Author Archives: Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha B. Edelman

About Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.

Nusah: The Music of Prayer

In the following article describes how the melodies differ for different types and parts of services. In addition, the prayer melodies–known as nusah–differ from community to community, with Askenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) using very different prayer music than Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Mediterranean descent). And even within those broad categories of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, one can find numerous geographic variations of nusah. Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The story of the evolution of the modern prayer book is a long one on which many volumes have been written. In fact, the story continues to this day, since, unlike the Torah or Talmud, the prayer book (siddur) was never formally canonized. Literally hundreds of different prayer books have been compiled, and new texts continue to be issued to suit the ever-changing needs of modern congregations.

What has emerged over time is a basic matbeah shel tefillah [literally “formula of prayer”], an overarching core for Jewish prayer that helps to structure all services. In and around this matbeahare various prayers that distinguish the daily morning, afternoon, and evening services from each other, as well as from the more elaborate rituals of Sabbaths and festivals.

More germane to the subject of our inquiry is the parallel evolution of musical traditions to distinguish these same services, or sections thereof–a system known as nusah. The prayer leader utilizes prescribed scales and even melodic patterns to be sure that daily services sound different from Sabbath services; morning services sound different from afternoon and evening services; the early morning Birkhot ha-Shahar and Pesukei de-Zimrah (literally “blessings of the dawn” and “passages of song”) sections sound different from the main body of the morning Shaharit service, and so forth.

The proper utilization of nusah guarantees that a Jewish “Rip van Winkle” could sleep for 20 years and identify the service to which he had awakened just by its musical motifs.

Leonard Bernstein: Jewish America’s Favorite (Musical) Son

Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

American audiences of all backgrounds swelled with pride as Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) became the first native son to overcome the European hegemony over conducting positions with ranking world orchestras. Bernstein was only 26 when he captured America’s heart–and respect–by stepping into the breach created by an ailing Bruno Walter and leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a critically acclaimed concert. The previously anony­mous, young assistant conductor was catapulted by that success into a career unprecedented in the history of Western music of any sort. Excelling in every venue he touched, Bernstein won praise as a conductor, pianist, teacher, and composer of a wide variety of musical forms.

Bernstein’s musical successes were as much a personal victory for him as they were a source of vicarious accomplishment for America. Bernstein had pursued his musical education over the strong objections of his father, who had urged him toward more conservative pursuits. Interestingly, despite (initially) frustrating his parents with his career choice, he did observe one important family tradition: The Jewish heritage that had been inculcated in him from his youth remained an important aspect of his personal and musical identity.

A Jewish-Themes Symphony

leonard bernstein

A year before his 1943 conducting debut, Bernstein completed his first symphony, though the work did not receive its premiere until 1944. At the conclusion of that season, the New York critics awarded Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 their highest accolade, pronouncing it the most impressive new work of the year. One wonders how the critics might have received the work if they had also appreciated its considerable Jewish musical content.

Bernstein subtitled his symphony “Jeremiah,” signaling his intent to tell the story of the prophet who had led Israel in the sixth century B.C.E.Jeremiah’s testimony is recorded in the biblical Book of Jeremiah, and in Lamentations, a series of five poetic odes written by Jeremiah as witness to the horrible destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people into Babylonian slavery. The sym­phony’s three movements are labeled, not with the customary Italian titles announcing form or speed, but with the names of the three “chapters” in Jeremiah’s life: “Prophecy” (his own), “Profanation” (as the people rejected his message), and “Lamentation” (as the prophet’s warnings came true). The didactic intent of this symphony could have been satisfied with these programmatic titles, but Bernstein endowed each movement with unique Jewish musical significance as well…

Cantillation: Chanting, or Leyning, the Bible

The following article is excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

Cantillation (from the Latin cantare, meaning “to sing”) is the practice of chanting from the biblical books in the Jewish canon. The practice goes back to the time of Ezra, when the Jewish people returned from their Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first Temple (about 510 B.C.E.).

Realizing that the people had stopped observing the laws of the Torah, Ezra took it upon himself to read portions of the Law every time he could assemble an audience. Sabbaths and festivals provided obvious opportunities; so, too, did market days, when large groups would gather to buy, sell, and catch up on local news. Market days were Mondays and Thursdays, and so, to this day, the Torah is read publicly at least three times each week.

Of course, Ezra did not have the benefit of modern acoustics, microphones, or even the undivided attention of his congregation. Ezra stood in the marketplace surrounded by squawking chickens, braying animals, and unruly children, and competed with the sounds of life. Exaggerating the highs, lows, and cadences of normal speech, Ezra projected the holy texts in a style caught somewhere between speaking and full-blown singing.

