STUDYING MUSIC OF THE AMERICAN JEWISH EXPERIENCE can tell us a lot about how American Jewry has changed over its 350-plus-year history. Between the mid-17th and early 20th centuries, Jewish life—and music—in America was primarily influenced by waves of immigration that brought Jews to America from different parts of the world: Western Sephardim in the mid-17th century, German Jews during the second and third quarters of the 19th century, and Eastern European Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As these different groups became the majority of the American Jewish population, the character and sound of Jewish life tended to reflect that group’s culture and religious practice. To take one example, the burgeoning American Reform movement of the mid-19th century comprised primarily German Jews and sought music that sounded universal and American, rather than particular and Jewish. In fact, Jews of this era avoided music linked to or reminiscent of the European Jewish experience, anything that might sound foreign or exotic, or "anything lacking in Western notions of sanctity, religious dignity, or optimistic solemnity."1 Later, the late 19th- and early-20th-century klezmorim and Yiddish theater composers who came from Eastern Europe held onto their folk, religious, and popular music, but also quickly adopted the syncopated rhythms of jazz and American popular music.
But looking at music from the perspective of distinct periods can obscure the fact that many voices and perspectives often occupy the same space and time, that change often happens gradually and unevenly. The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), ended large-scale Jewish immigration to America. Since that time, changes in Jewish culture and practice have been largely determined by how successive generations of American-born Jews have defined themselves in relation to American culture. For example, composers of Jewish liturgical music in the 1960s and 70s began implementing jazz, folk, rock, and popular music idioms into Jewish sacred music. By the mid–late 1970s, Jews interested in American and world folk musics started playing the Eastern European Jewish folk music we now call klezmer.
And so it was in 1970 when three new and very different Jewish sacred services appeared: Lazar Weiner’s Zekher l’ma’ase, Raymond Smolover’s Gates of Freedom, and Gershon Kinglsey’s Shiru ladonai. The Milken Archive contains newly recorded excerpts from the services by Weiner and Kingsley and the complete archival recording of Smolover’s. Though they shared much of the same basic liturgy and purpose, each of these services pointed toward a different kind of orientation for the American Jewish community—a community in the midst of change.
In 1970, Lazar Weiner and Central Synagogue of New York were each celebrating anniversaries. As the synagogue celebrated its centenary Lazar Weiner was marking his fortieth year as its musical director, a position through which he had instituted sweeping changes to the synagogue’s musical culture—in both repertoire and function. He described that culture upon his arrival as little more than dysfunctional. The cantor and rabbi didn’t speak to each other and the repertoire reflected a fading era. Both the rabbi and cantor had narrow views of what was considered appropriate synagogue music, but they were not aligned. Weiner found the music “appalling” and quickly changed the orientation, establishing a foundation of Sulzer, Naumbourg, and Lewandowski supplemented with music by contemporary composers whose work he admired. Over the course of his career there, Weiner conducted performances of sacred services by Ernest Bloch, Darius Milhaud, Reuven Kosakoff, and Joseph Achron. He found support in his mission from Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, who agreed with Weiner’s assessment of the synagogue’s music and also sought change. Under Wise’s leadership music became a very central part of the synagogue service, to the point that it often eclipsed the sermon.2
Zekher l’ma’ase, the service Weiner titled after a text from the Kiddush, was commissioned by Central Synagogue specifically to celebrate its centennial. Describing Weiner in relation to the service for the Milken Archive, Neil W. Levin highlighted an important paradox: “Weiner always claimed to be personally nonreligious. But music such as this leads one to the porous line between religious and nonreligious, for this service is in every way sacred music that demonstrates its composer’s thorough understanding of the liturgical texts and their implications.”3 The composer’s son, Yehudi Wyner, pointed to a more pervasive spirituality when he introduced the work at the premiere. “Lazar Weiner had always been a sacred composer, regardless of the text that was utilized, or of the medium that was indulged.”4
