Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884-1914. Vivi Lachs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 2018.

Reviewed by Joseph D. Toltz

Vivi Lachs’ Whitechapel Noise: Jewish Immigrant Life in Yiddish Song and Verse, London 1884–1914 provides a fresh perspective on the rise and fall of Yiddish in Great Britain. In this excellent and articulate study, the writer contributes a nuanced, historical examination of Yiddish life in London from the mid-1880s to the beginning of the Great War.

In this highly approachable and well-written book, Lachs—a scholar and musician who actively performs the Yiddish repertories that she researches—weaves through streets, music-halls, socialist gatherings and religious debates of the period to paint a portrait of a complex, conflicted community encountering modernity in the Anglosphere. Lachs describes how individuals both resisted and embraced Yiddish in many varied ways. She does so primarily through the analysis of song and verse, complementing this material with experiential narratives from audiences and performers sourced from reviews, articles and memoirs. Lachs filters the material through two distinct lenses—the manner of their engagement with the process of acculturation, and the way in which her subjects (both personalities and songs) reflect the transnational and transcultural nature of the Yiddish community in London. Throughout the work, her particular focus is on what would have been referred to by the Anglo-Jewish establishment as the three forbidden subjects of polite conversation: religion, politics, and sex. It is most refreshing to read an acknowledgement of the diverse nature of the construction of immigrant culture in an historical examination of pre-Holocaust Yiddish life.

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Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack. Judah Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-0253040206.

Reviewed by Jeremiah Lockwood

In his latest monograph, Judah Cohen offers a first deep dive into the overlooked music of a period in American Jewish history that has been the focus of increasing historic attention in recent years. In the brief summation of the period offered by A.Z. Idelsohn in the classic Jewish Music in its Historical Development, Idelsohn asserts that Jewish immigrants lost their sonic identity by adopting the musical norms of their new home. In contrast, Cohen reaches past reductive debates about “tradition versus modernity” to demonstrate why and how Jewish liturgical musicians made the stylistic choices they did.  Cohen explores how music offered Jewish Americans a means to express shifting social and economic identities through music. By looking at the music Jews made in their religious life, rather than comparing them to an imagined source of authenticity, Cohen challenges the monolithic paradigm of tradition that has bounded much of the classic scholarship in the field.

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Rumskinsky: Di Goldene Kale (critical edition). Michael Ochs, eds. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2017.

Reviewed by Hankus Netsky

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I have to admit that the irony of being asked to write a review of Michael Ochs’s wonderful critical edition of Rumshinsky’s Di Goldene Kale for Musica Judaica was not lost on me.  As some of our readers might know, the very first editor of this journal and, in fact, the founder of The American Society for Jewish Music was none other than Jewish music scholar Albert Weisser.  Here’s a quote from one of his best-known books:

“The American Yiddish theatre, as it was known at the beginning of the twentieth century on through to the 30s, is today almost non-existent. Aside from Joseph Achron [1], it never had any contact with first-rate composers. Because it built on ‘debris’ rather than the pearls of the Jewish folk song and because it hardly ever outgrew its almost primitive technique, listening today to the body of music it has produced is an embarrassing and painful experience.” [2]

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Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music and Postwar German Culture. Tina Frühauf and Lily Hirsch, eds. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780199367481.

Reviewed by Karen Uslin

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In 1945, upon seeing the ruins of his childhood home in Białystok, Polish Jewish author and artist Israel Beker held a piece of the family’s salt cellar in his hand and exclaimed: “If this salt cellar is in my hand, it proves that they existed once—because it seemed to me that they never existed—no father, no mother, no brothers or sisters—no home—no neighborhood—all disappeared—and if so—then possibly I don’t exist at all.” (p. 121) But Becker and his family did exist, and the Jewish cultural brokers and artists of Germany also continued to exist after World War II. In Dislocated Memories: Jews, Music, and Postwar German Culture (OUP 2014), editors Tina Frühauf and Lily E. Hirsch bring together a collection of essays that address music’s role in cultural, political, and social change in post-World War II Germany, while also considering the questions of what the terms “Jewish” and “German” entail in the contexts of both musical culture and transnationalism. The authors address the legacy of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in the cultural arts of a people who have been displaced and must move forward after unspeakable trauma.

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New York Noise: Radical Jewish Music and the Downtown Scene. Tamar Barzel. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015. ISBN 9780253015570.

Reviewed by Jeff Janeczko

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On February 29, 1940, the composer Stefan Wolpe addressed a meeting of the Jewish Music Forum on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a talk titled, “What Is Jewish Music?” While he did eventually offer a vague answer, his opening statement pointed out the ineluctable ideology of the question itself: “The question of Jewish music conceals the questioner,” he remarked.  “[T]he answer is needed by the unclear conscience of those who would have the clear conscience that they are Jewish composers.” [1] Which is to say that those who ask the question are seeking to define a field in which their own work is included.

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Defining Deutschtum: Political Ideology, German Identity, and Music-Critical Discourse in Liberal Vienna, David Brodbeck. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 9780199362707.

and

The Political Orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich, Fritz Trümpi; translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. ISBN 9780226251424.

Reviewed by Erol Koymen

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Each year, classical-music lovers the world over tune into the Vienna Philharmonic’s televised New Year’s Day Concert. With its lush, mellow orchestral sound, the Philharmonic ushers in the new year in traditional fashion with marches and folksy waltzes accompanied by images of the Musikverein, Vienna’s gilded, neo-classical temple to musical art. The other 364 days of the year? Any time, day or night, the Berlin Philharmonic invites listeners into the bold, organic Philharmonie via a subscription to its Digital Concert Hall, where the repertoire ranges from classic to avant-garde. Two orchestras situated at the geographical and political poles of German-speaking lands. Two global brands—the ostentatiously stodgy Vienna Philharmonic and the bold, muscular Berlin Philharmonic—both so successful that they almost seem to exist outside of music history. In The Political Orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich, appearing in 2016 in English translation by Kenneth Kronenberg from University of Chicago Press, Fritz Trümpi disproves this notion, charting the emergence of the “Made in Germany” and “Music City Vienna” brands from their nineteenth-century origins to the varying consequences of their politicization under National Socialism. Read the rest of this entry »

Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism. Jeffrey Summit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780199844081.

Reviewed by Lauren E. Osborne

9780199844081In Singing God’s Words, Jeffrey Summit considers the meanings of Torah chanting in Jewish tradition, most specifically in the context of twenty-first century America. As Summit notes, an increasing number of Jewish American laypeople are choosing to study and chant Torah, and he provides a diverse portrait of the meanings and feelings that his interlocutors ascribe to their study and practice. The work is particularly significant in that it serves double-duty: it simultaneously provides an overview of Torah chant (some of its history as well as its technical specifics and associated terminology) that is accessible to non-specialists, and also provides a portrait of meaning and experience in relation to the practice of chanting Torah with particular reference to Jewish American communities.

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Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture. Edited by Rachel S. Harris and Ranen Omer-Sherman. Detroit, MI: Wayne State Press, 2012. ISBN 9780814338032.

Reviewed by Mili Leitner Cohen

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The edited volume Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture brings together analyses of post-1980s cultural texts that address conflict, war, and violence in Israel. Its nineteen chapters are divided into three parts that approximate disciplinary boundaries: Private and Public Spaces of Commemoration and Mourning, Poetry and Prose, and Cinema and Stage. The extensive range of arts and culture with which the authors grapple includes not only those named in these section titles, but—especially in the first and most disciplinarily varied section—also music, television, radio, monuments, and online communication.

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Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation. By Amy Lynn Wlodarski. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN 9781107538849.

Reviewed by Samantha M. Cooper

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Musicologist Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s debut monograph contributes a tremendous intervention to Holocaust witness, memory, and trauma studies. Responding to philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s famed pronouncement, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Wlodarski chronologically traces the compositional techniques and reception histories of five, postwar Western art music pieces and the aesthetic, contextual, and ethical-political realms of what she calls “secondary musical witness” (1). Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation responds to a paradox she sees in how musical witness compositions can function as “important cultural vehicle[s] for memory and empathy” while enacting “aesthetic trauma against historical memory and the actual victims” (8). Though these representations offer only “textures” of fact and memory for audience consumption, Wlodarski demonstrates that they nevertheless serve as crucial cultural-historical objects of study (6).

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A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States. By Sarah M. Ross. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016. ISBN 9781611689600.

Reviewed by Rachel Adelstein

A Season of Singing

Sarah Ross’s carefully researched ethnographic study introduces the reader to a powerful, yet under-studied sub-genre within the world of contemporary Jewish music. Beginning in the 1960s, American female Jewish singer-songwriters composed and performed music that addressed questions of gender inequality in Judaism using themes and characters from Jewish liturgy. Ross tells the story of this feminist Jewish music through extensive interviews with composers and performers, as well as a thorough, detailed analysis of music and lyrics. She explores a variety of ways in which several of the more prominent female singer-songwriters in this genre have used music to reconcile feminist philosophies with the rituals and traditions of an historically patriarchal religion. For many readers, this may be either an initial introduction to this repertoire, which has received little scholarly attention to date.  For others, it may broaden their appreciation of feminist Jewish music beyond the handful of the most popular songs (many by Debbie Friedman) that are sung in progressive synagogues. Read the rest of this entry »

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