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Sounding Jewish in Berlin: Klezmer Music and the Contemporary City. Phil Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021.

Reviewed by Zeke Levine

For the past two centuries, Berlin has maintained its role as a central crossroads of global politics, culture, and geography. The German capital is the focus of Phil Alexander’s Sounding Jewish in Berlin. Alexander probes the lively, yet complex contemporary Berlin klezmer scene, delving deeply into the ideological and aesthetic issues that shape it. While the klezmer revival has its roots in the United States, Alexander effectively and engagingly transports the reader to Berlin, an important locus for klezmer performance since the 1980s. Berlin, notes Alexander, is a complex setting for klezmer, given the city’s conflicted relationship with Jewish, particularly Eastern European Jewish, communities and folkways. Throughout the text, Alexander highlights thirty musicians and other creatives on the Berlin scene, framing the book around their experiences as well as his own extensive ethnographic experience as both a performer in, and keen observer of, the scene.

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Jewishness, Jewish Identity and Music Culture in 19th-Century Europe. Ed. by Luca Lévi Sala. Bologna: Ut Orpheus. 2020.

Reviewed by Martha Stellmacher

The Enlightenment and the granting of civil rights to Jews in nineteenth-century Europe opened up new opportunities in society, and also in cultural and musical life. These processes were accompanied and reflected in the ongoing discussion of the so-called “Jewish question,” a debate in Jewish and non-Jewish circles concerning the understanding of Judaism and the status of Jews in the European societies. Though from the second half of the 19th century this term was increasingly used in antisemitic circles and finally taken up by the Nazis, it originally referred to a broad discussion on the political, national and legal position of a Jewish minority in a non-Jewish majority society. It partly touches in its nature upon aspects that we would call today “identity” —a term frequently used in the past decades to examine questions of belonging and self-understanding. Sala’s book assembles eleven studies touching upon many different aspects and layers of Jewish identity in the 19th century. These studies include the individual Jewish identity of certain composers and the expression of Jewish identity through music works up to the perception of Jews and Judaism by the gentile world.

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Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas. Ruth Davis. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 2015.

Reviewed by Samuel Torjman Thomas

The Iberian Peninsula has served as a focal point for enhancing our understanding of early modern racism, the age of nautical exploration, migration, memory, the advent of European colonialism, and perhaps most intensely as the site of interreligious intersectionality between Muslims, Jews, and Christians and its consequences. The notion of diaspora has informed the work of many scholars in the modern academy. A topic of great interest in fields such as cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology, and even its own field, Diaspora Studies, diaspora has also long been a bedrock topic for Jewish studies. In this edited volume, Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and its Jewish Diasporas, we find valuable contributions to discourses about Iberian history, Jewish culture, diaspora, and musical development.

Within this edited volume, we find a close analysis of the dynamics involved in several animating factors of the Sephardi diaspora, including schism, exile, mass emigration, resettlement, intraethnic synthesis, postmodernist imaginaries, and transnationalism. The title suggests a pluralization of the Sephardi diaspora, as an experience that perhaps informs an array of diasporas. We are encouraged to consider this community’s experience of collective identity development as multitudinal, touching several disparate geographical centers and moments on a timeline that stretches over five centuries. Through the included chapters and their focus on a field of expressive culture (music), we can better appreciate how the Jewish experience of diaspora involves much more than the reinforcement of some overarching and monolithic transnational community. We learn how the dynamics of the Jewish diaspora experience provide the necessary context for new transnational layers to emerge. While fraught on so many levels and in so many ways, these dynamics are reconceived in this book and represented as the location of the endurance of expressive culture. Music serves as the vehicle of choice here, as a means of navigating the emergence and realization of these new diasporic Jewish identities rooted in reproducing vibrant and vital connections to a Sephardi (Andalusian) homeland. [1]

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Transcending Dystopia: Music, Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany, 1945-1989. Tina Frühauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021.

Reviewed by Martha Sprigge

Transcending Dystopia examines how Jewish communities throughout postwar Germany reconstructed their musical identities in the aftermath of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Author Tina Frühauf focuses on the individuals who helped to restore musical life in different urban locales. This is a welcome expansion of previous scholarship on Jewish music making in post-World War II Europe, which has been focused largely on individual composers, philosophers, and their works.[1] Though the book’s title uses community in the singular, Frühauf draws attention to the heterogeneity of Germany’s postwar Jewish communities by consistently attending to vectors of difference such as class, generation, regional identity, and religious tradition. Transcending Dystopia paints a complex portrait of Jewish musical life in the postwar period, and demonstrates the importance of attending to local dynamics when crafting historical narratives.

The concept of “cultural mobility” serves as a frame for this extensive study, which Frühauf views as “intrinsic to Jewish music in the postwar Germanys” (p. 7). She adapts the term mobility liberally to explore many angles of Jewish culture in Germany after 1945, from the lives of Jewish musicians forcibly displaced by the Nazi genocide, to the itinerant cantors and musicians who traveled throughout German cities to perform services for congregations lacking key personnel, to the mobility of musical objects, such as scores and performances broadcast on the radio. The result is a capacious volume that traverses the immediate aftermath of World War II to the earliest years of German Reunification, and takes the reader to cities across Germany East and West.

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Anthology of Jewish Art Songs Volume IV, The Lazar Weiner Collection, Book 1: Yiddish Art Songs, 1918-1970. Yehudi Wyner, ed. Philadelphia: Transcontinental Music Publications. 2011.

Reviewed by Judith Tischler

The Emergence of the Yiddish Art Song is a fairly recent phenomenon. The full flowering took place in the United States in the twentieth century although the seeds were generously planted in Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century. One of the most prolific composers of Yiddish Art Songs in the United States was Lazar Weiner (1897-1982). He wrote one hundred and fifteen Art Songs for voice with piano accompaniment or with instrumental accompaniment other than keyboard.

A study of his songs will reveal a tension between his need to experiment with twentieth century idioms and his wish to reflect the folk heritage of his own past. The results are a number of “folk-like” songs which, because of their simplicity and tunefulness, were sung in almost every Yiddish speaking household in the Eastern United States and later in Israel. There is a much larger number of songs that are through-composed and that use a variety of compositional devices that could be adapted to any language. There are some outstanding examples, however, where the past and present meet; where “traditional” melodic patterns, modal scales, and cantillation-like phrases combine with complex harmonic structure and advanced piano techniques.

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

Reviewed by Hankus Netsky


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


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


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.


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


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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