American Jews have always walked a fine line between retaining a distinctive national identity and assimilating into the broader culture. Definitions of American Jewish music reflect this delicate balance: The category “American Jewish music” may constitute any music written in America by Jews; music of a particularly religious nature composed for some religious purpose; music that functions as a culturally defining artifact; or some combination of all these.
The contribution of Jews to the production of “mainstream” music in America is of great significance. Broadway singer Al Jolson became a great success in the 1920s; George Gershwin trained as a classical composer and continued to write works in the classical idiom even as he collaborated with his brother Ira in writing some of Broadway’s most memorable and influential music. The Broadway musical Showboat (1927) was written by Jewish composer Jerome Kern, and Americans of all backgrounds adopted it as a nationally defining story, one that dealt with the ever-intensifying issues of race relations and the search for a common American identity.
The contributions of Benny Goodman, Ziggy Elman, and Artie Shaw to the development of the originally African-American idioms of jazz and big band music worked in tandem with the innovations of non-Jewish musicians to develop a truly “American” sound. Simon and Garfunkel made marked contributions to the popularization of American folk music, and Jewish artists like Barbra Streisand and Mel Brooks have helped to shape the face of musical theater and film.
Jewish composers were also essential in defining the sound of American classical music. The most famous of Aaron Copland’s music fuses the sounds of 19th- and early 20th-century American folk music with the symphonic textures of Western art music. Leonard Bernstein was a formidable presence throughout the world of orchestral music and Broadway, as composer and conductor; he brought together various religious and musical elements when, for example, he set both Latin and Hebrew sacred texts in his “Chichester Psalms.”
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