A Soundtrack of the Jewish People – Additional

By | Dec 03, 2020


A musical journey through time and space charting
the breadth of the Jewish soul

Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke


German • 1944 Lyrics inspired by and based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1899 poem of the same name; music by Viktor Ullmann

VIKTOR ULLMANN’S “Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke” (“The Chronicle of Love and Death of the Flag-Bearer Christoph Rilke”) is stunningly beautiful music, glorious music. It’s a staged work for piano and a dramatic speaker based on a prose poem by Rainier Maria Rilke. It was the last piece composed for the stage in a concentration camp. Ullmann created it in Theresienstadt as he realized he’d be deported—writing it to accompany his own death. Musically, Ullmann was highly productive while imprisoned at Theresienstadt, a camp to which many distinguished artists, musicians and performers from throughout Europe had been deported. He wrote of his captivity, “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavor with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”

Ullmann finished sketches for this work on September 27, 1944, was transported east ten days later, and was killed in the Auschwitz gas chambers in October. While Ullmann had known the piece would never be performed in Theresienstadt, he kept on creating in the hope it would survive. 

Thankfully, after the war and liberation, it was rescued by the renowned author and musicologist H. G. Adler, a native of Prague who had been imprisoned with Ullmann at Theresienstadt, and like him deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Adler survived, and in 1945 he returned to the Czech camp and found that Ullmann had given his music for safekeeping to another prisoner, philosopher Emil Utitz, who directed the camp library. Adler not only saved Ullmann’s and other artists’ creations for future generations, but he also helped found the Jewish Museum of Prague and became an early and distinguished historian of the Holocaust.

Ullmann was born in 1898 in what is now the Czech Republic. The poet Rilke, who was born in Prague in 1875, was not Jewish. But the poetic text that inspired Ullmann was intimately familiar to those in the camp, and many had memorized long parts of it. In Theresienstadt, Ullmann turned increasingly inward, toward Jewish themes. His work there became about the tremendous tragedy of the Shoah itself. It captures the powerful notion of duality in the Jewish experience: tradition and modernity, German and Jewish, sacred and secular, love and death, being outside of Jerusalem, yet yearning to sing the Lord’s song in a new land.

Rilke’s poem tells the story of a young recruit at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, as the Austrians are mustering armies to fight. In the first part, Christoph and other soldiers are thrilled, anticipating wonderful experiences. But after they go into battle, reality sets in. Like the soldier in The Red Badge of Courage, he realizes that war is brutality and death. In his dreams, the flag he carries becomes a woman, and he falls in love with her. Suddenly the flag drops, and he falls and dies, adoring it. Allegorically, the flag represents Liebestod, love and death—life itself. The story ends with Christoph’s brother coming in search of his remains, only to find an elderly woman weeping, grieving over his death.

Philip V. Bohlman is a professor of Jewish history in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. He is also artistic director of the New Budapest Orpheum Society, an ensemble in residence at the university that performs Jewish cabaret music and political songs from the turn of the 20th century to the present.

Baby Moshe Taken
from the Water


Malayalam • 1876 Lyrics and composer unknown

THE SONG THAT I’VE CHOSEN is called “Baby Moshe Taken From the Water,” and it’s in the Malayalam language of South India in the state of Kerala. Kerala’s Jewish community is at least 1,000 years old, maybe much older; it could be as old as 2,000 years. The Jewish community was honored and respected in Kerala. During all those centuries, they never experienced anti-Semitism. There were eight different synagogue communities in and around the city of Kochi, which is a big city in Kerala. Most of the community ended up in Israel, where they’re known as Kochinim, after making aliyah in the 1950s.. Not all were from the city of Kochi, but most of them came from the former kingdom of Cochin or Kochi. That’s where the name comes from.

The women of the community were educated in Hebrew and Malayalam. They knew the Hebrew liturgy and songs, which they sang along with the men at family and community occasions. But the Malayalam songs were the women’s songs, and they sang them at home. They sang them with each other for entertainment and at community gatherings, where the men listened respectfully. So you already see that the Jewish women of Kerala were unique in Jewish history and culture.

The songs were saved in written notebooks, which the women wrote in Malayalam and kept and handed down in their families. Some of the notebooks date back to the 19th century. I’ve been part of a project for many years, collecting the notebooks and recording the songs, in India originally and then in Israel. 

A text of “Baby Moshe Taken From the Water” is found in nine different old handwritten notebooks, written and preserved by Kerala Jewish women. One of the notebooks containing this particular song is dated 1876, and another is estimated to have been written down at about the same time, showing that the music was widely known and shared at least that long ago. To clarify, the composers of the songs are not known; these were folk songs, orally transmitted throughout the Kerala Jewish communities and written down in the notebooks so that they could be remembered and shared. 

The song that I’ve chosen is one of the songs which we’ve categorized as Bible songs. They’re in this collection of about 300 different songs for which we have texts. Some of them are songs about the community’s history. There are devotional songs or songs for special occasions, like a brit milah or wedding or when the community comes together to celebrate. And there are some Zionist songs from the 20th century, which are quite wonderful. And then the largest number of songs are biblical songs, which are retelling Bible stories. 

This one, “Baby Moshe Taken From the Water,” is very special; it has such a Kerala cultural flavor. The state of Kerala is right on the Southwest coast of India. It goes right down the coast, and that’s how the Cochin Jews got there so many centuries ago; their ancestors were traders from the Middle East, and Cochin was near the ancient port. And the atmosphere of the place is just magical. Its coastal backwaters flow down to rivers that flow into the sea. If you’ve been in Kerala, you can just see it all happening. You could imagine this box being gently put into one of the slow-flowing backwater streams, and it would flow gently down the stream, and then it would join a bigger river. And then there would be a grand house on the bank of the river. I could imagine the women singing it, the woman who composed it, the children who would hear it.

