Der Zionismus in der Musik. Jascha Nemtsov. Jüdische Musik: Studien und Quellen zur jüdischen Musikkultur, vol. 6. Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz, 2009.  380 pp.  ISBN 978-3-4470-5734-9

Reviewed by Klára Móricz

“Zionism was known as one of the few realized utopias in the twentieth century, probably the only one that in addition to addressing social concerns also had a distinct humanistic character,” writes Jascha Nemtsov in the epilogue to his monograph on the role of music in the Zionist movement in the first half of the twentieth century (349)[1]. A somewhat nostalgic tone permeates this truly amazing volume, which relates many facets of Jewish musical life to Zionism, commonly defined as a late nineteenth-century political movement dedicated to establishing a Jewish homeland. Nemtsov, who is well aware of the negative connotations of nationalism in the twentieth century (he quotes Ernest Gellner’s view of nationalism as “diabolical and lethal”), pleads for exception for Zionism.  Probably even more forcefully than other nationalist movements in the twentieth century, he claims, Zionism put an emphasis on culture and thus brought about a Jewish cultural renaissance around the globe. It is these cultural, and specifically musical, ramifications of Zionism that interest Nemtsov, who presents Zionism as the unifying force that enabled a heterogeneous Jewish Diaspora culture to have a common focus. Nemtsov’s nostalgia derives from his sense that Zionism’s idealistic goal fractured as Zionism developed from an energetic political and cultural movement in the Diaspora to ossified official policy in modern Israel. According to Nemtsov, there were also other factors that made Zionism anachronistic by the second half of the twentieth century: the almost total annihilation of European Jewry, which served as the cradle of Zionistic ideals; the repression of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, which was the center of Jewish life before the Revolution; a new Israeli culture that consciously tried to eliminate characteristics associated with the Diaspora; and a postmodern sensibility in the arts that fits uneasily with the optimistic ideals of Zionism. What Nemtsov does not mention as a contributing factor to the demise of the Zionist idea is the conflict between radically different visions of Zionism in present-day Israel, manifested in a less nostalgic account of Israel’s Zionist past by “new historians” such as Tom Segev.

It is impossible to give a brief account of all the topics Nemtsov presents in his richly documented book. Nemtsov’s broad definition of Zionism enables him to discuss not only music directly related to the Zionist political movement but also all musical aspects of Jewish life and Jewish culture that can be related to what Martin Buber described in 1901 as the Jewish renaissance. Since for secular Jews in Europe and in the United States the idea of a Jewish state provided a new identity, Nemtsov claims, all questions relating to Jewish identity starting at the end of the nineteenth century, when the emergence of a new wave of anti-Semitism crushed dreams of complete assimilation, are in one way or another related to Zionism. This is one aspect of the book that some will question, for it deliberately connects the Jewish cultural renaissance to Zionism, ignoring aspects of it that, like Simon Dubnov’s cultural nationalism, focused exclusively on a cultural revival in the Diaspora without placing any hope in a future Jewish homeland.

Nemtsov organizes his chapters chronologically: after a general introduction on the history of Zionism he turns to Achad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism (which, in opposition to political Zionism, focused on the culture of the Diaspora); Zionist themes as they permeated Jewish popular music in Europe (manifested in the work of composers such as Abraham Goldfaden); the new folk-music movement in Palestine that in contrast to European folk-music movements encouraged the creation of new folk songs; music created for Zionist propaganda plays (including three pageants with music by Kurt Weill); Zionism’s influence on German Jewish musical life under Nazism (focusing especially on the work of the Nazi-founded Jüdische Kulturbund, or Jewish Cultural Association, which, although it severed Jewish artists from mainstream culture, provided them with temporary employment, and became an important center for Jewish culture); and characteristic topics in Israeli music (such as artistic representations of the landscape, shepherd songs, songs of the guards of the land, and compositions based on such popular songs as “God will build Galilee,”  which, interestingly, plays a central role in Arthur Koestler’s novel Thieves in the Night). Nemtsov gives detailed accounts of about a hundred musicians’ lives and works, discusses various concert venues and publishers for Jewish music, and adds sporadic analyses of large-scale compositions by Jewish composers in Germany, England, the United States, Palestine and Israel.

Nemtsov pays equal attention to Jewish concert music, folk music and popular music, including the newly composed Hebrew folk songs in Palestine, Yiddish folklore and popular music in the Diaspora (a topic rarely discussed in the context of Zionism), and Zionist propaganda pieces (oratorios, pageants, operas and films). Nemtsov shows that contrary to previous assumptions Yiddish culture was not necessarily antagonistic to Zionism, and often incorporated its elements into Yiddish popular music. According to him the strongest tension in Jewish culture existed not between the Yiddishists and the Hebraists (or Zionists), but between the cultural and political factions of Zionism.

Nemtsov’s broad definition of his topic allows him to show the interrelatedness of Jewish cultures in Eastern and Western Europe, in the United States and in Palestine (and then in Israel), topics often discussed only in isolation. Through the publications of works by Russian Jewish composers in Germany, for instance, the Russian Society for Jewish Folk Music could have an influence on concerts organized around the journal Ost und West (East and West). In contrast to concerts of Jewish music in Russia where the emphasis gradually switched to art music, however, in Germany similar concerts remained focused on the arrangements of Jewish folksongs. Nemtsov’s music examples demonstrate that the style of Zionist propaganda songs in Germany was similar to the style of leftist mass songs in the 1920s, just as the style of Russian communist propaganda songs reappeared in the new Palestinian popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. One also wonders whether Hollywood screen writer Ben Hecht’s monumental propaganda play We Will Never Die (1943), which was performed in New York’s Madison Square Garden to 40,000 people, radio broadcast in Los Angeles, and ended with The Battle of Warsaw (music by Franz Waxman), could have served as an inspiration for Schoenberg’s 1948 A Survivor from Warsaw.

Nemtsov’s book is important for everybody interested in Jewish culture, especially in Jewish music. Were it translated into English, it could serve as an inspiration for future research on Jewish topics in music. Because of its wide scope, Der Zionismus in der Musik cannot provide the reader with overly detailed musical analyses of the pieces presented or in-depth critical discussions of the various cultural phenomena—this will be the task of more focused studies inspired by the book. One regrettable feature of the publication is the lack of an index, which should be a must for a book so rich in data. Hopefully there will be an English translation of Nemtsov’s work that will correct this flaw and make the book more broadly available.

[1] “Der Zionismus was bekanntlich eine der wenigen realisierten Utopien des 20. Jahrhunderts und wahrscheinlich die einzige, die neben sozialrkitischen Aspekten auch einen ausgeprägt humanistischen besaß.”

Klára Móricz, Amherst College