In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Music

  • Introduction
  • Definitions and Critiques of the Concept
  • Evaluation and Critique of A. Z. Idelsohn’s Work
  • Reference Works
  • Source Texts
  • Journals

Music Jewish Music
Edwin Seroussi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0121


The concept of “Jewish music” surfaces in public discourse toward the mid-19th century, when conceptions of the essence of Jewish nationhood, often formulated in racial terms, germinated both among Jews and non-Jews on European soil. Publications on Jewish music started to appear, and institutions dedicated to its study and promotion were founded, fostering the idea of Jewish music as a field of scholarly inquiry. A search for a list of traits that set certain music apart as “Jewish” was at the core of this new concept in its early stages. In this vein of investigation, the work by A. Z. Idelsohn, and especially his seminal Jewish Music in Its Historical Development, lay down the agenda of the field. A historical development in the Hegelian sense, from biblical times to the present, became a paradigm of research on Jewish music. Scholars have challenged Idelsohn’s approach, questioning essentialist approaches to music making in Jewish societies (past and present), contextualizing Jewish music within the music of non-Jewish host societies, and addressing works whose content is related to recognized Jewish musical capitals as well as to works by composers of Jewish ancestry and their reception. Yet, the spectrum of the field’s inquiries and its boundaries remains open ended and contested. Lately, the archaeology of the concept of Jewish music itself became an issue as well as the place of Jewish music scholarship within Jewish studies. While this article is dominated by items in English, with German and French running second, scholars must search for literature in other languages, most especially Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. Other limitations pertain to the vast geographical span of the Jewish Diaspora. While post–World War II scholarship on Jewish music is dominated by North American, British, German, French, and Israeli scholarship, large areas of the Jewish Diaspora, such as South America, South Africa, and Australia, are underrepresented. The musical culture of the State of Israel represents both continuity and a radical departure from Jewish music. Thus, this article does not cover Israeli music except when it overlaps with diasporic Jewish repertoires. Other issues not covered are the copious literature on Richard Wagner’s relation to Jews and their music (and its lasting influence on discourses about Jewish music), as well as studies about the negotiation, denial, validation, or assessment of the Jewish component in the self of, or works by, Western composers of Jewish ancestry, such as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg, or non-Jewish composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich. On the other hand, this article covers studies on music in ancient Israel as a concession to modern narratives of Jewish music, even though its relation to post-biblical Jewish music is hard to assess. Bounded by constraints of space, this article is not a comprehensive listing of all studies on Jewish music, but rather a map guiding researchers to sources consensually considered as authoritative and as starting points for further investigations.

Definitions and Critiques of the Concept

The concept of Jewish music is a relatively new one. It emerges from developing discourses that followed the encounter of traditional Judaism with European modernity, with a focus on three major issues: racial purity, cultural assimilation, and national identity. The delimitation of Jewish music’s boundaries—its distinctiveness from other musical cultures as opposed to its similarities to them—dictated early definitions, an approach still perceivable in Adler 1982. In post–World War II scholarship, such definitions underwent thorough revisions in light of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These revisions can be found in the programmatic Shelemay 1995, Slobin 1995, and Zimmermann 2004. Other authors, such as in Bohlman 2002a, have opted to trace the ideological backgrounds that shaped Jewish music as a concept and as a field of investigation. Also, discussions of the place of music within the field of post–World War II Jewish studies and of Jewish music within musicology and ethnomusicology became intertwined with the definitions of the field itself, issues addressed in Bohlman 2002b and Seroussi 2009. Postmodern critiques further undermined the concept of Jewish music to the point of questioning its validity and usefulness. And yet, Jewish music has become a vibrant field of musicological inquiry with interdisciplinary connections to Jewish studies and other related fields.

  • Adler, Israel. “Problems in the Study of Jewish Music.” In Proceedings of the World Congress on Jewish Music, Jerusalem, 1978. Edited by Judith Cohen, 15–27. Jerusalem: Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, 1982.

    An extract of the opening keynote address to one of the most ecumenical congresses on Jewish music held after World War II. It delineates the future challenges of the field, with emphasis on the assembly of documentation. It does not problematize Jewish music but takes it for granted. Probably one of the last salvos before the concept of Jewish music became the subject of a more critical scrutiny.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. “Inventing Jewish Music.” In Studies in Honour of Israel Adler. Edited by Eliyahu Schleifer and Edwin Seroussi, 33–68. Yuval 7. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2002a.

    One of the first attempts to trace the archaeology of the concept of Jewish music in relation to the challenges posed by modernity to traditional Judaism and the emergence of the concept of nation among Jews in Europe.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. “Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen, and David Sorkin, 852–869. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002b.

    A survey of the main issues of music research from the perspective of Jewish studies, emphasizing concepts of cultural studies such as ethnicity, Diaspora, and nationhood.

  • Cohen, Judah M. “Whither Jewish Music? Jewish Studies, Music Scholarship, and the Tilt between Seminary and University.” Association of Jewish Studies Review 32.1 (2008): 29–48.

    Explores the history of research on Jewish music in relation to parallel developments in ethnomusicology and Jewish studies in the American academic world during the 20th century.

  • Seroussi, Edwin. “Music: The ‘Jew’ of Jewish Studies.” Jewish Studies—Yearbook of the World Union of Jewish Studies 46 (2009): 3–84.

    A critical review of research in Jewish music and its paradigms, ideological underpinnings, agendas, institutions, achievements, and limitations. It also offers an extensive bibliography of works published mostly in the first decade of the 21st century.

  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. “Mythologies and Realities in the Study of Jewish Music.” World of Music 37.1 (1995): 24–38.

    Contrasts the internal narratives of continuity in Jewish music (“myths”) with the incompatible musical diversity that Jewish music exhibits (“realities”).

  • Slobin, Mark. “Ten Paradoxes and Four Dilemmas of Studying Jewish Music.” World of Music 37.1 (1995): 18–23.

    Emphasizes the vastness of Jewish music in terms of time and place and therefore the impossibility of addressing it as a unified field.

  • Zimmermann, Heidy. “Was heißt ‘jüdische Musik’? Grundzüge eines Diskurses im 20. Jahrhundert.” In Jüdische Musik? Fremdbilder, Eigenbilder. Edited by John Eckhard and Heidy Zimmermann, 11–32. Reihe Jüdische Moderne 1. Cologne: Böhlau, 2004.

    A programmatic article including a very valuable critique of most definitions of Jewish music. It stresses the ambiguity of the concept of Jewish music, as well as the racialized discourses related to it that developed after Richard Wagner.

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