Music in Jewish History and Culture

By VanDyke, Mary Louise | The Hymn, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Music in Jewish History and Culture


VanDyke, Mary Louise, The Hymn


Music in Jewish History and Culture by Emanuel Rubin and John H. Baron. Sterling Heights, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 2006. 420 pp. ISBN: 0-89990-133-6. U. S. $70.00.

Music in Jewish History and Culture traces a solid musical tradition through centuries of assimilation to the folk and art music of other cultures. Rubin and Baron establish a basic framework from evidence gathered from the Bible by which they define Jewish music, its notation and its performance. An early chapter introduces and explores cantillation, the musical declamation of biblical texts kept alive since the sixth century B.C.E. Jewish music is defined by the liturgical calendar, by the role of the cantor and by the purposes it serves for the Jewish community. A theme throughout this study is the adaptability of the Jewish community to surrounding cultures, using from them what will serve its own needs. It's a long, long way from the psalms to Tin Pan Alley, Tzvi Avni or Shulamit Ran's opera The Dybbuk. That circuitous route through space and time is mapped out for us by Rubin and Baron.

The journey begins with the compilation of the Mishnah (code) and the Talmud (interpretation of the code). Soon after that not only what prose and poetical texts from them were to be sung but also how they were to be performed was codified by twenty generations of Masoretes into an authoritative edition. A liturgy developed, influenced by its interactions with non-Jewish cultures during the Hellenistic turmoil, the medieval Arabian empire, European wars and by successive waves of Jewish emigration into Palestine or Israel, borrowing elements from each experience that served its purposes. Yiddish as a language and the orally transmitted folk songs of pioneers (Chalutzim) and partisans (Yidn-Partizaner) gained credibility and were recognized as "Jewish music." Yiddish songwriters and playwrights and klezmer bands sprang up in Europe and America. Music from disparate Jewish ethnic communities from East and West, at first a form of culture shock, eventually synthesized into a phenomenon the authors define as a unique sound of Israel, the Israeli melos or musical idiom. After several waves of aliyah settled in Israel, orchestras were formed and efforts were made to create Hebrew Opera; the authors describe the most noteworthy musical growth in Israel after the 5th and 6th aliyot. …

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