Current American Jewish Music Studies



The study of Jewish music in America is not as robust and diverse as other topics in Jewish Studies. For one thing, most approaches to Jewish Music are Eurocentric (which is true of Jewish Studies in general). But the main reason might be that the subject falls into a kind of academic no-man’s-land. For Jewish Studies scholars, music is considered too specialized; for music scholars, the language, history, and detailed knowledge of Jewish Studies is intimidating. Thus, many scholars who might enter the field instead choose to avoid it. They find in inaccessible.

Not surprisingly, the pace of progress in the field has been slow; yet significant advancements have taken place over the 20th century. For the first half, seminaries were the locus of research, which was practitioner-focused. But the university focuses on current cultural and intellectual theory and methodology. Over time, scholars at universities have developed studies of various traditions in Israel, Europe, and America.

 Indeed, over recent decades, scholarship in Jewish Music has been active by musicologists and ethnomusicologists. The disciplinary boundaries connecting music and Jewish Studies have been developed further, with greater focus on cultural, historical, literary, and other interdisciplinary boundaries. And the Eurocentricity is slowly changing. Today, ethnomusicological approaches expand cultural and geographic boundaries.

 In this essay, I discuss five recent studies that show the complex range of Jewish musical phenomena in various historical and cultural contexts. Three of the studies focus on music of Jews in America. The other two are related contexts: Israel, and Sephardi Jews.

 Judah Cohen’s recent book Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack (Indiana University Press, 2019) is a groundbreaking approach to American Jewish Music innovation. Cohen focuses on publications of Jewish Synagogue Music and archival sources. By the mid-nineteenth century, a growing number of German immigrants was helping to modernize synagogue styles in America. This led to the growth of group singing and choirs. By the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were challenging synagogue music to emphasize traditional motifs and styles. Cohen’s contribution is to show that the 19th century was filled with innovation; even if much of the music is not heard today, it still provides a model of creativity in America.

For the first half of the 20th century, many scholars of Jewish Music in America were men trained in the European Wissenschaft approach. Lily E. Hirsch’s book Anneliese Landaus Life in Music: Nazi Germany to Émigré California (University of Rochester Press, 2019) offers an insightful counter-example. Born in Germany in 1903, Anneliese Landau was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in Musicology in Europe. Unable to find work in academia because of her gender, she found various other jobs until she emigrated to the United States. By 1944, she had settled in Los Angeles, working as a music teacher and music director at the Jewish Centers Association. In this capacity, she worked with Rabbi Leo Baeck, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and Bruno Walter, a renowned conductor. Indefatigable, she gave lectures, organized concerts by Jewish émigré composers, and wrote informed programs. With insight and appreciation, Hirsch presents a female Jewish composer who survived Europe and contributed enormously to the Jewish community of Los Angeles and the city’s musical life. In so doing, she assumed a role typically associated with men. This is a unique book that adds to our understanding of Jewish migration and music.

In my own way, I have attempted to advance the understanding of American Jewish Music. Back in 2001, I published an article called “Contemporary Jewish Music in America” in American Jewish Yearbook. Last year, I co-curated a series of essays, “Contemporary Jewish Music in America 2000–2020,” with Judah Cohen (Journal of Synagogue Music, vol. 46, no. 1). Given how much Jewish Music has grown since 2001, becoming far more complex and diverse, it made sense to enlist fifteen scholars on the various subjects of their expertise. (Some are musicologists; some are ethnomusicologists; in some cases, the lines are blurred.)  Their subjects range from music in the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative communities, to synagogue music, to recordings, videos, and other modalities. The essays explored  the trend in participatory music among liberal communities, as well as congregants’ desire to carefully learn Torah chanting (an important component of their Jewish lives). The plethora of klezmer music is also explored, showing how, today, musicians serve as researchers, curators, performers, and teachers. We also covered the explosion of Jewish music festivals, which exhibit and provide lessons in different Jewish music styles. 

Indeed, the sheer number of fascinating subjects was bewildering. The Radical Jewish Culture movement of the 1990s continued into the 2000s, with new, avant-garde approaches to Jewish, klezmer, and Israeli music. Another long-standing Jewish music activity, art music, is also explored, through engagement with opera in American and Jewish choral singing. 

