Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth- Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack

By Padley, Danielle | Notes, September 2020 | Go to article overview

Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth- Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack


Padley, Danielle, Notes


Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth- Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack. By Judah M. Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. [xiii, 309 p. ISBN 9780253040206 (hardcover), $80; ISBN 9780253040213 (paperback), $25; also available as e-book, ISBN and price varies.] Works cited, index, author biography.

Judah M. Cohen's work takes a refreshing approach to Jewish music history, which to date has been largely examined within its own context-that is, away from discussions of other sacred (or secular) music. Cohen's goal is set out from the beginning: to counteract previous histories of Jewish synagogue music that place everything against the pinnacle of the central and eastern European Jewish masters, namely Salomon Sulzer of Vienna, Samuel Naumbourg in Paris, and later, Louis Lewandowski of Berlin. This European focus has historically promoted a one-sided narrative in which these figures are celebrated for their unparalleled musical writing for the synagogue, with a result that other accounts of synagogue musicians and musical development-in Britain, the United States, and in less central areas of Europe-have been dismissed as lower-quality or failed versions of the Sulzerian ideal. Even musicologists based in America have "looked past" its music in preference for that with a stronger Jewish "heritage," as seen in "Zionist, Eastern European, or Central European" Jewish music (p. 5). Cohen notes the particular irony of Abraham Zebi Idelsohn's pioneering work Jewish Music in its Historical Development (New York: Holt, 1929), which gave preferential treatment to more established and less "fragile" Jewish music histories (pp. 267-68), even though Idelsohn's own entry into the music profession as a rabbinical and music educator based in America was built upon generations of previous music leaders.

Determined to give nineteenthcentury American Jewish music its voice, Cohen's monograph addresses a series of lesser-known protagonists, examining them not in comparison with the musical standards of Sulzer et alia, but "reframe [d] along a completely different . . . axis: exploring the ways that musical activity factored into and complicated mid-nineteenth-century efforts to create coherence between religious ritual, private life, and the public square" (p. 78). Told through a series of engaging, narrative-driven and chronologically overlapping chapters, the Jewish musical life of America during this period is demonstrated to be rich, varied, and entirely interwoven into the fabric of religious practice- both within and outside the synagogue. In his introduction, he mentions an upcoming web-based project incorporating recordings, analyses, and "mapping projects," for which this book is "a first step" (p. 16).

The publications discussed in this monograph are as important as their creators, forming "part of a material musical culture that measured success through production, circulation, and adoption" (p. 8). Cohen remains realistic about their widespread impact; most of his chapters conclude with a summary of the work(s) mentioned and highlight their short-lived or localized success. Rather than undermining his research, however, Cohen's assertion that American Jews sought a variety of musical representations of their identity through a series of different and ever-changing practices is reaffirmed through this whistle-stop tour of musicians and publications. While they have not stood the test of time, they were unequivocally relevant to developing ideologies of what it meant (and means) to be an American Jew. I was particularly struck by the predominance of English-language texts in the featured collections, in stark contrast with the largely Hebrew-language hymnals published in Britain during the same period. Given the discussion in chapter 1 of the early influence of British Jewish musicians in America, I felt that a little more explanation regarding this proportion might have been beneficial. …

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