But by 1970 Central Synagogue was also at odds with much of Reform Judaism. For decades, as ethnomusicologist Judah Cohen has pointed out, large-scale, classically oriented sacred works were “symbols of Jews’ ability to equate religious devotion with cultural sophistication.” Services like this were not just music of a high aesthetic and artistic quality, but music that said Jews were part and parcel of America’s upper middle class. “Central Synagogue and its music personnel became active and respected participants at the meeting point of New York’s musical community and its Jewish population.”5 Yet much of the Reform movement had already begun trying to appeal to younger Jews by incorporating the sounds of their music into a worship context. By the 1970s, writes cantor and scholar Jonathan Friedman, “Mainstream [Jewish] liturgical practice shifted from the dramatic interplay of the cantor, choir, and rabbi to less formal, congregation-centered modes of worship, favoring the simple, catchy tunes of American and Israeli youth.” 6
It was, in part, this trend that compelled Cantor Raymond Smolover to compose Gates of Freedom, a companion piece to his 1968 folk-rock service, Edge of Freedom. The latter is a Friday evening Sabbath service while the former is a Saturday morning Torah service. Together, they encompass a complete expression of the Sabbath liturgy of the Reform movement. Smolover recorded and published both services under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center of White Plains, New York, and the National Federation of Temple Youth.
Prior to his two folk-rock sacred services the majority of Smolover’s creative energies had been devoted to more traditional approaches to Jewish sacred music and to classically-oriented, secular Jewish art music. A classically trained singer, Smolover was on the cusp of a career in opera when he decided to become a cantor, having won several prestigious singing competitions and performed with several renowned opera companies. In the mid-1950s, Smolover founded and directed the Westchester Opera Theatre company, which commissioned and performed multiple operas on Jewish topics by many leading Jewish composers, including Frederick Piket, Robert Strassburg, and Charles Davidson. Smolover wrote all of the libretti and generally sang the leading male roles.
Given their respective backgrounds in both classical and Jewish music, it was only natural that Smolover and Weiner would cross paths, which they did when Smolover commissioned Weiner to compose music for an opera on the legend of the golem. The production played dozens of times across the country in the late 1950s, and was staged again at the 92nd Street Y in the 1980s, though without Smolover’s involvement. The two also performed Weiner’s Yiddish art songs together frequently.7
Given Smolover’s deep background and training in classical and traditional Jewish sacred music, it seems more than a little surprising that he would author a service like Gates of Freedom. Had there been a morning Torah service at Woodstock the previous year, it would be hard to imagine a more fitting soundtrack. But the 1960s gave rise to a good deal of experimentation in sacred music. Several jazz services for both Jewish and Christian worship were composed, and Charles Davidson (Smolover’s brother-in-law and twice his collaborator in the Westchester Opera Theatre) had composed a folk-rock s’liḥot service in 1966.
Smolover traced the inspiration for both of his services to hearing his son’s Bob Dylan records and perceiving in Dylan’s style of vocal delivery something akin to davening.8 Gates of Freedom works hard to capture the spirit of the youth culture of the time. The guitar riffs and occasional use of sitar have a psychedelic bent indexical of the era’s hippie culture. The recording’s unpolished, live feel and frequent use of call-and-response portrays a sense of community through performance. In a wide-ranging study of the music of this era's Jewish sacred music, Ari Kelman and Jeremiah Lockwood have observed, “The enthusiasm of the young performers turns the lack of aesthetic polish into a feature rather than a bug.”9
While Smolover never regretted his foray into merging American youth culture of the 1960s with the centuries-old tradition of Jewish liturgical music, he did lament the eventual “takeover” of the folk-style participatory model that came to dominate American synagogues of the era. His aim had been to add to the repertoire in a musical language of the time, not to supplant the tradition entirely.10
If Weiner and Smolover’s services appear to represent opposite poles of the spectrum, Gershon Kingsley’s Shiru Ladonai strikes an unlikely balance. Composed on commission from the Park Avenue Synagoge as part of its longstanding program of commissioning new sacred services, Shiru Ladonai combines tradition with innovation in basically equal parts. A relatively traditional service with a subdued and devotional character, its main departure from synagogue music norms is that its only instruments are Moog synthesizers.
