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

(page 2 of 2)

Shuttling between the bimah and the concert hall, Saminsky was guided by an unshakeable belief in the “stubborn tenacity of the national spirit.” He found that aural spirit, that “life-bearing ore,” in the chanting of the Torah and in traditional Hebrew prayer. Everything else, from Hasidic nigunim, or wordless tunes, to klezmer, let alone the jazz-inflected stylings of Gershwin and Copland, he placed beyond the pale. “The froth and dregs of the so-called Jewish folk-music, picked up in the bazaar of the Orient and the street-gutter of the Occident, have darkened and disfigured the noble countenance of Hebrew musical art,” Saminsky wrote in “Music of the Ghetto and the Bible,” distinguishing between what he took to be authentic musical forms on the one hand and inorganic grafts — or worse still, sources of contamination — on the other. Under the circumstances, “Hava Nagila,” which Saminsky fleetingly mentioned, barely passed muster. He described it as a “nomadic tune,” popular in Austrian Hasidic circles of the 19th century, that had migrated to Palestine, where it became a “favorite folk-song.”

Elsewhere throughout his book, Saminsky referred freely, and even proudly, to the “manly” Hebraic heritage, to a “racial melodic predilection, stable and obstinate as any other inbred feature of a distinct people”; to the existence of a “Jewish racial psyche,” and, most floridly, to a belief in the “seminal might and in the cultural fertility that flow from blood.”

Although well intentioned, Saminsky’s essentialist views are hard to swallow. References to “manly” this and “racial” that don’t go down easily these days. (You have to wonder how they ever did.) I, for one, squirmed my way through the pages of his 1934 book. From time to time, I even made grunting noises at some of its more outré pronouncements, startling my husband, who was happily, and quietly, engaged in reading the latest Alan Furst mystery.

Offering an unequivocally racialist reading of culture, Saminsky, it turns out, was strongly influenced by Wagner, who insisted on the racial underpinnings of music and art, on the indissoluble bonds between a culture and its people. As musicologist James Loeffler pointed out in a fascinating article in the journal Jewish Social Studies, the Russian Jew from Odessa shared the German composer’s views. But — and it’s a big one — he drew a different, and far more heartening, set of conclusions from them.

Where Wagner sought to banish the Jews from the cultural arena, claiming they simply didn’t belong, Saminsky sought to make room for them, to demonstrate through and through that the Jews had a musical culture, a “tonal heritage,” all their very own, one that transcended time and space, history and geography. What’s more, the music of the Jews, he tirelessly argued, was on a par with that of other nations and deserved a place at the table.

The Old World, for the most part, turned a deaf ear to Saminsky’s claims regarding an enduring, transnational Jewish sound, finding it too alien a concept, especially when set against the narrow frame of nationalism. The New World was something else again. Thanks to its stunning variety of immigrant groups, which some observers actually likened to a symphony, America proved to be more receptive. But only for a little while. By the time of Saminsky’s death, in 1959, the nation had changed its tune, drowning out his voice amid the clarion call of Americanization.


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 does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • 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.