Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tablet's 100 Best Contemporary, Ashkenazi, American, Pop Jewish Songs Ever.

Last week Tablet writers Jody Rosen and Ari Kelman did us all a great service...they started a good argument. Their piece, "Song of Songs: The 100 Best Jewish Songs Ever," and their follow up "You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs" were entertaining and have let to a lot of grumbling and handwringing. Personally, the list drives me crazy (Amy Winehouse but not Shlomo Carlebach? Seriously?) ...but I thank them for publishing it and anyone who reads this blog should go read the list and listen to as many of the linked tracks and videos as they can. It'll be dizzying but a grand adventure.

Lists like this are doomed from the start because the authors establish a category, Jewish music, but fail to define it's limits. They also define an evaluation "best" without defining the criteria to be used. Are we talking about comparing every song written by a Jew or about a Jewish theme in the whole history of the Jewish people and comparing them based on how much impact they had on the Jewish people's history?

Not hardly. And we should be grateful...such a list would be impossible to create and tedious to read. Instead the list is a myopic contemporary Liberal American Ashkenazi view of Jewish music. And we should be grateful for that for two reasons...

1. It gave them a tractable and entertaining position to write from, a position that matches the cultural background and expectations of a lot of American Jews

2. It exposes the limits and contradictions of that position for a friendly debate.

I, like a lot of the commentators on Tablet's website, am frustrated by how it ignores Sephardic and Mizrachi music, how it seems unaware of contemporary Israeli music, Orthodox and Chassidic music, Jewish art music, and how it glorifies secular pop songs written by Jews. These are real deficiencies that make the list worthless as a definitive catalog of the greatest Jewish music. But as part of our perennial Jewish 'who are we' discussion, this list lays down a well thought through and wonderfully idiosyncratic position. It's now up to folks (including me) who don't accept that position to produce something "better."

I'm not going to attempt that in one shot, but will point a few critical moments in Jewish music that the authors overlook. These moments are just as open for critisism and debate as the Tablet list, so have at it...

1. Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. Meyerbeer was a superstar German Jewish opera composer. At his prime in the 1840's and 1850's, he was king of European opera. In an age where Jewish composers often converted to Christianity, he remained a Jew and wrote Jewish liturgical music. While he never wrote an opera that was explicitly Jewish, one of his innovations was the treatment of religious themes, including religious tolerance, on the opera stage. He's also known for his most famous student, Richard Wagner, who after Meyerbeer's death became both an opera superstar and a vicious anti-semite. After Meyerbeer's death Wagner authored Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), which took swipes at both Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn, asking the question... if Jews are such great musicians why don't they have a national music of their own. (Wagner's answer...they're incapable of producing it. They just want to steal and corrupt everyone else's music).

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Robert le Diable - "Idole de ma vie" (Joan Sutherland)

2. Joel Engel. In the early 20th century, Russia experienced a rise in ethnic nationalism supported tentatively by the Soviets...Jewish nationalism included. Joel Engel, along with others conducted ethnographic field trips into the Pale of Settlement and used the Jewish folk music they found there to write art music. Engel, himself, was hugely influential as a writer, organizer of the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society's first concert, and composer. His most famous piece was the incidental music to the Ansky's play, The Dybbuk.

3. Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach mixed Orthodox yeshiva training with a Chassidic sensibility and drive toward personal and musical outreach. Considered by many to be the greatest Jewish songwriter of the 20th century, Carlebach created a huge body of folk-liturgical music that continues to have a significant impact on both traditional and liberal Jewish practice.

Shlomo Carlebach Boi B'Shalom 1973

4. Diaspora Yeshiva Band. There was a moment when it all came together...the nascent ba'al teshuva momement and Orthodox camp music, Israeli kibbutzim and yeshivot, American & British rock and roll, and Carlebach's niggunim and outreach. The result was the Diaspora Yeshiva Band and the birth of Jewish rock and roll. While the DYB weren't the only band of that moment, they cast the largest shadow and still have a continuing influence over Jewish rock to this day.

Trailer for the new DVD "Diaspora Yeshiva Band: Live on Mt. Sinai (1982)"

Whew. I wish I had more time right now. Just listing these 4, makes me feel guilty for the 100 or so I'm leaving out.

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