So “Baby Moshe Taken From the Water” describes Moshe being put into a box by his mother and floated down a backwater stream to a river. And it is based on the Midrash about Pharaoh’s daughter nourishing Moshe. The melody is very gentle, sort of a rocking melody that could be sung as a lullaby. 

And I think this song makes a point of the women’s voice in this culture. This song is certainly about women, and it’s sung by women and passed down to women—women who were literate and educated and respected in the community. 

Barbara C. Johnson is an emerita professor of anthropology and Jewish studies at Ithaca College in New York. She is the coauthor of Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers with the late Kochini song expert Ruby Daniel, and editor of the audio collection Oh, Lovely Parrot: Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala.

Recording: Performed by Simcha Yosef and Hannah Yitzhak, from the CD Oh, Lovely Parrot!: Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala



Hebrew • 1877/1888 Lyrics from Naftali Herz Imber’s 1886 poem “Tikvateynu;” music adapted by Samuel Cohen from “Carul cu Boi” in 1888

AS AN INDEX of Judaism, as something representing Judaism sonically, “Hatikvah” is quoted in endless films, songs, musicals…you name it. Most people around the world today know this song as something related to the Jewish people, so you can quote it to signify Jewishness. And, in this sense, the only other song that can compete with “Hatikvah” is “Hava Nagila.”

But what makes some music sound Jewish? That’s a tricky question because, on the surface, music is a series of sounds, and the meaning of those sounds is the way they sound, the way they are structured and the way they are organized.  Other meanings added to a specific piece of music are more difficult to pin down because they emerge over time through associations by with certain people or events or contexts. So, for a piece of music to be identified as Jewish by its use by Jews or for some other reason doesn’t mean that the music itself is Jewish or that Jewishness is embedded in it.. Instead, Jewishness is embedded in the way people listen to it or become accustomed to hearing it.

For example, “Hatikvah” is in the minor key. There is a stereotype that music in the minor key is Jewish because the minor is associated with sadness and melancholy, and the Jews were always sad, as you know, because they are in exile. This stereotype was constructed over time by repeating this idea.  In European music, particularly in European folk music, specific melodic movements that return in hundreds of songs that are very similar to one another. The beginning of the melody starts like a scale, and then once you go up, you have to go back. You have hundreds of songs with this common natural melodic movement.

We don’t usually know the provenance of folk songs, words or music, but in “Hatikvah”’s case, we do. Let’s start with the lyrics. When the poet Naftali Herz Imber came to Ottoman Palestine, he toured around the Jewish settlements and recited his poems in public. His poetry became beloved, and eventually he published a collection of his poems in 1886 in Jerusalem. One of these poems was called “Tikvatenu,” which is Hebrew for  “our hope.” People often attached melodies to poems in order to sing them, and the tendency was to pick well-known tunes.

This is where Shmuel Cohen comes in. He was a new immigrant to Palestine in the early 1880s, one of the pioneers. He came from the area that today is Moldova, which was part of the Kingdom of Romania at the time. So this Shmuel Cohen, among others, tried to make a song out of “Tikvatenu,” and he set it to this  Moldavian song, one of many versions of this melody floating around Europe at the time. It’s a fascinating choice because it’s a sentimental version. The song’s title is “An Oxen and the Cart” because its topic is nostalgia for the old means of transportation. This nostalgia is generated by the new means of transport, which is, of course, the railroad. The refrain of the original Romanian song says, “Left, right, right, left,” because that’s what the driver conducting the cart tells his oxen. The original music is a song of a certain longing for something, and the melody’s almost identical, of course, to the melody of “Hatikvah.” 

What is essential, however, is that the “Hatikvah” melody has two parts—an A part and a B part. There’s a big jump, an octave, at the beginning of the B part, which is unique to “Hatikvah.” That jump says that we still have not lost our hope. It’s like a cry. It’s a shout. The Romanian folk song also goes up in the second part but doesn’t go up so dramatically or by an octave. This cry of an octave is repeated. And then you go back down, and you are back where you started. Both songs finish the same way. 

Why this melody succeeded over other melodies put to “Tikvataynu” nobody knows. But it’s evident that one of the reasons for this specific melody’s success is its simplicity. It’s easy to catch the melody and learn it, and it’s very natural and has this Jewish sadness, Jewish melancholy. Still, it also has the octave jump, which is assertive and hopeful and forward-looking. People loved the song, the text, the combination of the text and the melody, particularly that cry of the second part. They just wanted to sing the song.

It encapsulates something important about the way people were feeling at the time. It also speaks about how modern Hebrew culture was made. Although “Hatikvah” today is revered as an anthem, it is at its roots a folk song, made by the people, sung by the people and distributed by the people, way before it became a canonized anthem. This fact is significant. “Hatikvah” is one of the few anthems of the world that came from the bottom up. Usually, anthems are made from up high. They are decided by a committee, by a government or by some authority that either commissions an anthem or selects one. 

Once the song became beloved in Palestine’s Jewish settlements, people from the settlements who traveled to Europe, particularly people who attended the Zionist congresses, took it with them. The song leaped over the sea, and the rest is history. It spread like wildfire. We still hope or have not lost hope because of its use by the people and what it became—an anthem. 

