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How Synagogue Music Breaks Down Barriers Between Denominations

We may fret about declining enrollments in rabbinical seminaries and the ever-rising tide of intermarriage, yet one aspect of the contemporary Jewish experience should lift our spirits rather than roil them: music. From monthly concerts and annual festivals that cast a spotlight on the creativity that pulses throughout the community to Shabbat services where, week in and week out, American Jews can be found in full throttle, the Jewish music scene is a vibrant one.

Sound — drawn from just about everywhere — suffuses today’s synagogue service. In what is the sonic equivalent of post-denominationalism, congregations across the board liberally and freely avail themselves of the entirety of their musical patrimony, collapsing formerly intact boundaries. Everything is up for grabs: Hasidic nigunim, piyyutim from Turkey, pop music from Israel, chazonus from the Old Country. These days, you’re more likely to hear an oud than an organ.

Until recently, though, music was one of the devices by which the denominations distinguished themselves from one another. As much an ideological statement as a musical one, the sensibility of any given congregation not only reflected the predilections and talents of its cantor, but also expressed a particular vision of Judaism. Reform congregations collectively defined themselves in terms of their tasteful, stately and “refined” liturgy; Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations, for the most part, defined themselves in terms of congregational singing — the more exuberant and unrestrained the better. The Reform movement placed a premium on the performative, seeking to instill a spirit of contemplation among individual worshippers, while its more traditional counterparts placed a premium on participation and on nourishing a sense of the collective.

Every one of these perspectives was rooted in internal liturgical practices, to be sure, as well as in the outside world’s valuation of them. Christian critics, variously confounded, alarmed and dismayed by the “clamor” of Jewish prayer, had neither generous nor kind things to say about it. Everything about the manner in which Jews chanted, sang, declaimed and trilled hurt their ears. So taken aback was one visitor to an Ashkenazic Amsterdam synagogue in the 1770s that all he could think of were parallels with the animal kingdom. At some points in the service, he recalled, the mutterings of the congregation “resembled the hum of bees.” At other moments, its members sounded like a “pack of hounds when a fox breaks cover.” Buzzing and baying, Jews at prayer personified noise.

Negative, hurtful comments like these were taken to heart and internalized, prompting Jewish communal leaders in both the Old World and the New to strip away what they took to be oriental flourishes and “tasteless embellishments,” often at the expense of authenticity and in the name of modernization.

Thick on the ground, animadversions against Jewish music and those who made it were once so abundant they could easily fill a book — and, recently, they have: Ruth HaCohen’s “The Music Libel Against the Jews.” Widely and justly praised for its formidable scholarship, for its sensitivity to the “sonic borders” that divided Jews from Christians, her richly detailed account reckons with the religious, cultural and political implications of sound. The “vocal element,” HaCohen notes astutely as she takes the full measure of “noise accusations” against the Jews, “gives a new twist” to the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Jewishness, it turns out, was not just a theological category, but an aesthetic statement as well.

Thanks to HaCohen’s insights, we are now in a better position to understand why some congregations were given to “worship” while others preferred to “daven.” Whether aligning itself with the prevailing “rules of art,” or looking inward to Jewish history for inspiration, synagogue music was, and is, both rallying cry and ritual.

For maximum effect, for high fidelity, I suggest HaCohen’s book be read in tandem with “Sounds Jewish,” a symposium at Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which will be held on March 26. Bringing together those who make music with those who study it, scholars as well as practitioners, the symposium is intended to make us think through the ways in which music constitutes community, effects change, and excites the imagination. As Lila Corwin Berman, the event’s organizer and director of the Feinstein Center, puts it, the gathering is intended to provide an opportunity to “reimagine” the possibilities of Jewish life in the 21st century.

A tall order, but given the lively, voluble and talented cast of characters that will be exchanging views, and a concluding evening concert that promises to be unlike any concert you’ve ever attended — an exercise, I am told, in “orchestrated spontaneity” — “Sounds Jewish” will surely leave us humming.

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