du soloist nicht gehn.
A more genuine performance can be found in Jan Bart’s, vocal rendition of Zmiros and Hatzlicho No (Columbia 8229-F) and Mein Teiere and Amcho (Columbia 8230-F). The tenor is accompanied by Sholem Secunda’s Orchestra and manages to convey a fairly authentic impression of the music.
The modem Palestinian folk song is a hybrid and tries rather self-consciously to become the expression of a national attitude. It derives a great deal of its melodic material from the Yemenite-Arab folk songs, but its basic texture adheres to late g9th-century Western music. A few of these Palestinian songs are to be found in the Asch album of “Jewish Folk Songs” (608), which happens to be one of the finest releases in this field, thanks to the stylistically sensitive performance of singer Ruth Rubin, and despite some rather unprofessional arrangements for the accompanying instruments by Gertrud Rady. This album also contains a few Eastern songs, as does the Asch album, “Traditional Jewish Folk Songs and Dances” (40000), which, however, is rather trite in both selection and performance. Disc’s album of “Hebrew and Palestinian Folk Melodies” (902) contrasts some of the older Jewish folk tunes with some material that is dressed up in a comparatively modem cloak. None of this is very authentic, mainly because of its performance by a string quartet, the sonority of which is rather incongruous with the melodic material of the Havdolo or the original texture of a Chassidic Dance.
The national anthem, Hatikvah, also belongs in the category of the modem Palestinian folk song. Although the melody is definitely Western-Slavic, Naphtali Herz Imber’s lyrics and Jewish history of the past fifty years have made it part and parcel of the Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, it is available only in a poor rendition by the Decca Salon Orchestra (3023).
One step below folk music on the aesthetic ladder is Jewish entertainment music. This can roughly be divided into the music of the badchonim and that of the klezmorim. The distinction is a formal rather than an aesthetic one. Badchonim music appeals mainly through the emotional impact of its lyrics, while the music of the klezmorim is rhythmical dance music and serves almost exclusively to provide accompaniment to Jewish festivities such as Simchas Torah, Purim, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and so forth. None of this music should be confused with Hasidic music, which comes directly from the orbit of piety. Despite the fact that it implores God frequently and has borrowed considerably from both synagogical and Hasidic material, Jewish entertainment music is thoroughly secular.
The tradition of the badchonim is as old as that of Israel. They were the folksingers who earned their livings as minstrels wandering from festivity to festivity in Jewish communities. They were the earliest commercial entrepreneurs in the field of Jewish music, not because they accepted payment for their musical services—the hazanim did that too—but because their functions were determined by economic and not by religious factors. Nor were their activities limited to music alone. They were also jesters, performers, masters of ceremony, jacks-of-all-trades. In the past they embodied the liveliest and most kaleidoscopic elements of Jewish life and folklore, combining in their art, humor, anecdotes, the Purim play, philosophy, religious and secular music—all that made up the old Jewish cultural life.
Nor was the subject matter of their songs always gay and lively. From the peculiar, historically determined mixture of Jewish gaiety, satire, tears with laughter, and deep tristesse and homelessness, they evolved a style in which it was not uncommon to jump abruptly from deepest despair to boundless hilarity, from frivolity to profoundly felt sentiment. Always in need of money, the badchonim remained in close contact with their audiences and reflected popular cultural needs in all their activities. When the Jewish theater developed from the Purim play in the early 18th century, it became the very nerve center of the existence of the badchonim, and the remnants of their art can still be found in modified form on the Jewish stage.
Since they depended so much upon popular support, those badchonim who failed to find professional employment on the modem stage had to adapt their art to the showmanship and the vaudeville technique of the cabaret or operetta theater. Most of the contemporary badchonim have succumbed completely to this combination of pressures, and their performances have become a strange mixture of Eastern folk tune, musical revue double-entendre, Tin Pan Alley cliché, frivolity, and maudlin sentimentality. Their songs deal mostly with “romance” in the style of the American popular song and the lyrics do not stop short of that unabashed suggestiveness that the late Ring Lardner inveighed against.
Nevertheless—or precisely because of this—the music of the badchonim is the type of Jewish music that enjoys the greatest popularity in this country—a fact borne out by the great amount of recorded badchonim music. None of it is actually representative of Jewish folklore as it flourished in Eastern Europe before World War I, but it does reflect the state of mind of the immigrant in America who knows Broadway though he has never found his way beyond Second Avenue.