But that took a while. People don’t believe me when I say that “Hatikvah” became the Zionist movement’s song only in 1933. For 50 years, this song existed and was sung at the end of every Zionist rally, and it was known by then throughout the Jewish world. The melody was referenced in Tin Pan Alley in the very early 1900s. The institutions of the Jewish people were much slower in adopting it as an anthem. And there were many other alternatives for the anthem of the Zionist movement. Other songs were suggested. So “Hatikvah” also had to make its way against other pieces that certain wings of the Jewish people favored.

For example, some of the more religious wings of Judaism didn’t like “Hatikvah” for two reasons. First of all, it sounded like a secular song to them. Even though the language of “Hatikvah” has a lot of Biblical overtones, it’s still not a religious song. You don’t have the name of God there. Also, because of the poet Imber’s personality, Theodore Herzl didn’t like “Hatikvah.” Herzl despised Imber and thought that he was an embarrassment to the Zionist movement.

Herzl liked another song for the anthem, but he died young, so he had no influence. And it’s important to note that the Zionist movement adopted “Hatikvah” as its anthem, not the state of Israel. Israel only adopted “Hatikvah” as the official anthem in 2004 by the legislation of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. From 1948 to 2004, “Hatikvah” was the anthem of the state of Israel by practice, not by legislation. Nobody argued that it was not the anthem, but it was not sanctioned by law. It was just the song that people play when you play the anthem. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra opened every season with it, a practice that goes back a long time. By playing the anthem at the beginning of the season, you canonize the song without any legislation. The question now is, why should the song have been legislated if everybody accepts it as the anthem? And why in 2004? That’s an interesting question too.

This legislation stemmed from particular anxieties among the Israelis, especially the right-wing part of  Israeli society. Following the events of the early 2000s, such as the Second Intifada, there was a sort of insecurity. Also, many claimed that the song didn’t represent them. They wanted to present alternatives by changing the lyrics, throwing away the text and just leaving the melody or taking another song altogether. So this insecurity led the Knesset’s right-wing parties to sanction the anthem by law; it cannot be changed unless you have a majority in the parliament that will vote to change it.

Remember that 20 percent of the Israeli population, one in five Israelis, is not Jewish. They are Arab and Muslim or Christian. There’s a sizable amount of the population that are citizens of the state, full citizens of the country, and don’t want to sing this song. It doesn’t represent them. So if the anthem is supposed to represent all the citizens or the spirit of all the citizens of the state, at least one in five Israelis cannot accept this song as their song. 

Then certain ultra-Orthodox parties among the Jewish population, which comprise a large section of the Israeli people today, also don’t like it. They don’t consider any state symbols as their own because they don’t accept the state. They live in the country, they benefit from the government, but they don’t accept the state with all its symbols. So they refrain from singing the song at all. It’s not their song either. So only 60 to 70 percent of Israelis identify with the song which was one reason that the legislation was passed so that nobody would attempt to change that situation in the future. 

But the song is still powerful symbol of the State of Israel. In one of my lectures, I present a video produced by the Hamas Movement in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war. This video was created as part of the information war to demoralize the Israelis, particularly the soldiers, by sending YouTube messages. They have a version of “Hatikvah,” too. It says that all the Israeli soldiers are made out of wax and they will put all the Jews back in ships and send them back to the places from where they came. It’s in perfect Hebrew because many, many, many people in Gaza and the West Bank know Hebrew very well. And they know “Hatikvah” by heart, even if it’s the song of the enemy. And they redeploy the song as a weapon against the Israelis. To do all that, you need to know something about the song. To make a parody, you need to know the original, otherwise, the satire doesn’t work.

They sing in Hebrew with this pathos, this emotion. They want to drive the Jews away from Palestine, but they sing the song paradoxically with tremendous respect or seriousness. The colonizing of Palestine by the Jews has a fantastic success because these people have internalized Jewish culture and Hebrew culture. That’s one of the many, many turns of “Hatikvah,” one of the many ways it represents the Jewish people, even when used against us.

Edwin Seroussi is a professor of musicology and director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a recipient of a 2018 Israel Prize.



English • 2017 • Lyrics and music by Yaakov Shwekey

We Are a Miracle

English • 2016 • Lyrics and music by Yaakov Shwekey

Jerusalem of Gold

Hebrew • 1967 • Lyrics and music by Naomi Shemer

AS A SINGER FOR 20 years, touring around the world and going to so many different communities, you realize that some songs break the barrier of speech and language and whatever differences there are in culture. Music is something that goes into the heart, into the soul, of every Jew. I think the greatest language we have today is the language of music. And that’s the language of the soul.

I believe two of my songs are appropriate to this conversation: “Shema” and “We Are a Miracle.” The first is related to a story about Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati. After World War II, realizing that many parents had to give up their children to save their lives when the Nazis were coming and that some were given to Christian monasteries, he was worried that those children might not even know they were Jewish. The story goes that he went to one of the biggest Christian monasteries in Eastern Europe and asked to speak with his people. “What are you doing here?” was the reply. “None of your kind is here.” 

“Just let me speak with them,” he said. “That’s all I want to do.” Finally, he was allowed in. When he saw a lot of children in the courtyard, he gathered them together and started talking about some of the Jewish rituals—lighting candles on Shabbat, blowing the shofar and fasting on Yom Kippur. But there was no reaction from the children. He tried again, but once again no reaction. He then looked up to heaven and said, “Shema, Yisrael” (“Here, Oh Israel”). And a little child in the corner heard these words and said, “What are those words, Rabbi? They sound familiar.” And another child said, “I know those words. What does shema mean?” And thus, the rabbi was able to rescue hundreds of children. When I heard this story, I found it extremely powerful, so I wrote a song called “Shema.” It’s in English, and it’s meant to remind people of this story.

