Jewish Music - An Overview
By Moshe Denburg
Table of Contents
The following brief overview of Jewish Music forms part of a World Music curriculum unit which was created by the author in tandem with the Learning Resource Center of the Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, Canada. The author welcomes comments and queries from all interested readers, in the hopes of expanding upon the ideas put forward here (please mail to our Tzimmes address.). These materials also serve as a springboard for a Tzimmes workshop entitled The Many Faces of Jewish Music.
The Jewish people and their music have their roots in the Middle East, specifically in the land of Israel, and their branches everywhere. They have lived, for over 2000 years, amongst many cultures, both Eastern and Western - from Iran to Israel, to the Western Mediterranean and North Africa, to Europe, and most recently, the Americas.
Thus, there is a unique property of Jewish music that defies geographical location. This property can be called inter-cultural synthesis.
For millenia, Jews have been global wanderers; from the beginning of the common era, about 2000 years ago, until quite recently, they have lived amidst many cultures not their own. To preserve their identity, in a sea of foreign culture, Jewish people have always deemed it wiser to incorporate foreign cultural elements into the Jewish mainstream than to resist all outer influence absolutely.
Thus, to a large degree, Jewish Music is a cross-cultural phenomenon, the music of the wanderer. Undoubtedly, certain Jewish ritual musical forms have their sources in antiquity, but the idea of creative adaptation has been a hallmark of Jewish musical life for a very long time; thus, Jewish Music has many faces.
The Middle Eastern Context
To place Jewish Music in its root context, a brief outline of Middle Eastern Music follows.
Music of the Middle East generally belongs to the modal, or melodic traditions of music. Here harmony, as it has been practiced in the Western World, is not emphasized. Rather, melodic intricacy and ornamentation, including 1/4 tones, and rigorous rhythmic development - these are the salient features. It should be noted that today, in popular forms, Western style harmony can also be heard; but the source traditions of music have rarely borrowed Western harmony.
The functions of music in the Middle East can be described as follows:
The Three Streams of Jewish Music
We can describe Jewish Music as having three distinct streams. One is the Ashkenazi, or Western stream. This includes Klezmer, and is music originating in Eastern Europe and extending to the rest of Europe and the Americas.
The second stream is the Sephardi, which refers to Mediterranean cultural sources, including Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey.
The third stream is the Mizrahi, literally Eastern, and refers to the music of Jewish people who resided over the centuries amidst Arabic cultures.
Of course these three streams are not completely separate, but do in fact intersect in many places (see diagram 1 below).
Diagram 1. The Three Streams of Jewish Music View
The music that originated in Eastern Europe (the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, among others) and moved westward and northward throughout Europe and later into North America, belongs to the Ashkenazi tradition. It includes Klezmer music. 'Klezmer' means 'instruments of song', from the Hebrew words 'klei zemer'. It has come to denote the musician himself, thus incorporating a point of view that regards the musician as the vehicle or instrument of a higher source. 'Ashkenazi' refers to Jews who in the 9th century began to settle along the banks of the Rhine. Since these Jews are the forebears of much of European and Western Jewry, 'Ashkenazi' today refers to Jewish people of the Western World, or even more to the point, Jews of a Western cultural orientation.
Other than Hebrew - the tongue of the Bible - the language of speech and song is mainly Yiddish (Judeo-German); nowadays, English and other local languages have come to play a large role in Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi stream.
Yiddish - Beginning as an offshoot of Medieval German in the 10th century, Yiddish developed as a unique hybrid of German, Hebrew, and whatever other languages Jewish people spoke in the various countries where they dwelled. Thus, there are Slavic, Polish, and many other words in Yiddish.
This stream refers to music that originated around the Mediterranean, from Spain and North Africa to Turkey and Greece. 'Sephardi' literally means Spanish, and alludes to the fact that until the Spanish expulsion of all non-Christians in 1492, a very fruitful Jewish culture existed in Spain; when these Jewish communities were expelled they migrated to places all around the Mediterranean basin - Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, etc. They took with them a 15th century version of Spanish called Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Much musical repertoire is in this language. The interaction between these peoples and the communities in the countries where they lived, gave rise to a cultural expression that incorporates many melodic and rhythmic elements of the Mediterranean.
