Secular Jewish Music

Print this page Print this page

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.

The contrast between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities in this regard is striking: While the Sephardim maintained a secular musical tradition based in large part on the music of their non-Jewish neighbors, the Ashkenazim seem not to have applied great effort to the creation of secular music until the emancipation of Jews in Europe and the birth of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in the 19th century. Until that point non-Jewish governments enforced a strict separation from the Jews who resided in their lands; Jews lived in ghettos and had little interaction with non-Jewish neighbors.

jewish music quizWith the emancipation came a desire on the part of "enlightened" Jewish intellectuals to educate the Jewish community in aspects of non-Jewish culture, including music. As Reform temples incorporated organs and other instruments into their liturgical practice, Jews simultaneously began to learn about non-Jewish theater and instrumental music.

After a time, though, the Jewish intelligentsia came to see Jewish musical culture as distinct from that of the non-Jews; intellectuals such as Mendele Mokher Seforim cultivated a Yiddish literature, and Abraham Goldfaden composed operettas using themes of Jewish history and Zionism to appeal to the political sensibilities of his co-religionists. Though Goldfaden's music is based on the tonal organization of western European music, he sprinkled his songs with pseudo-eastern melodies to give them a more culturally Jewish sound.

The revolution in Yiddish theater sparked by Goldfaden and his followers interacted with the Yiddish folk tradition in Europe--the famous folk lullaby "Raisins and Almonds" is from a Goldfaden operetta--and the instrumental klezmer tradition. When Yiddish music was imported to America its texts and contexts were gradually translated for an increasingly English-speaking audience. While the Yiddish music tradition may still be heard in the recent klezmer revival and in occasional musical theater performances at the Folksbiene (a Yiddish theater in New York), the Jewish folk tradition veered in the direction of general American folk music, as in the works of Debbie Friedman and Safam.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.