Formalizing the Practice

Ezra did not read the Torah in the manner common today. In fact, it is assumed that he differentiated only the beginnings, middles, and ends of verses. The notion of chanting the Bible was an evolving one that gradually became accepted and musically more elaborate. By the second century, Rabbi Akiva (ca. 50-135 C.E.) demanded that the Torah be studied–by means of chant–on a daily basis (B. Sanhedrin 99a).

Synagogue Music in the Modern Era

In the following article, the author offers an overview of the many changes that synagogue music has undergone in recent decades. She intermingles the narrative with her own views on the reasons for some trends, and some scholars might dispute some of her conclusions. Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The period following World War II saw major demographic and psychological changes in the American Jewish community. A new wave of immigration brought the remnants of war-ravaged Europe to American shores and closed the chapter on European leadership in Jewish music. Now it became necessary for American Jews to produce their own musical leaders. The seminaries that had been training rabbis since the late 19th century finally established schools to train cantors as well. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion opened its School of Sacred Music for cantors of the Reform movement in 1948 [and originally was intended to train cantors of all denominations]; the Jewish Theological Seminary started training Conservative cantors in its Cantors Institute in 1952; and the Cantorial Training Institute at Yeshiva University opened its doors to Orthodox cantors in 1954.

modern synagogue musicThe graduates of these schools faced a Jewish community different from what their predecessors had known. Returning soldiers eager to resume their lives and start families led to the growth of suburbia and the proliferation of synagogues outside major city centers. These new congregations were started by young people with strong ideas about their role in the synagogue service and eager to play an active part in determining their spiritual destinies.

Difficult Transition

Unfortunately, the transition was not a smooth one. The cantorial training schools were dominated by faculty who had trained with the old European models. The 1954 reissuing of 25 volumes known as the Out-of-Print Classics of Synagogue Music reaffirmed the role of music by Sulzer, Lewandowski, and Naumbourg in the synagogue and the style of nusah [musical motifs]promulgated by Gerovitsch and others of the 19th century. The “high church” style of practice continued to dominate the training of Reform cantors, and the role of the cantor as not just soloist, but also sole purveyor–and conservator–of synagogue music in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues was pronounced from the ivory towers of the cantorial schools.

Shlomo Carlebach

Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) was among the most unorthodox Orthodox rabbis of the 20th century. With a unique personality reflecting the full fervor of his adopted Hasidic background as well as a genuine love for his fellow Jew, Carlebach traveled North America telling stories, reaching out to Jews of all persuasions (including those with no affiliation), and using his talents to create melodies that touched his listeners and became instant staples in havurot [small prayer communities] and minyanim [prayer quorums] across the denominational spectrum. His setting of “Esa Einai” (Psalm 121), one of his earliest hits, was not originally intended for use in regular worship; however, the melody has been borrowed for use in conjunction with other texts, including the Sabbath Hymn of Glory (Anim Zemirot).


Some of the other Carlebach melodies that became regular parts of worship services were written for entry into Israel’s annual Hasidic Song Festival. In 1968 a small-budget Israeli play called Ish Hasid Haya (Once There Was a Hasid) brought traditional Hasidic songs and stories to the generally nonobservant masses who filled its audiences. The success of this material inspired enthusiasts to revitalize Hasidic music by soliciting songs–in an ostensibly Hasidic style–to be presented in an annual Israeli festival, starting in 1969. The fascination with most things Israeli on the part of many American Jews after the 1967 Six-Day War led Israeli promoters to bring a version of the Hasidic Song Festival to North American audiences.

The only things “Hasidic” about most of these songs were their relatively short melodies and traditional lyrics. Still, the presence of catchy new tunes for brief liturgical texts encouraged the use of many of these songs in the prayers of American Jews looking for easy-to-learn melodies and more congregational singing–even by congregants who were not fluent in Hebrew. Carlebach’s ve-Ha’er Einenu quickly jumped back into the morning services from which its lyrics were taken, and Nurit Hirsh’s (b. 1942) Oseh Shalom not only launched her subsequent career (limited almost exclusively to secular songs), but also became a staple of weekday and Sabbath services in countless synagogues across the continent….

Salamone Rossi & Synagogue Choral Music

Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The Jews of Renaissance Italy enjoyed intermittent tolerance by various rulers of the autonomous city-states that dotted the northern province. Many achieved prominence as court instrumentalists, singers, dancers, and actors. Salamone Rossi (ca.157O-ca.1628) was the last and most distinguished example. In 1587, he began his long association with the Gonzagan Court, initially as a singer and violist. He soon became the leader of Duke Vicenzo I’s court musicians and directed an instrumental ensemble probably composed of Jewish musicians. He also became a leading composer, pioneering the musical form known as the trio sonata. 

Rossi’s great claim to Jewish musical fame came with his publication in 1623 of Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo, a collection of 33 Psalms, hymns, and other liturgical poems set for combinations of from three to eight voices and intended for use on festive synagogue occasions. In publishing these works, Rossi relied heavily on the endorsement of his friend Rabbi Leon (Judah Aryeh) Modena. Modena (1571-1648) had issued a responsum [a rabbinic ruling] in 1605 that, after years of prohibition, provided halakhically [legally] derived approval for the performance of choral works in the synagogue. Modena’s own choir at his synagogue in Ferrara seems to have established a precedent. But how did the music sound?

Abandoning Traditional Melodies

There are at least six musical traditions among the various Jewish communities of Italy, including variations of Ashkenazic [East European-descended] and Sephardic [Spanish-descended] practices. While there are substantial differences among them, all share an Eastern cast. In Rossi’s day, this Eastern orientation precluded harmonization according to the prevailing Western styles. Rossi was faced with two choices: Give up his goal of creating art music for the synagogue or abandon the traditional nusah [musical motifs that distinguish each synagogue service] that limited his musical options. Rossi chose the latter.

Popular Klezmer: Pushing the Envelope

With the rebirth in the late 1900s of klezmer–traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe–Jews, and sometimes non-Jewish, musicians did what artists do: took the art of the past and ran with it, creating new sounds experimenting with the music in new ways. Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The rebirth of klezmer and its obvious appeal to a wide range of audiences predictably inspired a similar fusion of Jewish and other musical forms. Among the first and most seemingly obvious “foreign” interpreters of this newborn klezmer music was Don Byron, an African American clarinetist who was among the original members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

popular klezmer musicEven after leaving the band, Byron kept klezmer in his act, achieving a measure of notoriety that helped launch his solo career. At the same time, he promoted Jewish music in a community unfamiliar with (but ultimately appreciative of) the improvisatory aspects of klezmer and its affinity to both blues and jazz styles.

Classical violinist Itzhak Perlman’s infatuation with klezmer and the subsequent PBS broadcasts and recordings of his appearances with a variety of ensembles brought another new audience to this Old World music. Just as artistic renderings by members of The Society for Jewish Music brought the European intelligentsia to a new appreciation of Jewish folk songs, so Perlman’s “endorsement” enabled music lovers accustomed to more classical concerts to embrace klezmer as a lively and legitimate art form.

Expanding Klezmer’s Borders

Others capitalized on klezmer’s historic ability to assimilate musical sounds of the surrounding culture and began to expand the parameters of “traditional” Jewish music. In America, groups like the Klezmatics have begun to push the envelope while clearly evidencing a love for the culture of klezmer. Their music combines the traditional, celebratory aspects of klezmer with original sounds and an almost confrontational style that demands attention from the non-Jewish community. Addressing anti-Semitic stereotypes in America and in Europe (where fans of klezmer from outside the Jewish communities there clamor for tickets to Klezmatics concerts), the clever title of one of their best selling albums was Jews with Horns.

Klezmer Music

Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

 Among the most exciting “new” developments in modern Jewish music has been the late 20th-century rediscovery of klezmer, folk music of the itinerant European Jewish musicians that traveled with them on their journey to the New World. As with Yiddish theater and other aspects of Ashkenazic culture dependent upon links to the “old country,” klezmer’s popularity faded with the cessation of massive immigration from Eastern Europe and the increasing socialization–and assimilation–of America’s Jews.

By the late 1960s, klezmer had become a distant memory, a relic of another era, stored on 78 RPM recordings in attics and basements of Jewish homes but replaced at weddings and other communal functions by the music of Israel and popular American repertoire. The children of the aging klezmorim [klezmer musicians] turned to American dance bands, classical music or, ironically, the folk repertory of America’s other ethnic communities. Young Jews flocked to Irish music, jazz, and American folk song.

Simple Question Leads to Klezmer Revival

But in 1973, while exploring the string band music of Appalachia, Henry Sapoznik was asked whether Jews had their own music. With this simple question, this son of a European-born cantor, a deliberate refugee from the Jewish music of his Lubavitch yeshivah [school] and the Catskill hotels where his family spent Passover vacations, now turned back to his own traditions. Beginning with a cache of old records at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Sapoznik unearthed the vestiges of European klezmer music, already reinterpreted and transformed by American recording technology.

Sapoznik’s enthusiasm for his own music, which he saw now with different eyes, led him to additional research into klezmer music, funded by U.S. government grants. He met elderly Jews who had played in the klezmer ensembles of the 1920s and on some of the first klezmer recordings by companies like Columbia and RCA Victor. By 1979, Sapoznik had formed Kapelye to play a concert in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1981 the group, enhanced by clarinetist Andy Statman, Sapoznik’s own cantor father, and others, formed Der Yiddisher Caravan, a national touring show that performed cantorial selections, Yiddish theater songs, and klezmer music in concert venues across the United States. Coincidentally, others had also begun to delve into klezmer music.