We all feel something special when we hear a Jewish song, whether it’s a song from our childhood or a new nigun. There is something unique and intangible about the way Jewish music makes us feel. What is this feeling, though? Is it because it is Jewish music? Or is it about the music that happens to be Jewish?
Some would say this question is a question of identity. Are we American Jews or Jewish Americans?
Well, let me set the record straight: there is no such thing as Jewish music. It would be like saying there is such a thing as Jewish science or Jewish math. Music is a tool we employ to harness our deepest expression and connect with ourselves and others. It’s kind of like a drug that creates intimacy. As Jews, Jewish music is the expression of the collective dreams and prayers of our people. It is what we use to connect to ourselves and the Creator in one of the most creative ways possible, and that connection is something that is uniquely our own.
People have emailed me and commented on the fact that certain songs of mine sound “Jewish” while other songs sound “goyish.” They lament, “You’re mamosh taking pop tunes and putting our heilige lyrics to these songs! Geferlach!”
But these people are uneducated in the underpinnings and roots of music in general, and especially Jewish music. Saying something like what they have said to me would be like saying The Hat Box makes Jewish black hats, while Borsalino or Worth & Worth, my personal favorite hat store (if you have a chance, go see Orlando Palacios on 57th Street) makes “goyishe” hats.
Songs are all made from the same underlying “material”: a catchy melody line, plus a catchy lyric that creates what we call “the hook.”
It’s what makes a song “sticky.”
It’s what makes a song memorable.
How songwriters are inspired and what makes them express something is where the magic is. To be able to encapsulate a moment or a specific emotion in a lyric and a melody feels Godly. It feels holy. That’s because it is. It’s connecting to the deepest dimension of what it means to be human. To create “yeah me’ayin.” It is Godly because we are actually creating something almost tangible from nothing!
When we use a nigun in tefillah today, it is the context of the song that shifts. From being a beautiful nigun or just a catchy hook, it morphs into a mantra and a pathway to channel prayer.
From Carlebach (melodies based on traditional folk music) to the beautiful chasidishe nigunim (many based on ancient Romanian marches), all of the composers have borrowed from many different “secular” styles to “uplift” the songs and ideas for Jewish expression. Also, we Jewish artists have it really easy as we were given lyrics that are so powerfully “hooky,” lyrics that were created thousands of years ago and are embedded in our psyche.
For example, when I wrote “Ani Yosef” as a layered recounting of the story of my grandfather (Yosef Wassner) and my personal journey told through the eyes of Yosef, I was sure it would be impactful, as the lyric represents one of the most emotional experiences of our people. Through my music, I ask the listener, “What was Yosef feeling? What was he going through?”
I ask the listener to kind of “daven along” with me as I express the angst of the loneliness, utilizing the motif of Yosef as the canvas for my personal experience.
About seven years ago, I produced an amazing singer-songwriter named Zach Salsberg. My friend Yummy Schachter, the producer of the Chai Lifeline Show at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, was taken with Zach’s music and decided to give Zach a spot in the show. This show was epically produced; I believe it was a 70-piece orchestra that was arranged specifically for one of his songs. So you can imagine, for a singer-songwriter this was the biggest moment of his life. I came backstage and I saw Zach shaking. I saw his head bent, poring over his Tehillim.
“Zach, don’t daven back here. Davenout there.”
It’s no coincidence that tefillah is the same gematria as shira. Music is prayer. All music.
But what is Jewish music?
Music of the Jews is the memory jogger and connector that connects the life moments of the Jew, every Jew, with his extended Jewish family to unite in a shared dream and mission.
One of the outstanding memories and experiences of my life is when I would stand next to my father as a child during Musaf of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and watch as my grandfather, Chazan Aaron Schwebel, the most beautiful man I knew, shouldered the burden of the prayers of the 14th Avenue Agudah, davening from the depths of his heart. The climax of the ravening was the Unesaneh Tokef where my grandfather would start off with a beautiful chazanishe piece.
He would sing: “Eeeeeeeeeeeemeees. Ki ata hoo daaayyaaan.”
We, as the choir, would answer with a question-and-answer melody and countermelody. My Zaidy would execute it in the most soulful, imperfect way. The chazanus piece would end, and then came the climax. He would start on beat: di di dum dum dum, di di dum dum dum. Within eight beats, 700 strong were in perfectly on this chant. My grandfather would wait another bar, and he would start his solo overlay, “Oooyy Kivakaras.” It was magic!
The beat of 700 felt like a march with my grandfather’s legato-soul flying over the top. Those moments are what I call Jewish music.
My grandfather is no longer here, and no one alive today could possibly embody his nusach as he did, but my father has taken his place and now I lead the choir of a growing family every Rosh Hashanah. And every time that moment comes, as Yosef saw Yaakov’s face in Mitzrayim, I see my grandfather.