Ladino - Ladino is a form of Spanish, ca. 15th century, which emigrated with the Jewish people upon their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Over the centuries it has integrated many Hebrew words as well as words from the various tongues spoken where these Jews made their homes.
The music of Eastern Jews, from the Eastern Mediterranean and eastward into Asia can be designated as the Mizrahi stream of Jewish Music. 'Mizrahi' literally means 'Eastern'; this music is the child of the interaction between Jewish people and the cultures of Arabia, Turkey, and Persia. Generally, this encompasses the following countries: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and as far east as India. In song, the main language used is Hebrew; local languages have also been used, most notably, Arabic.
Sephardi and Mizrahi Differentiated
In current parlance the terms Sephardi and Mizrahi are often used interchangeably. The reasons for this are as follows: firstly, so many Jews who lived around the Mediterranean (Sephardim) over the centuries share many cultural traits with their more easterly counterparts (Mizrahi-yim), including the Arabo-Turko-Persian musical tradition.
Secondly, and significantly, in Israel today there are two major religious delineations, each represented by a distinct Rabbinate and liturgy - the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi. The membership of the Sephardi religious community includes most, if not all, non-Ashkenazim. This makes sense, since over the centuries the Sephardi and Mizrahi Rabbinates were connected much more intimately with each other than either was connected with the Ashkenazi. This has especially been true in more modern times as the Ashkenazi communities moved more and more northward and westward.
Thus, Mizrahi and Sephardi have been taken up as terms that are meant to imply one another.
However, in order to learn something about the sources of Jewish musical culture, placing Sephardi and Mizrahi together in one basket leaves much to be desired. The Mizrahi element is much more involved with non-Western modes, instruments, and forms of expression; it also has no inherent connection with Ladino. The Sephardi tradition is somewhat of a bridge between the Mizrahi and the Ashkenazi - it has some connection both with Eastern and Western forms of musical expression, as one might expect from a culture sprung up on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Jewish Music - Devotional and Secular
As mapped out in diagram 2 below, Jewish Music can be classified as either devotional or secular, depending on its content and function.
One of the main features of Devotional Music, especially when utilized in Synagogue ritual on the Sabbath and other holy days, is that it is almost entirely Vocal. Though today, in certain Jewish denominations, accompanying instruments such as the Organ are utilized in worship, the emphasis on congregational song and the art of the Hazan has always been, and still is, paramount.
The one salient exception to this is an instrument called the Shofar, a ram's horn which is sounded on the High Holidays (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement - Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, respectively), as a special call to prayer and repentance.
This is music played at life passage events: Weddings, Bar-Mitzvas, Bat-Mitzvas, and other communal celebrations. Both instruments and voice are utilized in this music. It can be very rhythmic and have popular, even romantic texts. One may include in this category all Jewish Folk and Popular Music whose context lies outside the religious domain.
Devotional and Secular - Interchange
Between the two categories there may be some exchange. For example, devotional texts are often utilized for songs sung and played in a more secular setting. On the other hand, tunes from a secular source, sometimes from the music of the surrounding non-Jewish culture, find their way into the Synagogue. Many secular tunes have been set to traditional texts and used in the act of worship.
The interface, as it were, between these two spheres, is the Congregational Song (see diagram 2 below). These are the songs and melodies that perform a dual function - they can be heard both at worship services and at general celebratory events.
These two categories of Jewish musical expression apply, with variations, to Jewish communities everywhere, be they Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrahi.
Diagram 2. Jewish Music - Devotional and Secular View
To summarize, Jewish Music is typified by cultural diversity, and draws upon the resources of the many cultures in which Jewish people have lived. The uniqueness of Jewish Music is to be found in the way Jewish musicians have integrated outer influences and new ideas into their traditional framework. Thus Jewish Music is innovative, vibrant, adaptive, and many sided, and yet rests upon a firm foundation of shared religious and communal experience.
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The author does not object to the use of these materials for personal educational purposes or for any fair use, such as quoting or citing these materials, as long as his authorship is credited by the user. Making copies of these materials as part of any commercial venture, or for any monetary reward, requires the written consent of the author. All reasonable requests will be honoured.
Jewish Music - An Overview, by Moshe Denburg, copyright ©1995.
Copyright 2000 The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise