Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Crooning for Hashem

There is a deluge of new Orthodox Jewish music. I think this music is important and is not getting much recognition. The market for Jewish “religious” music has obviously expanded to a point that it can support many artists. There must be 100 guys crooning away, plus a half dozen a cappella groups, and then there are all these Chasidic choirs yoi-yoi-yoiing their hearts out. There are over a thousand CD’s on the market and a non-stop stream of new releases. (I’m waiting for the blank CD, Briskers Sing. Bad joke, but couldn’t resist.)

There is a lot to be said on this topic. Here are 5 comments:

Most everyone has either never heard any of this music or takes it for granted as a marginal phenomena, with no serious import. By the way, we’re not talking Israeli secular music, different market, different listeners, but new tunes, mostly from the Orthodox Diaspora, many sung in a pseudo archaic shtetl style….(oy,oy,oy, discobeatbeatbeat ,yoiyoi.) If you ever heard a really old tune/nigun from Galicia or Yemen or even Chabad and compare it to say Mordechai ben David or Ofra Hazan the difference is obvious. The former are thin songs with minimal complexity. The latter, especially with all this Russian émigré talent, can sound like Rachmaninoff on steroids. After 65 years memories of the old country are not as vivid as they used to be.

Many people are convinced it’s all worthless. Hebrew words with rock syncopation, totally derivative, the best are second rate and it goes downhill from there. I strongly disagree. There is plenty of schlock & kitsch, to be sure, but there also are great, deep, spiritually uplifting songs. I can listen for an hour to one of the internet radio stations that play this music, the best is Radio Breslav, and nothing happens, and then suddenly there is a tune, 1 niggun out of 20, that is both moving and memorable.

The oeuvre of late R.Shlomo Carlebach is reason enough to take this music seriously.
(Perhaps when the play about R. Shlomo opens off-Broadway sometime in ’07 his artistic importance will be more fully appreciated. The news release said the first choice of the producers for the role of R.Shlomo is George Castanza/Jason Alexander. I don’t think so, but then again the producers aren't asking for suggestions.)
Two special places to experience the Carlebach Song in all its depth and beauty is Friday night at Bnei Jeshurin in NYC, Broadway & 88th (left-left Conservative) and Shira Chadashah (borderline Orthodox/Conservadox) on Rechov Emek Refaiim in Jerusalem. There is a cute video with an addictive Carlebach nigun at

I feel the new music is moving too far away from its roots. The essence of a niggun is that you should want and be able to remember the tune. It is meant to be sung in shul by the congregation, at Shabus meals by the entire family, in the car by individuals. Many of the new songs coming out cannot be remembered or repeated by ordinary voices. Who can duplicate the pyrotechnics of an Avraham Fried, the Celine Dion of this genre? When I was a boy, Orthodox Jewish music was mostly waltzes and marches. It looked back to the pre First World War Austrian Hungarian Empire, where the Strauss family was still dominant, tunes from operettas were widely recognized, and marching bands were everywhere. A great nigun should be like a virus or meme that we welcome into our consciousness and never ask to leave. I feel the tunes of fifty years ago will still be with us when the Miami Boys Choir CDs have long been forgotten.

The New York Times plays an important role in keeping this music permanently obscure. A bunch of whirling dervishes show up in Manhattan, and do whatever they do in a hall of 300 people, and it’s treated with great respect the next day. Yaakov Shwekey and Yossi Williger put on a concert in Brooklyn for 20000 and it will never be reported. The popular music pages of this great newspaper have been hijacked by critics deeply committed to alternative rock, hip hop, world music, electronic and so on. These guys can’t find a place on their radar screen for pop, country, easy listening, mainstream rock ‘n roll. When was the last time you saw a review of a pop star or a country and western Nashville musician? The music pages are too hip by half, and way ahead of the listening tastes of its readership. If Elton John and Faith Hill are invisible, Mordechai Ben David has no chance, even if he draws a crowd of 50000.

I also put part of the blame on classical Conservative and Reform rabbis. They are way too litvish,(analytical, intellectual, text oriented). They somehow feel that if they don’t educate the mind, if they appeal to the heart, it’s manipulative and worthless. The market could expand by 50% if this high church, narrow approach was modified.

Look at what Rabbi Meyer z”l did in Buenos Aires. ( He introduced the Carlebach nusach/style in his Conservative synagogue, with its emphasis on the use of only Hebrew in the liturgy. This style has spread to EVERY non- Orthodox shul in Argentina and to most non-Orthodox congregations in Latin America, enriching and strengthening the spiritual life of many, many people. The genius of the Rabbi Meyer move was to combine the soul enhancing qualities of the Carlebach service with serious left politics that stand for something, in his case the fight against the fascist Argentinean military junta. Suddenly you have services that are meaningful, and congregations with a purpose.


At 1:31 PM, Blogger nyfunnyman said...

you know what they say- a high level is a niggun with words and the higest level is a niggun without words.
but the brisers quipped- the highest level is a nigun without a nigun!


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