The gavel went down with a bang sealing the sale of “Girl with a Balloon,” a piece of art by street artist Banksy for $1.4 million dollars. Just as soon as the sale was complete, the painting self-destructed and slowly slid out of the frame shredded. This act is said to be Banksy’s most spectacular prank and a big statement on the fleeting sense of our own creations. There are many ways in our mainstream society in which we are told that the things we create are fleeting and impermanent. This idea can be humbling, reminding us that our lives too are only temporary and we should, therefore, live life to its fullest.
I am reminded of the well-known phrase, “gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass” This reminder of impermanence can also inhibit connection. I am thinking about Snapchat, in which you take a picture and send it to friends and then it disappears moments later. Jewish music in ways is temporary as it is heard at the moment and is affected by the time and place, but Jewish music like Judaism is anything but fleeting. It has survived for thousands of years due to the fact that it has adapted and changed. When we connect to our Jewish tradition and specifically Jewish music, we are connecting to a tradition that lasts beyond our own individual lives, something that has adapted and changed over the years so that it resonates with people for thousands of generations. This is both humbling and contributes to a connection- connection with ourselves, G-d and our community. In our tradition we use our voices to sing, to pray, to take action, and to connect. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wisely states in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” “While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive.” Jewish music and particularly the music of the service has many layers added through history.
Traditional Jewish Music-Nusach and Chazzanut
The first layer is traditional Jewish Liturgical music or the Nusach Ha-tefillah of the annual cycle of synagogue prayer. Traditional Jewish music is like an oral calendar letting us know what time of year it is and if it is a holiday, if it’s Shabbat, or if it’s a weekday. There was no use of instruments. There is also Eastern Europe Chazzanut which is traditional cantorial singing and features, improvisatory style runs, impressive high notes, complex virtuosic technique.
Liturgical reforms of the 19th and 20th century led to the development of the Reform movement and also was impactful on the music of the synagogue. At that time synagogues began introducing musical aspects to appeal to a community that was becoming more educated in Western Art. The role of the Hazzan was reduced or eliminated. There was a sense of grandeur to the music utilizing full four-part choirs, and instruments, especially the organ. It led to what scholars have called the “emancipation of the organ.” Jewish music of this time was very influenced by their Christian neighbors. As the Reform movement became very popular, some Jewish composers felt that this music had lost its traditional roots, so they began to combine nusach still heard in the traditional synagogues with more contemporary musical elements, creating a choral repertoire that combined high artistic value with Jewish musical tradition.
By the mid-1950s and ‘60s, both chazzanut and the choral arrangements of early classical reform began to be perceived as outdated. It is only natural that liturgical and musical change was on the horizon in the Reform movement, since at this same time a sea-change was stirring in America. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing on through the mid-1960s, secular music was undergoing a significant evolution with the arrival of folk and rock music. Artists such Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and James Taylor became highly influential in society, and their styles, elements, and messages had a profound impact not just on secular society but also the music of the Reform movement. Communities craved spiritual connection, and they felt that simple music could be easily understood and sung: Music that mirrored the American folk music they heard on the radio would allow them to connect. Additionally, there was a move away from organ and a growing use of guitar which supported the folk communal singing sound and was also portable, allowing people to connect spiritually outside the walls of the sanctuary. A Folk- and rock-influenced style has continued to dominate progressive Jewish music of today, with current artists including Noam Katz, Noah Aronson, Josh Nelson, Dan Nichols, Ken Chasen and Michelle Citrin. Communal singing became the new focus of American Reform Jewry as congregations sought cantors who could invite the congregation to sing along to music that was easy to follow.
Jewish Music of Today
There continues to be a pattern towards including Jewish sounds back into these more Folk and popular styles. The Jewish music we find in the United States today also combines English and Hebrew and often has creative translations and interpretations of our traditional prayers. It focuses on communal singing encouraging people to connect to their Jewish identity and their community. It also often encourages reflection on one’s life or actions. An example of this is Michelle Citrins, ”Yih Yuh L’ratzon.” The traditional translation of the text of Yih Yuh L’ratzon reads, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you my rock and my redeemer. After singing the Hebrew text Citrin sings. “Go inside your heart just be and go inside your heart and see what it wants, what it needs, what it yearns when it breaths, go inside your heart and see. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be kind, be true, may they be acceptable to you my rock and my redeemer.” In this piece we see English and Hebrew, a creative translation and guidance toward reflection.
Niggunim are also a big part of progressive Jewish music circles, allowing the music to fully carry one to spiritual connection. Niggunim are songs with a repetitive melody and often with no words or a short phrase repeated. Niggun were first thought to be developed and popularized with the development of Hasidism in the mid-18th century. Today, people like Rabbi Shefa Gold have popularized Jewish chanting as a form of deep spiritual connection.
Music lets us tap into emotions we may not otherwise be able to express. Music lets us connect beyond the words of the text and beyond ourselves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. In singing we perceive what is otherwise beyond perceiving.” Additionally, at times it is important to be reminded of our impermanence. It is also so important for us to remember that our actions can have a lasting impact—the actions we take, the things we do, things we can create can last for generations. Jewish music allows us to express our feelings beyond words and it reminds us of the potential for a lasting impact by connecting us to a system that reaches back many generations. The beautiful thing about Jewish music is that we can draw on different parts of it at different time sand even within the same service. Sometimes a more majestic choral piece allows us to connect spiritually with the grandeur of the universe, while at other times a community singing piece allows us to connect the spiritual experience sparked by the connection with other individuals. Each layer offers a different form of connection.
Cantor Lilah Sugarman is a contributing writer to JLife magazine.