Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New. Edited by Philip V. Bohlman, with a foreword by Sander L. Gilman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 218 pp. with CD supplement. ISBN 978-0-226-06326-3

Reviewed by James LoefflerJewish Musical Modernism

In his 2002 essay “Inventing Jewish Music,” Philip Bohlman called our attention to a surprising fact rarely noted by previous scholars: the term “Jewish music” hardly existed before the late nineteenth century [1]. Tracing its first appearance among German Jewish cantors, Bohlman argued that that the new locution reflected a crucial turning point in the emergence of modern Jewish historical consciousness as a whole. He has gone on to develop this thesis in various publications that emphasize the centrality of music in the modern European Jewish experience. In his new anthology, Jewish Cultural Modernism, Old and New, he now expands this line of inquiry from Jewish modernity to European modernism. His goal is to break down the familiar dichotomy between studies of modern Jewish music and those of individual Jewish musicians within the movement of European modernism.

This is an ambitious aim, and he approaches it in his characteristically creative and generous way. As host of a distinguished lecture series at the University of Chicago in 1999, Bohlman invited a diverse set of leading scholars of Jewish music and European cultural and intellectual history to join him in extended conversation. In revised form, these talks now from the core of the book. Noted cultural historian Sander Gilman opens with an erudite preface, “Are Jews Musical? Historical Notes on the Question of Jewish Musical Modernism.” Gilman deftly traces the historical evolution of cultural stereotypes about Jewish musicality and unmusicality in modern European culture, through literary depictions from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Wagner’s Judaism in Music and well beyond. By highlighting the many unexpected places where Jews and music are linked in the modern European imagination, Gilman makes a strong argument for “the need to close the space between the question of Jewish identity in the musics of modernity and the Jewish question itself” (xiv).

The remaining contributions vary between two approaches, one focused on the transformation of Jewish musical traditions under the impact of European modernity, the other on the Jewish dimension – real and imagined – within the sphere of European (actually German) cultural modernism. Edwin Seroussi and Kay Kaufman Shelemay offer thoughtful, probing recontextualizations of their own earlier research. Seroussi reexamines his study of Sephardic liturgical music in late 19th- and early 20th-century Vienna to challenge both the notion of the “fin de siècle” as a useful chronological marker and the idea of Europe as a discrete geographic category in the study of Jewish music. He leavens his article with fascinating personal anecdotes about the ethnomusicological process and the larger reverberations of Sephardic musical history in present-day Europe and Israel. Shelemay’s essay on the Beta Israel of Ethiopia takes the form of a broad inquiry into the myriad ways in which European modernity has impacted one of the most obscure, least European communities of the global Jewish Diaspora. She styles her essay as a form of a lyrical midrash, weaving together trenchant observations about the historical encounters between European and Ethiopian Jews with concise but evocative musical interludes.

In contrast to Seroussi and Shelemay’s discussions of specific Jewish musical traditions, the essays by Pamela Potter, Michael P. Steinberg, and Mitchell Ash address more inchoate questions of art, scholarship, and cultural discourse. Potter, in her essay “Jewish Music and German Science,” reflects eloquently on the “curious lacuna” concerning Jewish music in the past two centuries of German musicology. With the exception of the antisemitic tradition of Wagner and the Nazi era, German scholars largely avoided all discussion of the topic. Potter links this uneasy silence to a deeper strain of self-consciousness about the role of music in German national identity and a complicated kinship pattern of affinity and estrangement throughout the German-Jewish cultural relationship. Michael P. Steinberg offers a detailed re-reading of the genre-bending work of Weimar artist Charlotte Salomon. Making good use of a gorgeous set of full-color illustrations of Salomon’s masterpiece, Leben? oder Theater?, he uses this Singspiel (operatic song-play) as a case study to explore the relationship between art and reality in German modernism. Mitchell Ash’s entry is the book’s obvious outlier — a general critique of the idea of a single, unitary movement of modernism in twentieth-century European culture. Ash is convincing in his argument about the dangers of gross generalization, especially involving Jewish artists and intellectuals. Still, the broad strokes of his essay make it somewhat tangential to the Jewish musical discussion at hand.

All of these essays make for stimulating reading and share an easy, relaxed tone reflecting their origins as public lectures. The book also features an appealing aural supplement in the form of CD of historical songs performed by Bohlman’s Chicago-based Jewish cabaret musical troupe. Taken as a whole, the intellectual expansiveness and diversity of these offerings convincingly demonstrate how a productive interdisciplinary discussion can result from foregrounding Jewish music in explorations of European modernism. Equally importantly, they serve as solid evidence for the claim that the technical aspects of music need not preclude its wider embrace by the field of Jewish Studies.

