American Jewish Music

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bob dylanThese expressions of secular music, though, only scratch the surface of the American Jewish artistic experience. Beginning with the early waves of immigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Jews imported and further developed distinct musical sounds, identified as a cultural manifestation of life in the old country and in the tenements of New York. Klezmer, from the Hebrew words kli zemer ("vessel of song"), originated in the Pale of Settlement, the junction of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, and it arrived in America with the earliest immigrants.

The sounds of klezmer were easily adapted to the Yiddish theater, imported to New York's Lower East Side from Europe. This counterpart of Broadway shows developed as a cultural expression of and for the Jewish community. As early as the mid-1920s, Yiddish radio stations broadcasted musical programs for their Jewish listeners.

jewish music quizSecond-generation American Jews reacted against their parents' insulated attitudes, and the popularity of klezmer and Yiddish music went into remission. The last few decades, however, have seen a revival of this music. Beginning with the klezmorim (klezmer musicians) of the mid-1970s, the klezmer revival represents a return to tradition and a search for spirituality. Popular figures like Andy Statman have allowed the klezmer movement to expand, to include new instruments and sounds suited to modern audiences.

At the same time, American Jewish music has seen the birth of new genres. As Jews have become more comfortable asserting their religious and cultural identity, Jewish musicians have adopted influences of American folk and rock music. The work of artists like Debbie Friedman uses largely acoustic folk sounds infused with Jewish lyrics and ideas. The band Safam (Hebrew for "moustache") employs sounds as diverse as cantorial music and popular rock to convey messages of political and religious import. Shlock Rock adapts extant popular songs by artists from Bruce Springsteen to the Beatles, remaking them with lyrics on Jewish themes.

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