I am a music snob. People know this about me, and I deserve the title. I have said hurtful things in the past, and if you were on the receiving end of any of my snobbery, I apologize (unless I was right).
My snobbery extends to Jewish music, as well. My master’s thesis, after all, is entirely about the history and meanings of contemporary klezmer, a musical genre descended from the instrumental music of Eastern European Jews.
So, in preparation for my wedding last weekend, one question loomed larger than any other: what to do about “Hava Nagila?”
I won’t recap the entirety of the song’s history, ubiquity and supposed fall from favor, but it is fair to say that I fall into the camp of concerned listeners who hear it as a schlocky piece of music that has come to stand in for a much richer repertoire of celebratory Jewish tunes. But people expect it. After a few fraught exchanges with our wedding DJ and extended consultation with fellow music snobs, I came to the following conclusion: the DJ could begin with the version of “Hava Nagila” he’d originally proposed—the beginning of a pretty canned medley of Hebrew songs—so long as he faded into my preferred tracks. The opening “Hava Nagila” got people dancing in a circle and cued our friends to lift me and my bride up in our chairs, but by the time I was safe on the ground again, I was able to dance to Jewish music I actually enjoy.
So here are the tunes I picked:
This is a live video of Maxwell Street Klezmer Band> performing “Chusn Kalleh Mazl Tov.” I picked a studio recording of the track from their 2002 album Old Roots New World.
And a personal favorite, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars doing “Lieberman Funky Freylekhs,” from the 2002 album, Brotherhood of Brass. Just hit the play button below.
As I was researching the Jewish history of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I came upon a wonderful photograph in the 50th anniversary book for Congregation B’nai Emunah, published in 1966. The photo shows the victorious B’nai Emunah bowling team which won the city’s Church League in 1953, besting such competition as the First Christian Church, St. Paul Methodist, and First Presbyterian. It was the vintage haircuts and bowling shirts that first drew me to the picture, but it soon got me thinking about the changing nature of our congregations and communities.
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Political Scientist Robert Putnam traces the decline of social organizations, like bowling leagues, that used to connect individuals to a larger civic community. In many of the community histories that I write for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, I mention Jewish involvement in local Masonic Lodges or Rotary Clubs. Today, few people my age join such organizations. B’nai B’rith, which used to connect Jews across the country, is now a shell of its former self. In the Jewish world, we have seen a weakening of ties to our communal institutions, and much effort made to engage a new generation of Jews that evince little interest in joining a synagogue or supporting the Federation.
Earlier in the 20th century, there was a movement to build synagogue-centers, the “shul with a pool” idea, that would bring people to the synagogue for more than just worship or Hebrew School. Indeed, when Tulsa’s Reform congregation, Temple Israel, built a new synagogue in 1932, it had a gymnasium with a basketball court along with locker rooms. Interestingly, the new building did not have a sanctuary, as members met for services in the general purpose auditorium until they could raise enough money to build a proper sanctuary later, (which they never did).
By the 1950s, the time this photo was taken, social organizations, like bowling leagues, were commonplace. It was only natural that a church league would exist in a place like Tulsa, sometimes called the “buckle of the bible belt.” The involvement of a team from B’nai Emunah, an Orthodox (though soon to be Conservative) congregation, reflects both the strong ties within the Jewish community and the integration of Tulsa Jews into the city’s civic life.
What has Jewish life lost, now that so many of us “bowl alone?” Is there something we can learn from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations about bringing individual Jews together to form a cohesive community? Perhaps the answer isn’t a synagogue bowling team, but the Jewish world’s great contemporary challenge is to find ways to bind us together with fellow Jews as well as to the larger community.
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.