I am having my fill of bad Jewish music

'Like some events of the Jewish Music Institute in this country, it’s all so naively conceived you almost want to send a donation'

July 27, 2020 16:22

In the three weeks preceding the Fast of Av, Jewish life is inhibited by various forms of mourning, among them a ban on listening to music. I am rabinically exempted from this prohibition, since music is part of my occupation and rabbis don’t like to impede me from making a living.

Still, in tune with the times, I restrict my listening in these three weeks to bad music, of which there is plenty, much of it by Jews. Let me share some.

Thirty years ago, a man called Lowell Milken – not to be confused with his brother Michael, the junk bond king – founded the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, an enterprise which has since yielded, by its own website count, 600 recorded works. Of these 500 are world premieres.

There is a reason they are world premieres. Nobody would give these pieces a second glance until a man with more dollars than sense opened the floodgates to any music that was written or played by American Jews. That’s the sole entry criterion to the Archive.

Not that all of it is mediocre. I have much admired orchestral gems by the jazzman Dave Brubeck and I adore the Kurt Weill arrangement of Hatikvah, which is far too sophisticated ever to get performed in Israel on state occasions, or even to get into a shul quiz.

But let me introduce you to, for instance, the Balak and Balaam Suite by Samuel Adler (conductor Hugo Adler), and the Israel Suite by Max Helfman, sung by the Vienna Boys Choir in their charming sailor suits. Listening to this stuff you know you have fallen into the seventh level of an irony-free hell, an abyss of Jewish effort unredeemed by a grace of talent. Like some events of the Jewish Music Institute in this country, it’s all so naively conceived you almost want to send a donation.

I have argued long and hard over many years that the word ‘Jewish’ should never be uttered in the same sentence as ‘music’. Any national adjective diminishes art. Put ‘English’ in front of music and your first thought is cowpats. Put ‘Jewish’ and it’s cholent, served cold. Or just bad.

Bad music is often written with noble intentions. Take The Communist Manifesto, a 1932 oratorio by Erwin Schulhoff, a future Nazi victim who let ideology override his artistic instincts. And avoid at all costs — cross Golders Green Road backwards in a blindfold to avoid — the opera-oratorio The Eternal Road, a 1937 production by Zionist fundraiser Meyer Weisgal with music by Kurt Weill. It shows Jews reciting history while sheltering from a pogrom. Meyer’s nephew, Hugo, wrote an atonal opera on the Book of Esther, another no-go.

Take away the earnestness and all you’ll hear in Ernest Gold’s soundtrack to the movie Exodus is schmaltz: sunlit fanfares with more brass than a candlestick store. Paul Simon’s terrible American Tune recycles a hymn theme quoted by J S Bach in the St Matthew Passion to represent the United States. Now search YouTube for Mandy Patinkin’s Yiddish version of the song which, with a clarinet klezmer intro, strips back Bach’s cant and exposes Paul Simon’s self-denial.

Much bad music thrives on denial. What ought to be the two worst symphonies ever written by Jews – Mendelssohn’s Reformation and Mahler’s Resurrection – are reprieved by Felix’s astonishing clip of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem in the thick of a Lutheran chorale and Gustav’s full set of shofar blasts just before the dead are risen. It’s amazing how easily Christian works can be redeemed.

Synagogue services have more than their share of bad music – Beach Boys imitations and Six-Day War swagger songs. The Jerusalem of Gold tune is as awful as it gets, a Naomi Shemer rip-off of a Basque lullaby called Pello Joxepe. Shemer’s song owes its fame to a demo track by London-born Shuly Nathan and by its prescient pre-war articulation of territorial expansion.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, another Israeli bad song, is by the accomplished and versatile Nurit Hirsh who also composed the 1978 Israeli Eurovision winner Aba-ni-ba. Anything connected to Eurovision is, by definition, bad music.

Sephardi shuls, to their credit, have proved more resistant to incursion, although one of the Sabbath-morning Psalms gets sung to Oum Kalthoum and a high point of the Yom Kippur liturgy, Adon Ha-selichot, is chanted to a tune by an Israeli called Avihu Medina, a melody so immersive that many think it predated the expulsion from Spain, when it was probably written in 1970. Sephardim, by the way, have the catchiest kinnot for the Fast of Av. Good music, bad music, who can tell? In a year like this we should just be grateful for any music that gets us through.

July 27, 2020 16:22

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive