Vibe of the Tribe: What is Jewish Music? An In-Depth Look by Elliot Dvorin

Ever since I was a young child, I was immersed in a culture of music – Jewish music in particular. I was born into a musical family. Both of my grandfathers were bandleaders. My father also had a band of his own and performed at simchas and other events. This is where I first learned the ropes. So for my Bar-Mitzvah instead of learning about the weekly Torah portion, I decided to research Jewish music to figure out what it is exactly and where it came from. Here is what I found.

Definition of Jewish Music

It is very difficult to define exactly what Jewish music is, but the following definition seems to fit as well as any: As defined by Curt Sachs, in his opening lecture to the First International Congress of Jewish Music in Paris in 1957, “Jewish music is that music which is made by Jews, for Jews as Jews”. Since this definition is rather broad in scope, it would therefore follow that Jewish music is as varied as the types of Jews themselves.

First Biblical References

Jewish music dates back and stems from the Bible where instruments such as the “navel, kinnor, ugav, shalish, tziltzel, m’tziltayim, chalil, tupim, and chulot” were played in praise of God. These are loosely translated and thought of today as drums, cymbals, triangle, horns, trumpets, and various string instruments including the lyre or harp. There are approximately 19 musical instruments mentioned and identified in the Tanach.

The very first mention of music or musical instruments in the Torah is found in Parshat Bereishit, Chapter 4, Verse 21, where the kinnor and ugav, the harp and the flute, were mentioned.

The first mention of musical instruments being played in the Torah is found in Parshat Vayeitzei, Chapter 31, Verse 27 where Laban tells Jacob: “I would have sent you away with joy and song, drum and harp…”

In the Book of Prophets, David’s contribution to the dimension of Jewish music prior to his becoming king is well documented. He played the kinnor, the lyre or harp, and sang during the reign of Saul as king over Israel.

Music in the Temple Service

Up until the 1st century, Jewish spiritual and musical life centered around the city of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the Holy Temple was the center of Jewish life for centuries. In the Temple, the Levites performed sophisticated music as described in the Torah.

Because of the defeat of the Jews at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD, which dispersed Jews all over the world, an actual core of Jewish music common to all communities does not exist. Jews and Jewish music as a result, were heavily influenced by the differing languages they spoke in different countries, the various cultures to which they were exposed, and the traditions that were created in living apart from one another.

Music in the Synagogue

The destruction of the second Temple led to major changes in the treatment of music in Jewish life. No longer were Levites charged with the responsibility of choral obligations nor were instruments permitted from that point on during a prayer service.

As animal sacrifice was no longer possible because of the destruction of the Temple, prayers were used to take its place. The use of prayer in the place of sacrifices became “avodah she-ba-lev”, a service of the heart. Music too, was transferred from the Temple and found its new home in the prayer services of the synagogue, but only vocally. The strong human element in synagogue music made its appearance without the use of instruments.

Music in the Diaspora

The period between 1500 and 1800 was a time of forced migration for the Jews. The expulsion of large communities left its imprint on Jewish music by moving Jews, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic, eastward along with their musical influences.

Yiddish made up much of the music composed in the Eastern European Jewish communities. Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and old Spanish, had the same impact on Jews of Sephardic communities.

Content of Jewish Music

Throughout the years and especially throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish music was of the following types or showed remnants of many of the following: the Hebrew alphabet, excerpts from the Tanach, Jewish lullabies, love songs, wedding songs, children’s songs and poetry put to music.

While Jewish music has a foundation of common thought, philosophy, or belief, the melody portion often differs completely in style, rhythm, and sound. German Jewish music can sound very German and Yemenite music can sound very Yemenite, and the two may be as different as music from opera to hard rock.

Nigunim

Eastern Europe produced a way of life called Hasidism with its own customs, beliefs, and its own style of music. Since the early 18th century, wordless melodies called “nigunim” were composed in order to raise the level of spirituality among the Hasidic followers. Singing, in general, for the Hasidim, was, and still is, considered an important element in their way of life as an important step in approaching God with joy and gladness.

The founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, was a strong believer in the use of the Jewish melodies or “nigunim” as a means of raising spirituality. Many Hasidic tunes are credited to the Baal Shem Tov himself. Upon his death in 1760, his students and followers met to keep alive many of his traditions including his musical contributions.

And aside from Hasidim, in European communities in the last two or three centuries extending through the present time, an especially gifted Chazzan, or cantor, could assume a leadership role in the synagogue.

