Skip To Content

The 33 greatest Jewish pop songs of all time (that we left off our list)

Much as we expected when we published “The 150 greatest Jewish pop songs of all time” on January 31, 2022, readers responded with their likes, dislikes, and suggestions for songs that did not make the list. Attendees at the Zoom event we hosted about the list offered their opinions, and at our invitation, readers sent us ideas for songs that they would have included on the list.

Suggestions were as diverse as the original list, ranging from “Never Again” by alt-metal band Disturbed to “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland.

Herein, we give readers the last word:

“Beyond the Pale,” Big Audio Dynamite

Several correspondents wondered why Big Audio Dynamite’s “Beyond the Pale” was not on our list. The immediate answer is: none of us thought about it. But being a huge BAD fan myself, I feel some responsibility for this oversight. Big Audio Dynamite is the band that Mick Jones, formerly of the Clash, formed when he left that group. While Joe Strummer is best known as frontman of the Clash, Jones was an equal creative partner as a songwriter and singer. Jones was responsible for much of the funkier music of the Clash, and he carried that on through the various iterations of Big Audio Dynamite. Jones’s maternal grandmother, Stella Zegansky, escaped Russian pogroms in the early 20th century by emigrating to the U.K. As reader Jennifer Bernstein explains about “Beyond the Pale,” besides the obvious reference to the Pale of Settlement in the song’s title, “This song is all about [Mick’s] grandparents escaping persecution in Russia and settling in the UK. Another thing I really love about it is its pro-immigration stance and how much that message resonates to this day. This song is just absolutely brilliant.” Jennifer, I couldn’t agree with you more, and “Beyond the Pale” has rocketed to near the top of my own personal Jewish Top 10 list. Thanks.

“Pretzel Logic,” Steely Dan

Several readers felt that “Pretzel Logic” by Steely Dan should be on the list because of some intrinsic connection to Nazism and Adolf Hitler. As John MacKinnon of Halifax, Nova Scotia, explained, “Somewhere, Donald Fagen claimed that one of Steely Dan’s songs contains a ‘hidden’ account of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Presumably, ‘Pretzel Logic’ is that song. Since pretzels are twisted, ‘pretzel logic’ must refer to twisted thinking. But since pretzels share their twistedness with swastikas, ‘pretzel logic’ must refer to Nazi thought, in all its more figurative twistedness. This reading seems to be borne out in the lyrics, since it’s easy to imagine the song being sung by Hitler himself, on the tantalizing assumption that political power somehow eluded him and he became a showman instead. This lends the song a certain humor, since he comes off like some cut-rate vaudevillian, in heels and fishnet stockings, his breathy crooning punctuated by the occasional stylish glissade, dreaming of touring the ‘southland’ (Sudetenland?), cozying up to fellow megalomaniacs (Napoleon) and high-stepping his way to stardom.”

“Jarusalema,” Johnny Clegg

Scott Benarde was one of our original contributors, but he also suggested a few songs by the late, great Jewish South African artist Johnny Clegg. You can probably figure that “Jarusalema” is an ode to the Holy City beloved by the three great Abrahamic religions. Benarde also suggested consideration be given to Clegg’s “Warsaw, 1941” and “Jericho”.

“This Train Revised,” Indigo Girls

“This one was influenced when the non-Jewish Amy Ray took a comparative religion class in college and a Holocaust survivor came to deliver a guest lecture. She was embarrassed and shocked she knew nothing about it, hadn’t been taught it in high school, so researched it and eventually wrote this very powerful song.” – Scott Benarde

“The Boxer,” Simon & Garfunkel

While “The Boxer” was indeed included on our original list, Havi Rubinstein of Melbourne, Australia, wrote to offer her unique interpretation of why the song is deeply Jewish. “I would suggest there is something explicitly Jewish about the song’s protagonist — the ‘poor boy’ whose story is seldom told. I think this character has been mapped onto the experience of Isaac from the Bible, exploring his psychological trauma, wrestling with faith and family expectations after that fateful near-sacrifice event.” Click on the above link for a 12-minute “lyrical shiur” by Havi.

“Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner,” Jill Sobule

“The title is funny, the lyrics can be, too; the music is punk meets polka and klezmer, and it initially might sound like a novelty, but as Hesta Prynn might say, Sobule is being a badass here and exploding with Jewish pride reminding everyone that: “Paul was Saul before he was Paul and the Last Supper was a seder… All you Christians remember, your lord was a Jew!” – Scott Benarde

“The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon & Garfunkel

While it is most often read as a missive from Paul Simon to his duet partner, Art Garfunkel — who was off in Mexico filming “Catch-22” when Simon wrote the song – in which Simon recognizes Garfunkel’s desire to go off on his own (“I know that you’ve been eager to fly now”), Sara Lippmann writes that the song “feels like the ultimate Jewish anthem.” She says it is “an embodiment of alienation and longing as much as it is a celebration of selfhood, an assertion of identity in all its foolish hope and reckless honesty. To be alone while also a part of, to be both outside the world and inside ourselves, to carve out footing among the hum and buzz of the only city that will have us — this is who we are, where we’ve arrived, this is our shared narrows…. It’s a love song. A paean. An elegy. A covenant with the self. Plus, what’s a Jewish song if it doesn’t make you weep?”

“Black and Blue,” Louis Armstrong

Originally composed by Fats Waller for “Hot Chocolates,” the same Broadway musical that contained the hits songs “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” and made into a hit record by Ethel Waters in 1930, the song “Black and Blue” became one of Louis Armstrong’s signature song. While perhaps technically outside of the time and genre boundaries we set as parameters for the original Forward 150, the song is indeed “great” and, perhaps unfortunately, speaks with an urgent, contemporary relevance. Harold Pupko, of Toronto, wrote, “In this era of heightened antisemitism and generalized hatred of the other, Louis Armstrong’s rendition of ‘Black and Blue’ ranks as one of the quintessential expressions of what it feels to be on the receiving end of racial meshugas. Satchmo’s neshama deserves the aliyah of putting this song on your next list.”

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult

Lynda Kraar writes, “Best Jewish pop song is Rolling Stone’s 1976 Song of the Year, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,’ by Blue Öyster Cult. The lyrics have prickly notes of ‘The Dybbuk’ against an oaky guitar riff with the calming effect of squid ink.” Kraar quotes songwriter Buck Dharma for support: “…I was thinking about mortality…The whole idea of the Reaper was that if there was another sphere of existence, maybe lovers could bridge that gap if their love was strong enough.” Kraar concludes, “Forbidden love. If we can’t have it here, we’ll take it there. What could be more Jewish?”

“If It Be Your Will,” Leonard Cohen

As noted elsewhere, we tried to keep a cap on songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Paul Simon, lest they take up most of the spots on the list. Still, Ronald Glas wrote simply: “Unbelievable that this song not on your list.”

“Samson and Delilah,” Rev. Gary Davis

“Sam and Delilah,” Ella Fitzgerald

“Missing from your list are two of the great Old Testament “pop” songs. Both are about Samson and his famous mate: “Samson and Delilah” by Rev. Gary Davis, which features great guitar as well as a thrilling version of the story; and the Gershwins’ “Sam and Delilah,” as sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Surely you need at least one song from the Great American Songbook! And the difference between the two shows the traditional Jewish understanding of What a Difference a Syllable Makes.” — David Rosen

“New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel

David H. Guston feels strongly that we unfairly overlooked Billy Joel, writing: “That Billy Joel does not make the list with any of his songs is a travesty. Born to Jews of European descent who were affected by the Holocaust, Joel’s work bears all the traces of New York Jewish angst, even if Joel himself doesn’t readily identify.” Keep in mind that The Forward 150 is about songs, not artists, but Guston feels that “New York State of Mind” deserves a nod for Jewish resonances, along with “Captain Jack,” “Miami 2017,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

“Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland

“For any person striving for a better life in a better place, the song of hope is “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, both sons of Jewish immigrants to America. It expresses the anxiously optimistic longing for a place where ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true’…. Surely it belongs on your list.” — Sandy Schuman

“Song of Job,” Seatrain

The short-lived late-1960s/early-1970s roots band Seatrain included members of the Blues Project, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and famous bluegrass singer-songwriter Peter Rowan. They also had the honor of having their second album produced by George Martin — the first group he worked with after the Beatles split up. Sue Dorfman wrote, “While the searing, soaring violin of Richard Greene enthralled me, it was the lyrics of these Seatrain songs that captured and captivated my then young Jewish soul (and still do).” In addition to “Song of Job,” Sue likes “13 Questions” — in which she finds the influence of Maimonides — and “Waiting for Elijah.”

“Hallelujah,” Milk & Honey

“I fell in love with [Israeli group] Milk & Honey’s pop song ‘Hallelujah’ the first time I heard it in Jerusalem, during my Shnat-Sadat at Hebrew Union College on King David Street, probably in spring 1978. Its melodic simplicity and universal theme to praise God easily won the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest.” — Trudy Lapin

Other suggestions included:

Tel Aviv,” Jill Sobule

Run Samson Run,” Neil Sedaka

Every Grain of Sand,” Bob Dylan

Never Again,” Disturbed

Mad About You,” Sting

Been to Canaan,” Carole King

The Immigrant,” Neil Sedaka

Citizen Boris,” Golem

We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” Kinky Friedman

I Don’t Believe in Jesus (But I Sure Do Like His Songs),” Aztec Two-Step

(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” Tom Lehrer

Light One Candle,” by Peter Yarrow

(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” Tom Lehrer

How Do You Spell Channukkahh,” The Leevees

Jews Don’t Camp,” David Buskin

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” by Allan Sherman

There’ll Be Peace In the Valley For Me,” Elvis Presley

Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.