The second song is “We Are a Miracle,” because it relates to our history as a Jewish people. The reason why I did that song is because the greatest miracle in the world is the fact that the nation of Israel is still around after all we’ve been through—so many pogroms and so many inquisitions and the Holocaust. I think music is probably one of the greatest ways to teach our youth history. They have to see, they have to feel, and they also have to hear. My mother was born in a DP camp, and my mother’s mother went through Auschwitz. But she was a very, very humble, righteous woman. And she was always walking proudly that she’s Jewish. She never wanted to hide the fact. “So We Are a Miracle” is something that we should sing with pride. We have a great tradition that goes back thousands of years. 

I also want to mention “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav“ (“Jerusalem of Gold”). I sang that song in 2017 at a Jerusalem Day thanksgiving assembly of some 100,000 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in honor of 50 years since the liberation of the Wall. It’s probably one of the most famous Israeli songs. I picked it because I felt that that song is very well known amongst so many different types of people. It’s a very poetic song, and I wanted the audience to feel what Jerusalem is all about as we were there celebrating the fact that we have Jerusalem, we have the Western Wall, and we’re able to go there and pray. We’re able to go there and connect.

Yaakov Shwekey is an Orthodox Jewish recording artist and international performer. His father was of Sephardic heritage, his mother Ashkenazi. He was born in Israel, but immigrated with his family to the United States and now lives in New Jersey. 

Kol Nidre


Aramaic • Date Unknown • Traditional Yom Kippur liturgy

IN THE 1950s I loved Doo-wop music, what we would hear on the Alan Freed show. But my father would take me to shul in Brooklyn on the High Holy Days. And I remember, the night before Yom Kippur, to go to shul and hear this incredible guy wearing these robes and maybe some sort of ornate metal thing around him. It always seemed very majestic. And he sang “Kol Nidrei.” And “Kol Nidrei” was awe-inspiring. It was reverential. It was really the first piece of Jewish music that I had some sort of inner connection with. 

In 1960, we started Jay and the Americans. And at the end of 1961, we had a massive hit with “She Cried.” It was number one. All over, all over the place. And so that was the area of music that I was in, but “Kol Nidrei” was always more than just a song. There was a particular type of trepidation that was attached to it. 

As time went by, I got more interested in Judaism. I wound up singing a song “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” which is a Hebrew folk song. I did it on a show on the Jewish Television Network, Saturday Night Chai. So cool! And I guess the next thing was the Ben Sidran album Life’s a Lesson in 1993. Carole King sang on it. It was all the songs in Hebrew—“Avinu Malchenu,’”“Hatikva,” “Hine Ma Tov,” “Hashevenu.” “ Kol Nidrei” was on it too!

My grandmother knew I could sing, even before I did. When I was a little kid, the relatives would come to our place by public transportation, the women dressed in suits and hats, smelling of perfume. I was six or seven, and my grandmother would have me sing for them. And the song that inspired me most was “I Believe” by Frankie Laine. It was basically “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.”

But it was Doo-wop, later in the 1950s, that grabbed hold of me. The first wave was the African-American groups. Harlem was a hotbed for it. And there was a group on every corner. And they would go down into the subway to practice. And some of them would record at the Brill Building on 49th and Broadway.

Sonny Till and the Orioles were one of the earliest groups, and they were from Baltimore. They had a Jewish manager, Dorothy Chessler, who wrote their first big hit, “It’s Too Soon to Know.” Oh, I loved that song! I think Jews always had an affinity for that kind of music, because there was something spiritual about it. It kind of vibrated in your soul, even if you didn’t know what that was. 

And then what happened was, I guess, Italian-Americans in Brooklyn and the Bronx started emulating this music. Dion and the Belmonts, the Mystics, the Passions. But Jewish-Americans were into it too. Groups like the Quotations, the Concords, the Accents, the Escorts. But the leading group in Brooklyn was The Tokens, with Neil Sedaka as lead singer on their earliest record. Of course, he went out on his own before the Tokens had their greatest hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

My group was one of those groups, the Harbor Lites. We had moved from Brooklyn to Belle Harbor, Queens, and that’s where the name came from. We were a Doo-wop group. But when we met Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were the producers of the Coasters and the Drifters, they turned us into the “white drifters.” That was the thing. They were making records that were not Doo-wop records. Basically, we were a Doo-wop group, but they steered our career and our recordings into a different direction as Jay and the Americans.

There was something about Doo-wop. We would hear harmony singing and found out we were able to do it ourselves. Yeah, it vibrated inside of you. It was a visceral thing. I couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t an intellectual thing. It was something your parents told you not to do. But it stayed with you … right to this day!

Kenny Vance, born Kenneth Rosenberg, was an original member of Jay and the Americans, and sang with the group on all their hits, including “Only in America,” “Come a Little Bit Closer,” “Cara Mia” and “She Cried.” He still sings with his own group, The Planotones.



Who by Fire

English • 1974 • Lyrics and music by Leonard Cohen

You Want it Darker

Hebrew & English • 2016 • Lyrics and music by Leonard Cohen

LEONARD COHEN often said that it was difficult for him to subscribe unambiguously to one religious tradition because he saw himself as a traveler, as a stranger, as someone who lived on the outskirts of many traditions. There was a famous reading he gave at Montreal’s public library in 1964 before he became a musician in which he compared himself not to a priest but a prophet. The difference for him was that the priest is part of the community, whereas a prophet stands outside the community. His family, particularly his grandfathers, were an important part of the Jewish community in Montreal. On one hand, Cohen wanted to keep that tradition alive, but on the other hand, he wanted to be outside of it, or not coincide, let’s say, with that tradition.