Klezmer

Outside of the synagogue, Klezmer music, a type of Jewish folk music, played an important role in Jewish music in the European shtetls, the small towns and villages in the European communities. This type of music featured the cry of the strings of a fiddle and the whining of the clarinet. These instruments, along with others, were known by their Hebrew names, “Klay Zemer” which was the basis and origin for the Yiddish term, “Klayz-Mer” or what we know today as the music of “Klezmer”.

Klezmer bands are today making something of a comeback, playing to audiences who remember the original Klezmer bands back in their native European homes and to those who are discovering the sound of Klezmer for the first time.

Music in the Jewish Home

And of course, Jewish music has long played an important role in the home rituals of Jews. This includes the Zemirot, or liturgical songs sung around the Shabbat table, the songs found in the Passover Seder, as well as songs found in the prayers sung on Jewish Holidays. Today, the various melodies used for certain prayers or blessings concerning Jewish rituals are so fundamental, that they are regularly used as common practice all over the world. Such rituals, for example, include Kiddush, the blessing recited on Friday night sanctifying the Sabbath, the Bentching, or Grace after Meals, and the blessings for lighting the Menorah during Hanukkah.

Music at a Jewish Wedding

The instrumental function of Jewish music found its natural place within Jewish ritual and heritage through wedding music since this was considered something of a religious obligation. There are many Aggadot, or tales, in the Talmud which talk about being “m’sameach Chatan v’Kallah”, making happy a bride and groom at their wedding. There are also many examples of the flute being played before the bridal couple at their wedding.

Jewish Music and the Creation of the State of Israel

Jewish music-making has become more complex since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Because of increased communication among Jews scattered all over the world, for the first time in recent Jewish history, Jews can easily exchange musical influences. With the availability of musical recordings, there has been more of a mixing of cultures and the creation of an identifiable type of music, which we call modern Israeli. Tours by Israeli singers and the Hasidic music coming out of Israel have been part of Israel’s successful export of Jewish music to Jews all over the world.

Carlebach’s Contribution to Modern Jewish Music

But it is impossible to speak about modern Jewish music without first mentioning the name of one particular man. One of the earliest pioneers, if not the first, in the field of modern Hebrew songwriting and composing was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He was the premier driving force in taking Hebrew verses and putting them to memorable, popular, and ageless melodies. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, composer and singer, born in Berlin, Germany, came to the United States at the age of 13 and studied at Mesivta Torah V’Daat and Columbia University.

In his songs, he created a Hasidic style of traditional nigunim combined with Israeli song as well as the American folksong style of the 1960s. He also was one of the first Jewish performers to accompany himself on the guitar.

Carlebach’s recordings and tours in the United States and Israel were popular with both religious and secular audiences. His countless songs, tunes, and melodies have become embedded in the hearts and souls of Jews everywhere. His influence on Jewish music has been so dynamic, that people readily recognize his songs as a natural part of our Jewish heritage and culture, often without even knowing that Reb Shlomo had composed them. In recent years, a Friday night prayer service referred to as a “Carlebach Minyan” has become very popular, which has congregations singing Carlebach’s melodies out loud, in unison, and in a lively manner. All modern Jewish songwriters and performers have Shlomo Carlebach to thank for paving the way to their successes through his immeasurable success. Carlebach died in 1994 at the age of 69.

Jewish Music in Chicago

On a more personal note, it is impossible to speak about Jewish music specifically in Chicago without mentioning the name of the real force and pioneer behind Chicago Jewish simcha music, my grandfather, Arnold Miller, of blessed memory.

For years and years, and for thousands of weddings, when making wedding plans and booking a band, there was only one phone call to make: that was to Arnold Miller. My Zaide Arnold single-handedly created the sound of Jewish simcha music in Chicago. In Chicago, there was only Arnold Miller. There is hardly a family who celebrated a simcha in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s who never heard of my Zaide Arnold. I feel honored to carry on the legacy that was my Zaide’s, and to have been blessed with his same love and dedication to the world of Jewish music.

2 Comments

  1. Francie Schneider July 21, 2017 at 7:33 am - Reply

    Zadie Arnold played at our wedding 43 years ago. You played at our son’s wedding 3 years ago. I wonder who will play at our grandchildren’ weddings?

  2. Sheri Goldstein July 28, 2017 at 5:30 am - Reply

    Elik, What a lovely triibute to both Jewish music and your grandfather, Arnold. LIving in harmony takes practice and repetition and tenacity, traits that foster positivity and ultimately bring joy. The four part harmony of your group shows that you listen to each other, that you keep in time, and that you live in the moment. Thank you for posting this and sharing your talent and philosophy. Best, Sheri Goldstein

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