Jewish Music and Modernity

Jewish Music and Modernity

Jewish Music and Modernity

Jewish Music and Modernity


Is there really such a thing as Jewish music? And how does it survive as a practice of worship and cultural expression even in the face of the many brutal aesthetic and political challenges of modernity? In Jewish Music and Modernity, Philip V. Bohlman imparts these questions with a new light that transforms the very historiography of Jewish culture in modernity.

Based on decades of fieldwork and archival study throughout the world, Bohlman intensively examines the many ways in which music has historically borne witness to the confrontation between modern Jews and the world around them. Weaving a historical narrative that spans from the end of the Middle Ages to the Holocaust, he moves through the vast confluence of musical styles and repertories. From the sacred and to the secular, from folk to popular music, and in the many languages in which it was written and performed, he accounts for areas of Jewish music that have rarely been considered before. Jewish music, argues Bohlman, both survived in isolation and transformed the nations in which it lived. When Jews and Jewish musicians entered modernity, authenticity became an ideal to be supplanted by the reality of complex traditions. Klezmer music emerged in rural communities cohabited by Jews and Roma; Jewish cabaret resulted from the collaborations of migrant Jews and non-Jews to the nineteenth-century metropoles of Berlin and Budapest, Prague and Vienna; cantors and composers experimented with new sounds. The modernist impulse from Felix Mendelssohn to Gustav Pick to Arnold Schoenberg and beyond became possible because of the ways music juxtaposed aesthetic and cultural differences.

Jewish Music and Modernitydemonstrates how borders between repertories are crossed and the sound of modernity is enriched by the movement of music and musicians from the peripheries to the center of modern culture. Bohlman ultimately challenges readers to experience the modern confrontation of self and other anew.


The Jewish village begins at the edge of town. It is a place of boundaries and peripheries, where centers lie just beyond reach and originary moments remain inchoate. It is a place of borders—physical, religious, and temporal. The music that resonates along the borders that at once insulate and connect the Jewish village is the phenomenon of a place shaped by the intersection of boundaries and peripheries. It is a music that is secular and sacred, Jewish and at times not Jewis It is a music that belongs to a single place, a village or region with its distinctive musical and linguistic dialects. It is no less the music of many places, Jewish because of the ways it signifies an otherness of place and time. Historically, portals of entrance and exit to the town, intersected by the Judengasse, the small street along which Jews lived and located their shops, marked the geography of boundaries and peripheries. Building a synagogue was possible at the edge of town. The Jewish cemetery by necessity lay just beyond the edge of town.

The search for Jewish folk song and folk music begins at the edge of town, where it encompasses not one, but many repertories, and where it mixes sounds and styles because of its inclusiveness rather than its exclusiveness. Jewish folk music does not parse into categories that articulate genre and function. Even in the most rural Jewish settlements, Jewish folk music is distinctive because of its instability and its propensity to undergo change. The Jewish village has been almost entirely invisible in the study of Jewish history in the German-speaking areas. The Jewish village of Central Europe differed from the East European shtetl, though in the historical imagination it has fulfilled many of the functions of the shtetl. In modern Jewish historiography the village is invisible because it responded to and represented a domain of in-betweenness.

While encountering the music of the Jewish village, we enter it along a number of different routes. Methodologically crucial for my approaches to past and present, the Jewish villages that spread across the landscape of this chapter have been the subjects of my own ethnographic fieldwork. In several cases, Sulzburg and Mikulov, for example, fieldwork was almost entirely archeological, that is, concerned with . . .

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