One should mention that Cohen has also been associated with Catholicism. For instance, think about the famous line, “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water” from “Suzanne.” He is also associated with Zen Buddhism. But his Jewish identity was often affirmed both in and outside his works, and sometimes in a very ironic way. On his 1992 album The Future, he sings “I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” There is also a poem I was thinking of, taken from his 2006 Book of Longing, which is entitled, “Not a Jew.” In the text itself, he says, “Anyone who thinks I am not a Jew, is not right.” 

“Who by Fire,” a track from 1974, is based on the Jewish prayer Unetanneh Tokef, sung on Yom Kippur and chanted when the ark is open. The traditional version of the prayer raises issues that ultimately boil down to the fundamental question: Who will be there in the end? The answer is the king, the living God. In Cohen’s version, he retains the form of the prayer as well as its melody. But in the end, he does not give an answer; he only asks a question: “Who shall I say is calling?” Throughout his life, Cohen found a kind of intensity in the religious vocabulary that he tried to use in his own texts, in which he wanted to talk about contemporary life. But, to communicate the intensity of his experience, ordinary language did not suffice. Therefore, he borrowed from religious and other traditions and languages and practices, which allow his language to be more powerful.

For his last album, released several weeks before he passed away, You Want it Darker, Cohen literally returned to his hometown, Montreal, to collaborate with Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the oldest and largest traditional Ashkenazi congregation in Canada, where back in the 1940s he had celebrated his bar mitzvah. You can hear Zelermyer and the synagogue’s men’s choir performing in the background on the album’s title track. There are several explicit religious references starting with the repetition of the word hineni. Cohen sings the Hebrew word Abraham uttered when God called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son, then translates it as “I’m ready my Lord.” In the same song, he also sings, “A million candles for the help that never came.” When I first heard that line, I immediately thought of my own trip to the Yad Vashem’s Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem. Hollowed from an underground cavern, it pays tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust. There are memorial candles customary to the Jewish tradition to remember their deaths, which reflect infinitely in the dark and somber space, creating the impression of billions of stars shining in the firmament.

Cohen was also famous for rewriting his songs. He went through a lot of versions. Sometimes he worked on one for several years, and for that reason, I consider his oeuvre as a palimpsest. Initially, a palimpsest was a written parchment from which the original words have been scraped off and replaced by new writing, but with traces of the old still remaining. It’s also a standard procedure in historical Hebrew writing. I consider this a Jewish dimension to his artistic practice. The best-known example is probably “Chelsea Hotel Number Two.” He explicitly adds “Number Two’ because there was a first version. A further example is his reuse of texts that were first released as poems and later as songs and so forth. The idea of the artistic practice as a palimpsest, as a constant rewriting, constant reinterpretation, constant rereading, is very Jewish.

Francis Mus, a postdoctoral researcher in translation studies at the University of Antwerp, is the author of the book The Demons of Leonard Cohen.


Avinu Malkeinu

Hebrew • date unknown • Origins of the traditional melody and prayer unknown; recorded by Alter Karniol, circa 1900

Quartet for the End of Time

Chamber music • 1941 • Composed by Olivier Messiaen

Rivers of Babylon

English & Rastafari • 1970 • Written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians


French & Arabic • 1996 • By Maurice El Medioni from the album Cafè Oran

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “the Jewish experience.” Particularly when one is talking about music in the diaspora, with Jews everywhere, there are so many different expressions of Judaism. So I’m not talking about the Jewish experience; I’m talking about my personal Jewish experience.

I am known for klezmer music, but I grew up on Long Island as a Reform Jew—a very observant Reform Jew from a very observant Reform Jewish household. My musical culture was American music. What little I heard of so-called Jewish music, either in the temple we went to or at different functions, just didn’t interest me. So my choices reflect my personal experience as a Long Island Reform Ashkenazic American.

Secondly, I’m a musician. I’m with music all the time. I could not choose one piece of music. I chose several pieces because each one relates to a very different aspect of my association of music with the Jewish experience.

The first piece that I was thinking of is an Ashkenazic cantorial piece from the early 1900s by the great cantor Alter Karniol, and it’s his recording of “Avinu Malkeinu.” When you dissect this piece, nearly every aspect of it is Jewish, which you can’t say about most other music, even most other Jewish music. And what do I mean that every element is Jewish? Well, it’s in the Jewish language: Hebrew. The subject matter: it’s a Jewish prayer. The functionality of the piece is for Jewish prayer ritual. Musically, the fact that it’s only voices without instruments reflects an aspect of Jewish tradition. And then on top of all that, and probably the essential point, is the style, the ornament, the way the cantor cries out to God in the singing, and how he is doing it. This style is often called ornamentation. Ornamentation generally means something that you put on top of something to dress it up. But the “ornamentation” in cantorial music and Jewish music is implicit and essential to the music itself, and it is distinctly Jewish. Here’s a piece where every aspect of it embodies a specific particular type of Jewish experience. It displays the totality of what is Jewish Ashkenazic music with as little influence from outside and other music as anything I’ve ever heard. 

