Bemoaning the State of Jewish Music

Sometimes worlds collide and no one notices.

Go to a Jewish wedding. And I mean an orthodox wedding. A really frum one. A wedding with big rabbis, black hats, separate seating for men and women; that kind of wedding.

Those weddings are beautiful. They can be.

But sometimes, after the ceremony, after the shmorg, after the salad, after the bride and groom finish their after-the-ceremony-photos, something strange happens. The MC – usually someone from the band – makes the big announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, or Schwartzbaum, or Bloomberg, or whatever.” The new couple enters the hall – it is an exciting moment – and the band launches into the ultimate let’s-welcome-the-new-couple-theme, “The Final Countdown” from the very-eighties Swedish hair band, Europe.


Are you kidding me?

And no one seems to care. I can’t explain it. Ignore the fact that many of the rabbis there – if they knew what they were listening to – would be outraged. It is just weird.

And “The Final Countdown” isn’t the only odd tidbit to make it’s way into a Jewish wedding. I’ve heard “Crazy Train” (Ozzy – Ozzy!), “Sunshine of Your Love” (Cream), “Stairway to Heaven” (really!), “Baker Street” (Gerry Rafferty), “Down Under” (Men at Work), and countless others.

Don’t misunderstand; I love these songs (some of them), I love music, I love rock n roll. But I don’t know, it just seems wrong.

It gets worse, too. Guitars are more dominant in Jewish bands than they used to be. The bands are louder and some bands – especially religious Israeli wedding bands – play a lot of heavy metal. Heavy metal. Think about that. I love heavy metal, too. I love loud guitars. But a Jewish shredfest? Really? At a wedding? Is that kosher?

(I know, who cares, kosher music isn’t that kosher. Much of what passes for Jewish music is indistinguishable from the instrumental sections of Whitney Houston, Earth Wind and Fire, or the worst Broadway has to offer. Or it’s baal teshuvah rock; sensitive soul-searchers singing their hearts out – usually about mitzvahs or getting up in the morning – over a sanitized, watered-down, over-produced version of whatever style of music they grew up with. But I digress.)

I want to be clear. My issue is not halachic. I don’t care what type of music people listen to or dance to or use to celebrate their simchas. I really don’t.

My issue is aesthetic.

Jewish music – post-millennial, modern, contemporary Jewish music – rubs my aesthetic sensibilities the wrong way. I don’t want to hear bands quote dated pop songs at weddings. I don’t want to hear four-on-the-floor disco beats. I don’t want to hear a choir of Hasidic men, or a boys choir, or Broadway-style horn arrangements, or a synth player covering the bass parts. I want to hear something real. Jewish. The Jewish community is a large, living, vibrant – and in many cases insulated – community. It is big enough to produce a music that is distinctly its own.

But it hasn’t and that is odd.

And that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, in the years straddling 1900, the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe produced an original music that was awesome (I know, forgive my Ashkenazi-centric rant, traditional Sephardic music was amazing as well). It was unique. It was rooted in a deep tradition. It was played a specific way. And it took years for a musician to master.

Of course it borrowed from other traditions. No one lives in a vacuum. The Jewish music of yesteryear bears a striking resemblance to other Eastern European folk music. The instrumentation, rhythmic feel, harmonic structure, tonal sense, are similar. They share a common language. And popular culture was influential as well; waltzes and marches played a big role. But by way of inflection, phrasing, and kavana the end result was music that was Jewish. It sounded Jewish. You knew it was Jewish.

And it wasn’t an aping of non-Jewish styles or an attempt to force Jewish themes into a secular idiom. It was a real Jewish music.

But that was a long time ago and that music no longer represents a living community. Times change. Styles – any style; late-seventies hip-hop, eighties hair bands, early Baroque, ragtime, whatever – are a product of a time period, society, culture, and place in history. And as people move, or are forced to move, or innovate, or emigrate, or get educated, or learn new things, their tastes change and styles change, and new musics replace the old. That is true for most music and it happened to the old Jewish music too.

But the Jewish community didn’t disappear. Why no new Jewish music? (Unless you consider boys choirs, Whitney Houston, faux bass, and baal teshuvah rock indigenous Jewish styles.)

Maybe the Jewish community is just empty, or uncreative, or superficial, or vacuous. Maybe. “The Final Countdown” still gets played at weddings.

Or maybe no one cares.

Maybe music is just not a priority. Thinking about music, or learning about it, or worrying about it is not important enough. At least not important enough for enough people to master an instrument or to write new songs or to discover new sounds or to find a better way to say something Jewish.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame because it shows a lack of depth. It shows that excellence may exist in some areas, but it doesn’t permeate the culture. It isn’t a value that is reflected in contemporary Jewish music.

Great societies are not monolithic, greatness oozes from them. They do a lot of great things. And great societies make great music.

Great, original, culture-specific music.

It says a lot about who they are. It shows who they are at their core. It shows that they have internalized the ideals they talk about.

And it shows that our community still has a long way to go.

[*The music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is an obvious exception. Whether or not you like it, it is definitely a unique, distinct Jewish music. Also, I am probably being to harsh on BT rock, it isn’t that bad. Heck, some people would consider my music BT rock!]

About the Author
Tzvi Gluckin is an author and musician. He currently serves as the director of Vechulai, an innovative Jewish think tank located in Boston.