Quality varies greatly among the performers of badchonim music. Most entertaining and versatile of those I have heard on records are Aaron Lebedeff and Seymour Rechtzeit. Lebedeff records for Columbia, and among his better discs are Roumania, Roumania and Das Oibershte fun Shtoisel (8226-F), Skrip Klezmerl, Skrip and Az Men Farzucht, Un S’Is Gut (8227-F), I’m Crazy for She and Tzen Kopikes Hob Ich (8231-F), and Odessa Mama and Yach Tshiri Bim (8233 -F). Seymour Rechtzeit has made some good records for Columbia, among them Azoy Vi Du Bist and Chasene Lied (8233-F), and Abisel Friher and Hartz Meins (8234-F). I have not heard his Victor recordings, but several of their titles are Ich Sing, Belz, Dem Nayen Sher, Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb and Der Yiddisher Nigun.
Cantor Mordecai Hershman has also recorded some badchon music for Columbia, but his efforts in this field sound artificial and tortured. He is heard to better advantage in synagogue music. Among the discs he has made are A Postuchel and Der Yid in Beth Hamedresh ( 57057-F) and V’Yo VYo Ferdelach and Die Negidim un die Kabzonim (57057-F). The latter song would be an exceptional example of Jewish folklore were its performance less strained.
Among lesser known performers are the once prominent Isa Kremer, who renders A Maseh and Gei Ich Mir Shpazieren on Columbia (8228-F), and a group of singers who have turned out an album of “Jewish Folk Songs” for Asch (604) that contains some of the most popular items of this type. Miss Kremer has also recorded several Yiddish songs with a discernible Rumanian folk influence, adding to it some of her acquired American-style glamor. Two of the three records produced by Seva have on one side badchon music and on the other synagogical melodies, which, however, in the popular rendition of Miss Kremer, impress the listener more as part of the “kontzert” that follows a show in the Yiddish theatre than as part of a genuine temple service. The records are Di Mahatonim and Hazliho-No (J. M. 700/I), A Maydl in di Johren and Rabaynu Tam (J. M. 700/1), and A Wieglid and Der Reite Prisiv (J. M. 702). However, none of these recordings is anything but average in quality.
Victor has good performers in the Bagelman sisters, who handle their material with vivacity and intelligence. Their records are Shloimele Malkele and Oy Mama and Der Alter Zigeuner.
What distinguishes all these songs from the average Tin Pan Alley product is their affinity with Eastern and Jewish melos and a certain absence of skill and polish in their execution. But their basic aesthetic function has approached that of the American hit song very closely and there have been several cases in which they penetrated this field and made the grade, not only as Jewish, but as American best-sellers. For Tin Pan Alley, the melos of badchon music has always exercised the charm of the exotic, and it has been frequently imitated by Gentile performers. To some extent it has played the same court-jesting role as Negro music.
Naturally, all the successful examples of this hybrid type have been recorded repeatedly and are available in many versions. There is neither space nor justification for listing them here. For a comparison with the more genuine badchon music, one can listen to such hits as Bei Mir Bist Du Shein, Yes My Darling Daughter, Cab Calloway’s Ot Azoy Sugt Der Tailor, and the Yiddishe Rumba.
The history of the klezmorim closely parallels that of the badchonim. However, being instrumentalists exclusively, they were not necessarily bound to religious ritual or Jewish subject matter in their art. Consequently, their affinity with the surrounding culture in Eastern Europe was stronger and their ties to it were expressed in such ways as performances at peasant weddings and so forth. Furthermore, since they did not find any permanent foothold in the theater, the klezmorim remained wandering musicians even during the more stable days of Jewish culture in the g9th century. Their music shows two main traits: a close affinity with Eastern European and Slavic melody (some authorities even claim that all Jewish music has been affected by Eastern influences by way of the klezmorim) and a relatively pure and authentically preserved style of performance that was only slightly altered by the change from ancient to more modern instruments.
In the light of the present state of klezmor music, it is not surprising that it frequently resembles Eastern folk tunes or the compositions that have incorporated Eastern folk tunes in a Western symphonic edifice. Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsodies often sound very much like Jewish music and the hora, now a Palestinian national dance, is said to be of definitely Rumanian origin. The dividing line is hard to draw here. However, since both Jewish and Eastern styles have interpenetrated so intimately, it is natural enough to accept the music played by small Jewish orchestras in this country as genuine klezmor music, no matter how strong the Eastern European influence may be.