But then I want to jump to a piece that is a very personal piece of music, which for me embodies my Jewish experience in a different way. The work is “Quartet for the End of Time” by the composer Olivier Messiaen. It was written in 1941 when he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The music transcends the horrific conditions of being imprisoned in a German camp. The story, I don’t know if it’s true or not, is that he wrote it for four musicians who were in the camp with him and on broken instruments. It’s a piece of abstract music that is so complicated and so deep that it is like a meditation on the eternal. Even though one might say that there’s nothing in the content of the music that is in any way Jewish, the transcendence of horrific conditions defines a universal truth of beauty and complexity that is, for me, a real expression of what it means to be Jewish.

The third piece is the famous song “Rivers of Babylon,” specifically the original version from 1970 by The Melodians. I think I first heard it growing up on Long Island. It was amazing because I recognized the text as being the text of the Jewish exile. I thought, “God, I love this music, it’s my music, and they’re telling the story of our exile.” And it showed what was, again, particular about the Jewish experience, and yet what was universal: the idea of exile and diaspora. Then, there was the little joke that tied it all together: I grew up on Long Island, and Babylon is a town on Long Island. It was always so funny, “by the rivers of Babylon,” because Babylon was not a particularly Jewish town. So that little joke always kind of pleased us.

And then, just because I’ve recorded so much Jewish music, I thought of Algerian composer Maurice El Medioni and the song called “Bienvenue/Abiadi.” I do play it, so, yes, there’s a little personal thing there. Still, I wanted to show how, although I grew up with this very American Ashkenazic Jewish identity, I experienced and encountered all different musical cultures and all different Jewish cultures in my life and travels. If American Judaism is a melting pot, Algerian and Moroccan Judaism is a totally different melting pot. The languages there are Hebrew, Arabic and French. The musical influences, of course, are Arabic piyyutim, Arabic music and Andalusian music. To understate it, these are all critical strains of Jewish history and culture. Cuban music is an influence on this piece as well. The Cuban influence is huge in Oran, Algeria. In this piece, you hear all these influences together. I also chose this one for personal reasons because I remember going on tour with Maurice El Medioni and the Klezmatics during Hanukkah. Each night we would light another candle on the menorah all together and sing different songs; we would sing Yiddish songs, Arabic and French Hanukkah songs. It was a beautiful experience of the fruits of the diaspora.

Frank London is a trumpeter, bandleader and composer. He is a member of the New York-based klezmer band The Klezmatics.

My Yiddishe Momme


English & Yiddish • 1925 • Lyrics by Jack Yellen; music by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack

I WAS ON The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. I was 21 or 22 and my hit song at the time was “Happy Birthday, Sweet 16.” I sang that, but I also wanted to perform “My Yiddishe Momme.” And there was great resistance from Ed Sullivan and his crew. During the dress rehearsal, there was talk of me taking it off of my repertoire for that night’s show. But over the hours my manager at the time talked to them and they relented. I sang it and it was a tremendous hit! I don’t think it was a tremendous stretch for viewers. When you see Neil Sedaka, you could see the ethnicity and you could hear the voice. And what you see is what you get.

I started as a child prodigy. I went to the prep school of Juilliard. I won a piano competition in 1956, the best high school pianist in New York City. I was age 16 and the judge was Arthur Rubinstein. He said he liked the way I played Chopin. I was thrilled; I was in awe! I saw Rubinstein in concert many, many times. I bought his recordings. His Chopin work was special. Of course, I also went to many of Vladimir Horowitz’s concerts. He finished with an encore of Schumann’s “Traumerei.” I wept. 

My father’s parents were Sephardic from Istanbul. And my mother’s people were Ashkenazi, from Russia, Poland. She was living at the time I recorded my album of songs in Yiddish. So she and my wife helped me with the pronunciation.

I was from a poor family—happy but poor, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. My father was a cab driver. And when I discovered I had the gift of songwriting and singing as a teenager, I wanted the recognition. I wanted the money. I wanted the fame and everything that goes with it. But I never dropped my love for classical music. 

Apart from classical music, I listened to a radio program, “Martin Bloch’s Make-believe Ballroom.” It was one of the first disc jockey programs. He played Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Nat King Cole andLes Paul and Mary Ford. I loved listening to it. And I loved just being able to play by ear on the piano. If I heard it once, I could play it on the piano. And of course, growing up as a teenager, I had much more social success at parties in high school playing the hits of the day rather than Chopin! RCA Victor signed me in 1958. The first five years, we sold 25 million records around the world.

I always thought there was a correlation between Jewish music and African-American rhythm and blues. Let me explain. Many of the songs are in minor keys. Both were treated as inferior. Take a song like BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” If you listen to that and compare it to any Jewish melody, you can hear the suffering and the oppression. And I think some of my best songs are in minor keys and have that pathos and emotion. I recorded a song, “You Mean Everything to Me.” It was a worldwide hit in 1959. And it had a sense of loneliness  and suffering.

I never felt any discrimination in the music business. But I’m an extension of my background. I’m proud of my heritage. I never forgot where I came from. I think that’s important. 

A teenage sensation from Brooklyn, Neil Sedaka had a string of hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s that included “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “Calendar Girl” and “Little Devil.” A classically trained pianist, he recorded Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka sings Yiddish in 2003.

Psalm 136


Luganda • 1979 • Music by J.J. Keki; performed by the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda

I HAVE BEEN DEEPLY MOVED by the music of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda ever since I began my ethnomusicological fieldwork with this community some 20years ago. Here, I share a recording of “Psalm 136” with the repeated refrain “God’s mercy endures forever.” This piece is sung in Luganda, and the music was composed by J.J. Keki, who also sings the lead in this recording. 

