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The category of secular Jewish music is as elusive as it is important. It may be broadly defined as any music used primarily by Jews in non-liturgical contexts. Our knowledge of secular Jewish music through the generations is necessarily limited, since it has been transmitted primarily via oral tradition, much of which we presume has been lost. It includes such phenomena as the folk song, the nigun (wordless tune), theater music, and epic recitation.
But to say that the category consists of music “used” by Jews fails to account for musical phenomena like Fiddler on the Roof: Though the show’s music was written by a Jewish composer and its story was based on literature of a Jewish author, it was intended primarily for non-Jewish Broadway audiences. Nevertheless, it has for decades served as a Jewish cultural icon, and it continues to influence the self-image of the American Jewish community.
The question of the influence of non-Jewish musical traditions is essential in the discussion of all Jewish musical practice, but especially so in secular genres, where musicians were perhaps more ready to adopt non-Jewish elements.
The friendly ties between the Sephardic community of Spain and its non-Jewish neighbors before the Inquisition resulted in considerable interaction and hybrid innovations in philosophy and literature (Maimonides, for example)–and in music. The romansas–songs of love and heroism along the lines of epic poetic recitation, which even today form part of the Sephardic musical tradition–derive from this cultural intersection. Through contact in later generations with the music of host countries such as Turkey and Bulgaria, the Sephardic community has continued to develop its tradition of folk songs, drawing on local modal and melodic patterns.
By contrast, our knowledge of the secular musical traditions of the Ashkenazic community is sparse before the 19th century. We can assume that folk melodies existed, as they do in every society, but they were not written down and not deemed important enough to be maintained with any fixity. The most extensive body of secular Ashkenazic folk music from before the 19th century are the Hasidic niggunim. It was perhaps because of the Hasidic emphasis on the personal, emotional quest for a relationship with God that Hasidim created this body of textless song.
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