Music permeates the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, we read about Jubal, who “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Genesis 4:21). Moses and Miriam sang, as did Deborah, Hannah, and David. The psalmist calls upon all the earth: “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps 96:1). From singing to playing instruments of all kinds, making a joyful noise is ingrained in the Jewish soul since ancient times.
Jewish music might start in the biblical period, but it extends until today. While one might indeed be able to identify a particular Jewish song by its instrumentation or lyrics, the contributions of Jewish people to the world of musical entertainment are as broad, wide, and varied as the artists themselves. Jewish influence crosses all genres and media—from Broadway to radio, rock to reggae, and everything in between.
The Modern Emergence of Jewish Musical Talent
If there were ever a style of music considered to be “Jewish,” it would be klezmer. Klezmer is a Yiddish word formed from two Hebrew words: כְּלִי (k’li), meaning “vessel,” and זָמִיר (zamir), meaning “song.”
As a vessel of song, “klezmer was a term applied to a person, not a style of music. Somewhere along the line, the term klezmer also began to denote the style or repertoire of music that the typical Jewish folk musician played.” Typically including a violin, a bass, and a hammered dulcimer (a stringed instrument), this style of music is often characterized by “a famously expressive clarinet,” which was added later.
Given its mass appeal, the klezmer style found its way into film and classical music. Klezmer roots also appear in Irving Berlin’s 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Later, in 1924, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra revealed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to the world with a famously expressive clarinet. Irving Berlin, whose given name was Israel Isidore Beilin, and George Gershwin, whose real name was Jacob Gershwine, were born at the end of the nineteenth century and were heavily influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment, when new Jewish music began to flourish.
The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were considered the period of the Jewish Enlightenment, called the Haskalah. Restrictive conditions in the ghettos, to which Jewish people in western Europe were confined since the sixteenth century, discouraged and even prohibited traveling Jewish musicians. After this long hiatus, new musical opportunities presented themselves. One scholar describes the development: “The entry, in considerable numbers, of Jewish composers and performers on the musical scene in the middle decades of the nineteenth century was a phenomenon.”
Music on Stage and Screen
The Haskalah era produced many of the names recognized today as some of the most prolific writers of musical theater. This category includes Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rogers, and Leonard Bernstein. Their success and influence were not specifically because they were Jewish. But the Jewish history with which they were raised certainly led to a “ferocious industry and completely new ideas,” the kind to revolutionize Broadway.
Theater was only the beginning, as film became a major outlet for Jewish creativity and provided opportunities for everyone to experience the musical genius of these Jewish creatives. Of the eight major film companies around the turn of the century, six were “essentially Jewish creations, and Jews played a major role in the other two.” In 1954, one of them—Paramount—released a film propelling an Irving Berlin song to the status of best-selling single for Christmas ever.
Although Bing Crosby first performed the song “White Christmas” in 1941 on his radio show, the release of Holiday Inn in 1942 (another Paramount film) and White Christmas solidified its success. Berlin’s father was a cantor and a kosher butcher. Hearing his father sing the Jewish prayers likely impacted young Irving. Yet, as with many other Jewish artists, his craft was never about his Jewish identity.
One of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment was a national pride over one’s country. For Berlin, he was American first, Jewish second. A Jewish composer writing a Christmas song would have been unthinkable otherwise. In 1954, Berlin was asked about how a Jewish person could write a song called “White Christmas.” He responded, “I wrote it as an American.” Yet, according to an ethnomusicologist, even though “he rejected Jewish religious practice, married Protestant and Catholic women, and celebrated Christmas . . . he retained his Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) throughout his life.”
Jewish Impact on Contemporary Music
The 1940s and 50s were tragic decades for Jewish people. The global impact of the loss of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust was devastating. Those who survived it were not the same afterward, and those who were born in the years immediately following did not enter the same world their parents knew as youth.
The shock and horror of the Holocaust led to a generation of Jewish artists like Arlo Guthrie, who would stand against social injustice, racism, and other forms of oppression. Arlo was the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie and Marjorie Greenblatt, a Jewish activist, who herself was the daughter of a Russian-born Jewish poet. Guthrie penned the satirical “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1967. In the song, he appeared to criticize his arrest for improperly disposing of trash, but the song ultimately projected an anti-Vietnam War and anti-authority message:
Reflecting on why “Alice” still connects with new audiences despite its Vietnam War and military draft protest roots, Guthrie cites its timeless theme of questioning authority.
“I’ve remained distrustful of authority for my entire life. I believe it’s one of the great strengths of a democracy, that we take seriously our role as the ultimate
authorities by our interest and our votes. Younger people have always had a rebellious streak. It goes with the territory of growing up.”
Guthrie was not the only Jewish artist to add his or her voice to the movement for social justice. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were two Jewish boys from Queens who got together when they were eleven years old and changed the world with their music. Songs like “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Sound of Silence” can still be heard on some radio stations. Billy Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in 1989, a song describing major events in the twentieth century from the year of Joel’s birth in 1949 to the time of its recording in 1989.
No discussion about Jewish music would be complete without including names like Bette Midler, Idina Menzel, and the incomparable Barbra Streisand. Midler, who grew up in Hawaii, was the “Jewish outsider who learns to act a character and use her lack of civility as a means to be accepted.” Menzel, originally born Idina Mentzel, played Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the Broadway production of Wicked (2003), and went on to voice Queen Elsa in the Disney production of Frozen, Frozen II, and a multitude of related pieces.
Barbra Streisand is possibly the most iconic of all Jewish performers over the past six decades. According to one of her biographers, she “attended [Jewish religious school] on her grandparents’ insistence and had learned to read Hebrew, even though she didn’t understand a word of what she was saying.” Everything from her acting to her music offered her own unique style, and she also embodied and reflected the Jewishness of her time. Another biographer describes her: “She was unapologetically Jewish, and . . . she was proud of her Jewishness. To every misfit across America, male or female, miserable in his or her attempt to fit in with the prevailing social mores and behavior, she sent a very strong message . . . simple and powerful: You are not alone.”
From rap and reggae artists like Matisyahu and Lil Dicky, to rock and pop stars like Leonard Cohen, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Adam Levine, Paula Abdul, and Pink, Jewish men and women have undeniably influenced and are wholly part of today’s modern music scene. There are many more—too many to list here. These talented singers, songwriters, musicians, actors, and performers have brought 150 years of Jewish expression into the homes and hearts of millions. May they continue to bless the world with their music and may their creativity continue to bloom.