The Abayudaya, a community of approximately 2,000 people living in villages surrounding the town of Mbale in Eastern Uganda, are practicing Jews. Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher and pray in Hebrew. The Abayudaya do not claim Jewish lineage. Moved by their belief in the truth of the Torah, their founder, Semei Kakungulu, a powerful military leader of the Baganda, self converted to Judaism in 1919. According to community elders, he considered Christianity and Islam and then asserted, “Why should I follow the shoots when I can have the root?” Since the community’s self-conversion and through the difficult period of Idi Amin’s rule, the Abayudaya’s Jewish observance has been shaped by their commitment to follow mainstream Jewish practice, an approach that has been amplified since their increased contact with Jews from North America and Israel since the mid 1990s. A large portion of the community went through a formal conversion to Judaism with a Beit Din (rabbinical court) from the Conservative Movement in 2002. 

This psalm recounts acts of God’s love and deliverance, referring to the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea. J.J. Keki describes this psalm as “a song of happiness sung after the redemption of the Israelites.” The community specifically connects this psalm to the downfall of the dictator Idi Amin. J.J. explained how he composed this psalm: “Amin was chased away before Passover in 1979. It looked like we moved from slavery to freedom.” Now the Abayudaya sing this psalm in its traditional place as one of the introductory psalms in the morning Shabbat and festival service. Although this psalm is sung a cappella during worship, at other times, such as weddings or other celebrations, it is accompanied by electric keyboard, guitars and occasionally traditional instruments such as drums and adungu, the nine-stringed harp. Here, to present a comparison of both versions, we fade out of the a cappella version and into the accompanied rendition. 

The compelling music of the Abayudaya underscores that the Jewish community is more diverse than many realize and that our soundscape is beautifully rich and varied. 

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit is a research professor in the Department of Music at Tufts University. He is the author of two books on Jewish music, and his Smithsonian Folkways recording Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda was nominated for a Grammy award.  


Light One Candle 

English • 1982 • Lyrics and music by Peter Yarrow

Ana El Na

Original Song by Micah Hendler; Based on Numbers 12:13

“LIGHT ONE CANDLE” is a Hanukkah song about justice. The song pinpoints the resonance where the American justice frame meets the Jewish justice frame in music.

I grew up with this song, but it took on additional layers of meaning for me when I moved to Jerusalem to start the Jerusalem youth chorus. As an Israeli-Palestinian youth chorus, we’re trying to sing songs from different traditions, not just random songs, but songs of various traditions with some sort of value or universality that would make sense for people of other faiths to sing. Not just because we’re being inclusive, but because they actually have meaning.

“Light One Candle” is not just about the Jews, it’s about how we can use our values and experience of persecution as a force for good in the world rather than a force for fear. To me, that’s the choice that we have. There are two fundamental lessons that can be taken from the Jewish experience: you could say, we have been oppressed, therefore, we know how bad it is, therefore, we shouldn’t do it to others. And then there’s the other way of viewing things, which is we’ve been oppressed, we’re always going to be persecuted, and no one’s gonna ever stand up for us. So we need to protect ourselves at all costs. And to me, that is fundamentally losing the soul of the whole point. It’s becoming so obsessed with fear that there’s no space for love anymore. 

“Light One Candle” moves people outside the Jewish world because It’s meaning is clear. The verse “light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.” That’s not just about Jews.  Or “light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.” There’s universality to the idea that this isn’t free, and it’s not easy, and you need to fight for it. There’s just so much in the song that draws upon the best of the American folk tradition and Jewish tradition to come up with something that’s powerful and connects us to others. 

Second, “Ana El Na” became most relevant to me when the  pandemic began. We’re in desperate need of healing on every level. And these words (from Numbers 12:13, when Moses asks God to heal Miriam’s leprosy) encompass all the different kinds of healing we could need. It’s not specific to physical healing or to emotional healing or to a particular disease or a particular type of person, it’s just asking for healing in whatever way it’s needed. It’s like a vessel for people to pour in whatever they need. So people can pray to be able to give hugs, for a new normal where all are treated with equity. You can pray for the lonely or elderly who are not able to have others with them right now. 

Even in this unprecedented moment, at least in our lifetimes, there is a deep well of healing and of knowledge and power that could be drawn upon. I feel like I’ve taken more strength and inspiration from the Jewish tradition in the last year than I have before. And I think a lot of that is because a lot of the other things that have traditionally been crowding our lives are either absent or fundamentally under threat.

And I chose this prayer for healing, as opposed to some of the other prayers for the sick, because it is almost a distillation of the covenant. It’s not complicated. There aren’t any legal formulas in it. There aren’t any formalities at all. It’s just a pure plea “please heal us.”

Micah Hendler is the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian music and dialogue project. In 2017, he was listed on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 music list.

