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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.

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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 »

Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel . By Raffi Ben-Moshe. Yuval Music Series 11. Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, 2015. ISBN-10 96592000021; ISBN-13 978-9659200023.

Reviewed by Gordon Dale

51nvdz7NcoL._SX415_BO1,204,203,200_One of the most important contributions that ethnomusicology has made to the broader study of music is an insistence that music analysis be conducted from a culturally-informed perspective. Through gaining a deep understanding of a music-culture (“a group’s total involvement with music: ideas, actions, institutions, material objects—everything that has to do with music” [Titon et al. 2009:3]) ethnomusicologists frequently think critically about how to best use the tools of music analysis to identify the ways that sound expresses and shapes the beliefs, values, and social dynamics of a group of people. An intriguing example of this approach to music analysis can be found in Experiencing Devekut: The Contemplative Niggun of Habad in Israel by Raffi Ben-Moshe. Read the rest of this entry »

Robert Lachmann, The “Oriental Music” Broadcasts, 1936–1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine. Edited by Ruth F. Davis. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc, 2013. ISBN 978-0-89579-776-6.

Reviewed by Michael A. Figueroa

Robert Lachmann_The Oriental Music Broadcasts_ImageOver the past fifteen years, there has been something of a fascination with the life and career of Robert Lachmann (1892–1939), the German Jewish comparative musicologist who made the first attempt to formalize the study of “Oriental music” at the fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Mandatory Palestine. From Ruth Katz’s 2003 monograph, “The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology— a “docudrama” about “a lone scholar having to missionize for his profession in an alien culture and in an impossible organizational context” (Katz 2003: 16)—to Jumana Manna’s 2015 documentary film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me—which criticizes the scholar’s efforts to collect/catalog musical traditions among ethnic groups in Palestine (review by this author here)—Lachmann’s legacy has been open to interpretation for a variety of intellectual and political projects in the twenty-first century. Read the rest of this entry »

A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League.  Lily E. Hirsch. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-4721-1710-9

Reviewed for Musica Judaica Online Reviews by Barbara Milewski

During the last two decades a formidable number of excellent studies have appeared in English and German that have given us an ever fuller picture of the compromised, politicized reality of Germany’s musical culture during the National Socialist period. Lily Hirsch’s book, A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League, is a valuable contribution to this body of knowledge.

Hirsch draws on previous scholarship published in Germany—notably Henryk Broder and Eike Geisel’s Premiere und Pogrom: der Jüdische Kulturbund 1933-1941, and Geschlossene Vorstellung: Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Deutschland 1933-1941 published in conjunction with a 1992 exhibit at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, which houses the Kulturbund archives—and significantly expands on this material through interviews with League members and subsequent archival investigations. In so doing, she makes available to Anglophone readers for the first time a comprehensive and nuanced telling of the origins and activities of the Jüdischer Kulturbund, or Jewish Culture League, the self-imagined, Nazi sanctioned, Jewish cultural organization that staged musical and theatrical performances for Jewish audiences in Nazi Germany between 1933 and its disbanding in 1941. As Hirsch’s study makes clear, the League’s history remains one of the more poignant examples of the complex, ever-narrowing field of choices Germany’s Jews were forced to navigate after the Nazis assumed power and enacted anti-Jewish exclusionary legislation (intended to protect the purity of Aryan culture) that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives.

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The Song is Not the Same: Jews and American Popular Music.  Josh Kun, ed.  Vol. 8 of The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Bruce Zuckerman and Lisa Ansell, eds. ISBN 978-1-5575-3586-3.

Reviewed by Gabriel Solis

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Volume eight of the annual review The Jewish Role in American Life, published by the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at the University of Southern California, is a welcome addition to the general literature on music and Jewish identity. It presents seven short articles collected by guest editor Josh Kun, all relating broadly to the topic of “Jews and American popular music.” The song is not the same, as the title of the volume says. Most readers who will turn to this little collection will approach it already feeling they have some handle on the topic of Jews and popular music, whether that means the cadre of Jewish songwriters from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim who wrote nearly the entire “Great American Songbook,” singer-songwriters like Carole King and Paul Simon who more or less made music in the 1960s what it was, or the Jewish hipsters from Mezz Mezrow to Lieber and Stoller to the Beastie Boys who made more than incidental contributions to black musical genres from early jazz to hip hop. Though these sorts of high points and familiar names provide points of reference throughout the essays, most readers will likely come away seeing things differently than they had. The great strength of the volume is in Kun’s editorial vision, having solicited a set of articles on topics that move beyond received expectations for the area of the Jewish contribution to American music. If there is a weakness, it may also be seen in Kun’s approach to editing the volume: there is a level of unevenness common to edited collections, and this one is no exception.

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