The audience for the klezmorim in America is sharply confined to the immigrant families who cling to the old ways, and the number of klezmorim is small, and their skill inferior; consequently, the amount of music recorded by them hardly allows for any adequate representation. The best among the recorded items is the album played for Decca by Al Glaser’s Bucovinaer Kapelle and entitled “Jewish Folk Dances” (1003). Some of the music presented here derives from the Hasidic orbit—in any case there is no definite borderline between the two spheres—and it is all dance music. The featured solo instruments are the violin and the clarinet, which is in keeping with Magyar and Rumanian folk tradition. The album contains representative specimens of almost all popular Jewish dances, such as the hora, the freilach, and the doina. The Rumanian melodic influence is obvious, but there are also Bulgarian and Russian dances in the album.
On the Columbia list two commendable records are to be found. One is the rendition by Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra of Bulgar Ala Naftule and Hore Mit Tzibeles (82z9-F), and the other is a disc that features clarinetist Dave Tarras—also to be heard with the Bucovinaer Kapelle in the Decca album—against an orchestral background, in two Rumanian dances entitled A Rumenisher Nigun and Rumenishe Doina (8220-F).
Decca’s single “Medley of Hebrew Dances” (1589) is too elegant to be genuine.
Once outside the field of Jewish tradition proper, one is faced with the vast amount of music written by Jewish composers who have incorporated Jewish material into work that otherwise belongs completely to Western tradition. I have not listed the music of any of these composers, not only because it would take too much space, but also because none of these instances of Jewish incorporation or inflection represents anything but the intermittent or sudden consciousness on the part of a Westernized Jew of his heritage. Many of these compositions—and the list would include items by Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Goldmark, Halévy, Bruch, and others—constitute valuable and, in frequent cases, absolute contributions to Western music. But they mean little to Jewish music proper.
However, there is a field of endeavor which, while clearly dependent upon the evolution of Western music, attempts in its subject matter and choice’ of material to create a new tradition of Jewish art music. Here are found composers like Bloch and Achron—to mention only two of the most prominent. Whatever of their music has been recorded is universally available, because, though striving toward a Jewish tradition, it has found favor with the general public as well.
The best artist in this category is doubtless Ernst Bloch, who is represented on the phonograph by three excellently recorded and well performed works: Abodah, which is coupled with Ravel’s setting of Kaddisch, and played by Yehudi Menuhin (Victor 15887); Schelomo, performed by the cellist Emmanuel Feuermann and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski (Victor DM-698); and the superb performance by Szigeti and Foldes of Baal Shem (Columbia X-188), which is intended as tonal description of the life of the Hasidim.
Only one of Joseph Achron’s works has been recorded, and it is his most popular composition, the Hebrew Melody, performed by Jascha Heifetz (Victor 6695). A rendition of this tune by Mischa Elman was released by Victor in April of this year (under the label 11-9111).
Finally there is Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah (Victor DM-0026), which is on the borderline between American and Jewish music.
Among the non-Jewish composers who have used Jewish material in its more or less original form, Serge Prokofieff is probably best known. His Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34 (Disc 4020) was written during the composer’s stay in the United States—as the blurb indicates, while living in the Bronx. This may have influenced the composer towards the use of the material but it hardly helped him to create any Jewish art music, which in all probability was hardly his intention. Thus the Overture remains but an interesting Prokofieff work and is devoid of the Jewish flavor which both Bloch and Achron understood.
This is but a meager list when one realizes how much favor Jewish art music has found with the general public. Certainly, a complete recording of Ravel’s Chants hebraiques, from which the above-mentioned Kaddisch was taken, and which may be disputable as Jewish but definitely not as great music; a disc version of some of the stage music by Achron; and a recording of excerpts from Ludovico Rocca’s opera Dybbuk are all well worth making—not to mention many works by other, lesser known but no less expert, Jewish art composers.
But lacking even more are recordings of the contemporary effort to create a revival of Jewish synagogue and oratorio music—especially since this movement has gained such a firm foothold in modern American synagogues. The music of composers like Lazare Saminsky, Isadore Freed, Abraham W. Binder, Gershon Ephros, and many others should find its way onto records; it indeed deserves wider circulation.
What is needed most of all, however, is a large collection of records, something like the French Anthologie sonore, that would preserve the most important monuments of Jewish music of all categories and all periods in the manner of a historical survey—and in genuine, competent, and adequately recorded performances. Such an enterprise would probably require cooperative non-commercial backing. Nevertheless, it is an imperative task. Only then will a standard be provided by which the present and future generations will be able to assess the works of composers who endeavor to continue the Jewish tradition of music.
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The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.