St. Matthew Passion


German • 1727 • Lyrics by Christian Friedrich Henrici; based on text from the Gospel of St. Matthew 25-26 and the Song of Songs 6:1; composed by Johann Sebastian Bach

I KNOW THIS SEEMS like an odd choice, and I am not going to defend it on the grounds of logic. For whatever it’s worth, however, this work does have some actual connections to Jewishness. Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, became an accomplished musician in his own right. At one point, he took on a pupil named Sarah Itzig Levy, a young woman from a prominent Jewish family in Berlin. Her family ended up taking an active interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, organizing readings of his music and acquiring his manuscripts for preservation and scholarship. Sarah Levy’s sister, Bella Salomon, acquired a manuscript of the “St. Matthew Passion,” which, just a year before her death in 1824, she gave to her 15-year-old grandson, an incredibly gifted prodigy named Felix Mendelssohn. Despite coming from a union of two prominent Jewish families (his paternal grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), Felix’s father decided to reject Judaism and baptize his children into the Reformed Church. While Felix remained a Lutheran all his life, he insisted on using the name Mendelssohn despite his father’s christening him with a new surname, Bartholdy. And when Felix, at age 20, conducted a groundbreaking performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”—the event that is credited with placing Johann Sebastian Bach in the pantheon of great composers and creating the so-called cult of Bach, which continues to this day—Felix, in the only documented instance of his explicitly embracing his birthright identity, said, “To think that it took…a Jew’s son to give the greatest of Christian works back to the world!” And he wasn’t the last Jew to champion the work: it could be argued that the American chapter of the “cult of Bach” began on March 31, 1957, when Leonard Bernstein went on the nationally televised show Omnibus and spent over an hour talking about “St. Matthew Passion” and conducting excerpts from it. Four years later, [renowned German Jewish conductor] Otto Klemperer made a landmark recording of the work.

There’s also some Jewishness inherent in the scriptural source of the work. I’m no Bible scholar, but from the little research I’ve done, it seems that whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew was a Jew who specifically wrote that Gospel for Jews to read. That explains why it assumes more knowledge of Jewish law on the part of the reader than the other Gospels, as well as why its treatment of the culpability of Jews in Jesus’ death is considerably more restrained and nuanced in this Gospel than in others.

But I didn’t know about any of this when I was introduced to the piece. I first heard it when I was eleven years old, and I sobbed uncontrollably. “St. Matthew Passion” begins with an E minor chord that is like an event in your life. It brings you into a world that you inhabit for three hours in which you’re asked to confront inhumanity and cruelty, and it gives you the space to process your feelings while you hear the story. It is a stereophonic work; two antiphonal ensembles of singers and instrumentalists are spaced across from one another and answer one another, giving the impression of the whole of humanity interrogating what it is that makes us fight one another and trying to make sense of our shared tragedy. 

The history of Passion plays is not a pretty one; most of them are designed to tell the story of Jesus’s death as graphically as possible to inflame hatred for heathens. Bach’s other Passion setting, the St. John, is an example of this kind of passion; there are moments of great drama and beauty, and the Jews are presented in a light that portrays their fear and alienation in a way that is not entirely unsympathetic, but at the end of the day it still checks the boxes of a Passion designed to promote the idea of Christians as a persecuted tribe. 

“St. Matthew Passion” makes me feel closer to Judaism. The rhythms of how the story is told, alternating between narrative, group singing and commentary, is much closer to a Passover seder than any Christian service I can think of. The way the evangelist is used seems much more like a cantor or a rabbi than a priest. And the way the work makes the listener own and feel the story and make the connection between sacrifice, empathy, grief, guilt and shared humanity evokes feelings I have only otherwise had at the service for Yom Kippur. 

But if you really want to know what makes the “St. Matthew Passion” Jewish, listen to the aria Erbarme dich. The violin solo, in its modality and rhythm, is reminiscent of the Romanian klezmer dance form called a zhok, and the voice, singing “Have mercy, my God, For the sake of my tears!” could be any mother mourning the suffering or loss of her child. It’s as Jewish—and as universal—as it gets.

James David Jacobs is a host and producer for Classical WETA-FM, and has held similar positions at WGBH and WNYC. A cellist, conductor and arranger, he has composed original scores for HBO and PBS and produced podcasts for the Baltimore Symphony.  

Music is Universal 


I DON’T LOOK AT MUSIC that way. I think that puts music in something of a parochial bind. Great art, great music is not influenced by parochial sensibilities. I believe great music is beyond that. At the same time, although somewhat jokingly, I feel quite convinced that I have irrefutable proof that Beethoven was Jewish. All you have to do is look at “Sonata Opus 101,” around the 12th, 13th or 14th bars, where he betrays himself by writing a little phrase that obviously is a question. And that little phrase is instantly succeeded by another little phrase that proves he is Jewish. Because the second little phrase, the answer to this question, is yet another question. That is proof positive for me that Beethoven probably had some Jewish blood.

But to be serious, I think that great music goes beyond these mundane questions. If you ask me about the way I interpret great music by a great composer like Beethoven, I cannot measure the extent that my blood influences my reactions or thoughts. To an equal extent, I just don’t think in those terms. In terms of evaluating great music, these extracurricular elements do not enter into it. 

My father was born in Odessa. But my approach to music pretty much supersedes all these elements or is all-inclusive thereof. When I listen to music with themes from Jewish sources, I don’t think that I go off thinking of Tevye. It is recognized for what it is. Music is a universal thing. The greatest instrumental music unquestionably is German music—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann. Then come the Russians, the French, and if you include opera, the Italians. But after that, most of the rest are second- to fourth-rate. 

When you ask where Jews were when this great music was created or what great music Jews created, my answer is that I don’t understand the need for the puffery behind this question. The Jews contribute in their way. Jews numerically have had an outsized role as performers, interpreters, of great music. I attribute this to sociology—to how parents have tried to create lives for their children that will be more productive and more universally recognized. When I grew up, I had two choices, according to my mother. I could be the first Jewish president of the United States or a great concert pianist. I took the tougher course.

Leon Fleisher, a renowned concert pianist, conductor and teacher, passed away on August 2, 2020, at the age of 92. In 1964, at the height of his career, he lost the use of his right hand. His 30-year search for a cure for his condition, ultimately successful, is described in his memoir, My Nine Lives.

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