However, in the end, we are left with the question of what links modern Jewish musical expression to the phenomenon of Jewish participation in European musical modernism as a whole. For the clearest answer, we must turn to the twin essays by Bohlman himself, which open and close the book. It is in these pieces, “Jewish Modernism’s Transcendent Moment” and “Beyond Jewish Modernism,” that he presents the book’s most emphatic arguments about the actual ties between Jewish music’s modernist qualities and European modernism’s Jewish dimensions. There Bohlman challenges once again the all-too-common view of cantors, folk song collectors, and composers of Jewish music as naïve, parochial exponents of Jewish musical traditions less intellectually progressive than the “universal” musical expressions of cosmopolitan European Jewish avant-garde artists such as Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler. Just because “Jewish musical modernism did not move toward and participate in the universal…[and] did not seek to free itself from its [particularist] origins,” he writes, it was no less a form of cultural modernism (2).

At the same time, Bohlman now argues that the definition of Jewish music must be expanded to include the more abstract Jewish musical expressions within European modernism: “Jewish music does not simply refer to all music made by Jews… rather, it identifies a music that reflects the conditions and identities that accrue to Jewish communities in their encounter with modernity.” Hence it is equally audible in the efforts of “A. Z. Idelsohn to record the past in the present, or through the historical modes and modalities mustered by modern cantors and modernist composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg” (5). In other words, both the Jewish nationalist impulse to find and create Jewish folksongs and liturgical repertoires and the cosmopolitan impulse to liberate tonality from classical conventions were reactions to a historical moment of intense self-consciousness for European Jewish musicians.

This is a challenging historical claim to make without reducing Jewish musicality to an oversimplified caricature. To speak of some intrinsic Jewish approach to music risks implying an essentialist cultural trait shared by all Jews. In fact, this is precisely what Gilman and Potter critique in their essays. Pointing to overarching features and conditions of Jewish modernity makes sense, but also verges on the kind of vast sociological statement about modernism that Ash attacks as over-generalized and intellectually incoherent. Well aware of these potential pitfalls, Bohlman’s solution is to emphasize the common temporal dimension to this entire historical process:

How did different forms and practices of music making—obviously or obliquely Jewish—come to constitute the moment of Jewish modernism? … Music reflects and provides a language for the various dichotomies that accrue to the moment of Jewish modernism. Music also makes possible the detachment from that moment, the phenomenon to which I refer in this introduction as transcendence” (10).

Thus, some late 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish musicians used music as a path towards heightened Jewish secular identity, while others found it to be a pathway away from Jewishness into broader Western society. What linked these two forms of Jewish music making, then, was the conviction that music could serve as a critical catalyst to bring Jews into the modern era. For some, like Idelsohn, music represented a means of articulating Jewish historical consciousness; for others, such as Schoenberg, music was a cultural device for liberation from the burden of history, Jewish or otherwise.

If the idea of music as simultaneous embodiment of and liberation from historical time sounds like a paradox, Bohlman freely agrees that is. “Paradox,” he writes in his conclusion, “runs through the moment of Jewish modernism” (164). This is an intriguing proposition, but still requires more concrete examples to flesh it out. Unfortunately, Bohlman does not allow himself the space to develop this thesis further. And his discussion leans heavily in the direction of showing Jewish music’s modernist qualities (similar to his freestanding 2008 monograph, Jewish Music and Modernity) rather than revealing the truly Jewish component of modernist European musicians. One wonders if this is a specific product of the nature of the German Jewish cultural experience and its distinctive forms of acculturation and “assimilation.” After all, were we to glance west to France or east to Russia in the same time period, we would arguably find even more evidence for Bohlman’s thesis in the form of Jewish musical modernism realized by composers such as Ernest Bloch, Darius Milhaud, Mikhail Gnesin, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Aleksandr Krein. Certainly for these composers the lines between Jewish music and European modernism were not nearly as fraught or clearly formed as in the German cultural zone addressed here.

The virtue of this book, however, is not to answer questions as much as to ask them. In this respect, it succeeds admirably. Bohlman and his fellow authors have opened a novel, larger space for further critical reflections on the intertwined musical dimensions of European and Jewish modernities. They’ve delivered a rich set of studies that show how much Jewish Studies has to gain by thinking about modernity through music. And they’ve challenged the field of Jewish musical studies to turn outwards in order to confront the larger questions of modern Jewish thought that heretofore have remained largely the domain of history, religion, and literature.

[1] Philip Bohlman, “Inventing Jewish Music,” in Studies in Honor of Israel AdlerYuval 7, ed. Eliyahu Schleifer and Edwin Seroussi (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press and Jewish Music Research Centre, 2002): 33-74.

James Loeffler, University of Virginia