The Sacred and the Profane

Critic Lazare Saminsky Wrote of Two Divergent Sorts of Jewish Music

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published September 01, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”

Cold Fish: Critic Virgil Thomson turned up his nose at George Gershwin’s ‘geflite fish orchestration.’
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Cold Fish: Critic Virgil Thomson turned up his nose at George Gershwin’s ‘geflite fish orchestration.’

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.