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It's Music, But Is It Jewish?
By Seth Yisra'el Lutnick
A while back I was driving along the Jerusalem highway scanning the radio stations. On one frequency, a very intense dance beat was exploding out of the speakers. I was about to move the dial some more in search of a Jewish tune when the vocalist started in. Shock of shocks, he was a heavily Hassidic singer, complete with eastern European pronunciation. And what was he singing? "Kumee oy'ree ki va oy-reich.." from 16th century Rabbi Shlomo Alkavetz' classic Sabbath poem, L'cha Dodi. Before he had began his rendition I had been expecting something like "Oh baby, the way you move with me ..."!
I had to ask the old question, "Is this good for the Jews?" And I had to give the old answer, "Does hair grow on the palm of your hand?"
Of course it's not good for the Jews, I felt. Poor, unfortunate L'cha Dodi, dragged from the fields of Tsfat on the Sabbath eve and infected with Saturday Night Fever! Lovingly done by a Hassid, no less!
Speaking of Tsfat, I recall meandering about their Klezmer festival once and hearing a contemporary setting of Psalm 126. It was to a funk rhythm, and the words did not fit. The singer had to split words in two, which rendered them more or less meaningless. Good for the Jews? Nah.
What bothered me about this so-called Jewish music? To put it briefly, besides the words, it just wasn't. It was dance, trance, shmantz. It was hip, driving, suggestive. If this music was asked where it wanted to play, the synagogue or the sin-skin club, the answer was clear. If Jewish music is to be defined as such, it must have authentic Jewish roots. And so much contemporary music simply does not. Where was the source of this tradition? Nowhere. That's what bothered me.
But, as Tevye reminds us, there's another hand. After all, go listen to classic Hassidic nigunim (melodies). Then go listen to Russian folk songs. Eerie, no? Weren't those folk songs the "dance" of their day?
Even stronger, go watch the religious kids. They love contemporary popular music and all its villains. What these new Jewish groups do is take what's hip and put Jewish content into it. Isn't that what the original Hassidic nigunim were all about? If we don't want to lose our young people in the culture war, we have to compete. Didn't Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch bring the choral works of Lewandowsky and Japhet in to the synagogue service, even though they were completely in the style of the German composers of the age, such as Schubert and Mendelssohn (he needs an asterisk because he was halakhically Jewish)? So maybe I should not only calm down, I should applaud this phenomenon.
Hold on. We're both right, I believe. Here's how I reconcile the difference, and my earnest appeal to all who create Jewish music. The most important thing is to ask, "To be or not to be?" That is the question.
Every song has a purpose, a message. It can be joy, faith, pensiveness, determination, anything. The message is in the melody and rhythm, which create the atmosphere. It's in the text, which gives articulation to the message. And it's in the performance, which makes the message personal between the performer and the listener. If the message is congruent, if the music and the lyrics are a perfect union that inspires the performer, then you have a great piece of music. If the message is mixed, if there's a battle going on between the rhythm and the words, then we are troubled. That was why that "kumee oy'ree" was so absolutely awful. It was a mixed message of licentious music with holy texts.
We love to set verses from the liturgy to music, and that's wonderful. Composers have a special responsibility to make sure that the music conveys the message and colors the words with deeper meanings. Do that, and I'm fascinated, I'm inspired, even if it's a contemporary style.
But be very, very careful with verses. We tend to ask, "Do you think Adon Olam goes to this?", when we would do better to ask, "What is this melody saying?". If it says Adon Olam, good. If it does not, then WRITE YOUR OWN WORDS. To keep with the idea of message, if you have a great tune that can say something worthwhile (something human and real, not negative or immodest), say it your way. That satisfies.
The foundation of Jewish music has always been expressing what's in our hearts as a prayer to God. That expression must be congruent, pure, sincere. There is room in the Jewish music world for great innovation, if it comes from our hearts, not from the charts.