In a 1935 review of “Porgy and Bess,” Virgil Thomson, one of America’s most distinguished music critics, famously dismissed George Gershwin’s music as a form of “gefilte fish orchestration,” harshly consigning it to the ghetto of Jewish music rather than situating it within the broad expanse of American culture. Lazare Saminsky, Thomson’s contemporary and a fellow musician, vehemently disagreed. To his ears, Gershwin’s music, as well as that of Aaron Copland, sounded far more American than Jewish, an expression of the here-and-now rather than an invocation of what Saminsky took to be the truly authentic, biblically rooted past. “Not a cell of the blood of Jacob characterizes their compositions,” he wrote hotly. “This music abounds in ghetto raffinement or regeneration, whatever you may call it.”
I learned of Saminsky’s cutting observation just the other day, when I happened upon his book, “Music of the Ghetto and the Bible.” Published by Bloch in 1934, and reprinted nearly 50 years later by AMS Press, the text is a curious blend of voices, a mix of Saminsky’s contemporaneous musings on what he called “American Hebrew composers” and “American synagogue music” with brand-new, English-language translations of articles on Jewish music that he had first published in Russian in the years prior to World War I. It reads like a manifesto, a declaration of Jewish cultural assertion.
Once a household name within sophisticated, European musical circles, Saminsky, a polymath if ever there were one — whose talents extended to composing, conducting and beating the drum for a transnational Jewish culture — deserves a second hearing. After all, growing numbers of American Jews are paying more and more attention to their musical patrimony. Witness the warm online reception given to the forthcoming documentary “‘Hava Nagila’ (The Movie).” Or consider the exhaustive efforts of, among others, the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation and Pro Music Hebraica to retrieve, maintain and perform the compositions of an earlier era. To deepen our understanding of the historical context in which this music was embedded, we would do well to reckon with Saminsky’s passionately held views on what constituted genuine Jewish musical expression. At the very least, they are certain to raise an eyebrow or two.
Born in Odessa in 1882 to a prosperous Jewish merchant family, Saminsky studied composition in Moscow, and mathematics and philosophy in St. Petersburg. He became an active member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, accompanied celebrated writer, populist and folklorist S. An-sky on his ethnographic rounds and published widely in the Russian Jewish press. Arriving in the United States in 1920, he went on to enjoy a long and productive career as music director of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. When not engaged liturgically or rehearsing the congregation’s fabled choir, Saminsky championed what he liked to call “interfaith music,” mounting performances that emphasized the sounds that Jews and Christians had in common.