While much of this study focuses on Ashkenazi musical genres, two essays explore  Ladino music in America and the Mizrahi tradition, based on Middle Eastern and North African music brought to the United States. A reflection by Tina Frühauf, and a conclusion by Judah Cohen, show that new contexts and musical opportunities are being created through YouTube videos, the internet, and social media. These essays show that Jewish music has moved far beyond retention of traditional styles, embracing numerous forms and complex directions.

Studies of Sephardic music in America are developing, but not to the same degree as European art music and Ashkenazi communities. An important recent contribution is the release of Eastern Mediterranean Judeo-Spanish Songs from the EMI Archive Trust (1907–1912), CDs and booklet. This project, with commentary by Rivka Havassy and Edwin Seroussi, in collaboration with researchers Michael Aylward, Joel Bresler, Judith R. Cohen, and Risto Pekka Pennanen, documents 78 recordings at the EMI Archive Trust, heir to the Gramophone and Zonophone companies. Published as 78 rpm recordings from 1907 to 1912, these Judeo-Spanish recordings document Jewish life in the Ottoman era before its decline (these, in turn, shed light on musical practices throughout the Jewish world and America). The richly annotated booklet provides background to the text of each song. These recordings provide source material for scholars and allows performers to expand their knowledge of the Judeo-Spanish repertoire. Many performers today, in America and elsewhere, draw from these recordings for repertoire.

The European Art Music tradition is of great interest to scholars of Jewish music, who investigate the engagement of sonic and non-sonic inclusion of the Jewish tradition in concert repertoire in both Israel and America. Many studies focus on European-born Jewish composers or American-born composers with European training. A new study by Assaf Shelleg breaks new ground on art music in Israel. For many years, scholars have focused on how Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg, and Leonard Bernstein represent Jewish music. They have emphasized traditional melodies, modes, or style, versus non-essential features, such as using a text on concept. Whereas Bernstein, in his “Jeremiah” Symphony #1, used Ashkenazi cantillation melodies, Bloch used an Eastern Europe style without using known Jewish melodies. Bernstein used an essential sonic approach; Bloch’s approach was non-essential sonic. At the same time that Bernstein and Bloch wrote music, composers from Europe also went to Israel, engaging in similar musical explorations.

Assaf Shelleg’s recent book Theological Stains: Art Music and The Zionist Project (Oxford University Press, 2020) contributes to our understanding of compositional approaches to personal expression of Israeli composers. Shelleg is the first scholar to offer a narrative of composers in Israel in the second half of the twentieth century art music. Showing that the prior generation of composers drew on biblical models of heroism, these younger composers challenge an idealized approach, favoring instead cultural approaches from the diaspora. Shelleg looks at specific musical details of mode and musical style, as well as archival sources, to put Israeli art music in conversation with scholarship in Modern Hebrew literature. He shows the complexities of Israeli artistry as composers express their individual ideas to challenge a nationalistic narrative. This book breaks new ground and should be a model for viewing art music by composers connected to Jewish Music in America.

University study of Jewish music is still relatively new, with new organizations being established. The Jewish Studies & Music Group, an American Musicological Society study group, formed ten years ago to connect musicologists, network, and promote Jewish music. Similarly, a special interest group for Jewish Music formed in the Society for Ethnomusicology. In the absence of a national organization in Jewish music, James Loeffler, Judah Cohen, and I helped create the Jewish Music Forum, a project of the American Society for Jewish Music. Its aim is to provide ongoing scholarly discussions of Jewish music. Related activities include the peer-reviewed journal Musica Judaica, which I co-edit with Arbie Orenstein, and ensures ongoing publication of Jewish music study. To make the dissemination of new studies timely and accessible, MJOR (Musica Judaica Online Reviews) was created in 2010. In December 2020, the first Center for Jewish Music in America was created. The goal of the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music is to advance research, performance, and education in American Jewish Music. I am the director of this new Center, and our main task is to embed Jewish Music into a major research university.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, within the last fifteen years there has been a concerted effort to organize the study of Jewish Music in the academy. Hopefully these efforts will lead to greater representation of Jewish Music, a future in which more scholars feel compelled to explore traditions and practices in greater depth, and include Jewish Music alongside other traditions.


Mark Kligman, PhD, is the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music at UCLA and Director of The Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience.