From the Academy: Musicology

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Judah Cohen serves as The Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and as an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University in Bloomington. His first book,
Through the Sands of Time
(2004), explores the history of the small Jewish community on the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His second book,
The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment
, will be published by Indiana University Press this fall with an accompanying CD. Cohen’s research impressively combines ethnographic and historical approaches to the question of how sound enriches modern Jewish life and culture.

What counts as Jewish music?

To me, people are what make music—or anything—Jewish. I begin with the assumption that people can bring ideas of Judaism to any kind of music or sound they deem appropriateJudah Coheniate. Once they do that, however, people then often need to justify their choices by building up historical, Biblical, cultural, or musical explanations for their actions. (And consequently, people will often use the same criteria to explain why competing forms of Jewish music are less authentic.) What’s most useful, I’ve found, is asking why people feel it’s important to define certain forms of musical expression as Jewish. Understanding the values involved in making music “Jewish” opens up a rich and vibrant window into the life of a community and its own sense of Jewish identity and history.

How does the study of Jewish music differ from the study of other musical traditions?

Theoretically, studying Jewish music mainly requires an open mind and a willingness to learn how to see the world through the eyes (and ears) of others. That’s not as easy as it seems, though, since our ears are often trained from early on to accept certain sounds as good, elite, or profound, and other sounds as bad, popular, or superficial. Jewish music poses particular challenges, since most of the scholars who study it identify as Jews themselves (this is less the case with Chinese music or Javanese music), and face some sort of personal stake in their projects. Developing the skill to stay true to one’s own beliefs while effectively studying and describing the closely held beliefs of others as represented through sound poses for a significant challenge for Jewish music study.

Posted on August 3, 2009

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