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.

Cohen shows how congregational singing, choral music and cantorial performance were all employed by Jewish synagogue musicians to generate a “soundtrack” that expressed the lifeways of Jews in the United States. Reading Cohen’s book, I was compelled by how powerfully he makes the archive speak. Cohen’s delving into an area that has been foresworn to obscurity by classic Jewish musicology shows that important stories can be reclaimed from marginalized, non-canonical voices. The musical worlds Cohen reconstructs shimmer with life. He describes in fine-toothed detail synagogue board arguments over music budgets or debates about the professional versus lay composition of choirs. Vibrant vignettes show how “small” issues had profound impact on the kinds of music heard in Jewish worship and hence on the way Jews understood their place in the cultural economy of American public life. In Jewish Religious Music, Cohen rehabilitates a number of fairly obscure characters and makes strong claims about their relevance to the trajectory of Jewish American music. Synagogue choir leaders such as G.M. Cohen, who in 1846 authored a book of Protestant-style participatory hymns in simple triadic harmony for use in Jewish worship, are upheld as important nodes in the construction of an American Jewish sonic identity that continues to reverberate in the sounds of worship music today. Cohen foregrounds the way that nineteenth century American congregations used community singing grounded in the popular music styles of the day to foster participation in Jewish life.

Part of Cohen’s scholarly project over the course of the last decade or so has been to push back against mythologies of the “authentic” Eastern European cantorial past that continue to inform much of Jewish sacred music scholarship. Instead, following in the path of Kay Shelemay’s “Mythologies and Realities in the Study of Jewish Music,” Cohen advocates for a view of American Jewish worship music that acknowledges the centrality of dialogue with the non-Jewish majority culture. Cohen’s program of de-parochializing the study of Jewish liturgical music is in dialogue with cantorial traditionalists who locate meaning in the imagined Jewish past, identified by a (potentially reductive) set of signifying stylistic traits. In cantorial polemics of the past half century, congregational singing of songs in pop styles are sometimes demonized as the enemy of tradition, threatening to efface vulnerable retentions from the Jewish past. Cohen suggests that the rising cantorial field in the late nineteenth century effaced a populist style of synagogue congregational song in America. In the dialectic between non-Jewish sources of Jewish worship music and the cantorate who predicated their claims to legitimacy on the reclamation of tradition, Cohen suggests that cantors promoted “radical sonic (and social) dissociation from Christian musical forms” (163). In this well-argued and witty reversal of assumptions about Jewish religious music, cantors are portrayed as the radicals and song leaders singing music derived from Protestant musical styles are representatives of the “voice of the people.”

Both here in this monograph and in his research on folk-pop liturgist Debbie Friedman, Cohen takes a view of Jewish music that is aggressively non-prescriptive and avoids aesthetic considerations of the music under discussion. He eschews a concept of “folklore” as the central organizing point of Jewish musical culture, instead focusing on the ways in which American Jewish religious identities have been constructed through reference to non-Jewish musics and stressing the role of institutions in establishing musical ideologies.  His efforts to legitimize serious study of populist participatory synagogue music is a crucial development in Jewish music scholarship and parallels the attention to “co-territorial” repertoires in studies of klezmer [1]. What emerges most brightly in Cohen’s history is a foreshadowing of debates between advocates of presentational (cantorial) and participatory (folk pop) forms of music that runs through much of contemporary synagogue music discourse [2]. Cohen dates this story of conflict over professionalization and control of the synagogue sound space back to the nineteenth century.

I missed hearing more about constructions of race in Cohen’s analysis of Jewish liturgical music in America, a problem I also find in his discussion of late 20th century folk pop liturgy. Cohen refrains from commenting on how liturgical adaptations might fit into the racial hierarchies that were so crucial to the Civil War period under consideration—in fact, the Civil War is barely mentioned. Perhaps this is because the archive did not offer evidence on the topic of race, but this is surprising, especially given the prominent role of ethnic uplift and integration as a feature of cantorial discourse in the period. Indicators that race played a role in the Jewish communal imagination in this period appear in the way Jews talked about diversity within their own community. Sprinkled throughout the book were references to “Polish Jews,” a category of people who seem to have been consistently maligned by the main actors portrayed by Cohen. Both populist congregational choir leaders and cantors who sought prestige through the adoption of high Reform chorale music wrote about their work as “an antidote to the ‘vulgar Polish singsong’ of ‘the old rite’”[3]. Who were these “Eastern” Jews in 19th century America (before the mass immigration of the 1880s)? What did their liturgical music sound like? Did they too participate in the dialogue of cultures Cohen extols as representative of American Jewish life? Cohen offers no address of these questions, perhaps for lack of documentary evidence. The fact that there was a communal “Other” against whom nineteenth century Jewish Americans were anxiously comparing themselves is notable and could potentially help illuminate the role liturgical music played in helping Jews navigate the racial matrix of American life. Cohen does not treat Jews as an identity group that is distinct and outside of the mainstream of American life and paints a generally rosy picture of the embrace of “American” music as an expression of Jewish communal needs and desires. The impulse of Jews to frame a sub-set of their community as an Orientalized outsider suggests that the frame of minority experience might be deserving of closer investigation in research on Jewish American music in this period. 

In an excursus that concludes Chapter One, Cohen offers a beautifully conceived subsection, “Professionalizing the Cantorate—and Masculinizing It?” in which he suggests that the invention of the cantor as a modern professional identity was achieved in part by binding the role of ritual leadership to masculinity; there is evidence to suggest that prayer leading was more fluidly shared by men and women in some contexts in earlier periods. Cohen evocatively invites the reader to imagine the role women played in behind the scenes roles in the production of Jewish culture. Surprisingly, given his sensitivity to the topic of gender, Cohen overlooks the San Francisco-based cantor Julie Rosewald and the Charleston, SC poet and liturgist Penina Moise for the kind of intense inquiry extended to other historical figures.

I mention these omissions in part to draw attention to the richness of the field Cohen has opened and the paths for critical analysis and new research paths that his groundbreaking research suggests. Cohen’s achievement here sets a high standard for historical musicology, engaging the archival record while contributing to the establishment of evidence-based criteria for identifying the “Jewish” in “Jewish Religious Music”—criteria that actively deconstruct inherited wisdom that has inhibited the scope of research agendas.

[1] Co-territorial repertoires are discussed in Feldman (2016: 208-9).

[2] The terms “presentational” and “participatory” to describe styles of synagogue music were introduced in Mark Slobin’s Chosen Voices (1989); this conceptual categorization of musical experience was further developed by Thomas Turino (2008).

[3] Cohen (2019: 80). Negative assessments of Polish Jews and their music also appear on pages 39 and 143.

Works cited:

Cohen, Judah M. 2015. “Sing unto God: Debbie Friedman and the Changing Sound of Jewish Liturgical Music.” Contemporary Jewry 35, no. 1.

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

Feldman, Zev. 2016. Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Idelsohn, A. Z. 1967 [1929]. Jewish Music in Its Historical Development. New York: Schocken Books.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. 1995. “Mythologies and Realities in the Study of Jewish Music.” The World of Music 37(1):24–38.

Slobin, Mark. 1989. Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jeremiah Lockwood, Stanford University