A few years earlier Kingsley had pushed the boundaries a bit further with his participation in another Sabbath evening service featuring dancers, rock singers, film projections and a sermon by the avant-garde composer John Cage. That particular service invoked an initially harsh response from Cantor David Putterman, the Park Avenue Synagogue cantor who initiated its commissioning program. But much of Kingley’s work, in both the sacred and secular realms, betrays an abiding respect for tradition. His concerto for four Moogs and orchestra has been described as “fairly conservative,” and his album of Gershwin’s music (Switched-On Gershwin), also released in 1970, treats its source material respectfully.11 Kingsley's previously composed Shabbat for Today, specifically intended to reach younger Jews, was at first controversial, but went on to receive more than 150 performances.12
With Shiru Ladonai, Neil W. Levin has noted that Kingsley “sought to juxtapose a relatively traditional melodic approach, with attention to established prayer modes, against what he viewed as the ‘color potential’ of synthesized orchestration.” Thus, we see in Kingsley neither an attempt to revive or preserve the music of a certain tradition, nor the impulse try to speak in a musical language of the times. Indeed Shiru Ladonai lies at the meeting point of Jewish musical tradition and Kingsley’s own style. He does not work with traditional motives or nusaḥ so much as with mood and text.
From today’s vantage point it is clear that the more youth-oriented, participatory style of synagogue music—an outlier at the time—has become normative. This shift was well underway by 1970, facilitated by the Reform movement’s significant network of summer camps in which communal singing was a central activity. Indeed, shortly after the premiere of Zekher l’ma’ase and the centennial celebration of Central Synagogue, Weiner was dismissed from his post, in part to make way for music that was out of step with his approach. Whereas Weiner sought to produce edifying sacred music from “the best of our liturgical work from traditional and modern sources,” his successor “cultivated a vision of Jewish liturgical sound that tastefully brought together Jewish musical tradition and vernacular musical styles.”13 Over time the vernacular has significantly eclipsed both traditional and modern approaches to synagogue music as “an understanding of prayer as fundamentally experiential” has grown.14
But the debate continues. Much as the term “Jewish music” is contested, cantors, composers, and worshippers remain divided and conflicted as to what a sacred service should sound like. Should the congregation sit quietly and reflect, allowing the music to sanctify the space and dignify the prayer experience? Or, should the music inspire participation, ecstasy, and the sense of community that can emerge from shared spiritual experiences? Some fall on one particular side in this debate, while others try to merge what they see as the best from both worlds.
Much as it was in 1970, composers today must balance their own musical orientations with those of the congregations they serve and the institutions that commission their work. Congregational leadership must weigh the spiritual needs and aesthetic tastes of their congregants against the liturgical and musical traditions they are compelled to uphold. It is an ongoing debate that shows little sign of resolving soon. Some sacred works produced by these tensions will be more successful than others. Yet each offers insights into how ideas about being Jewish, American, and the relationship between the two, have developed over time.
2See Tischler, 1989, p. 65–9
4See Tischler, 1989, p. 220.
5Cohen, 2011, p. 55.
6Friedman 2012, p. 77
7See Tischler, 1989, p. 230.
9Kelman and Lockwood, 2020, p. 45.
13See Tischler, 1989 p. 226, and Cohen, 2011, p. 69.
14Kelman and Lockwood, 2020, p. 50.
Cohen, Judah M. 2011. Sounding Jewish Tradition: The Music of Central Synagogue. Central Synagogue, New York.
Levin, Neil W. 2011a. Introduction to Volume 1: Jewish Voices in the New World—The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-century America. Available at: https://www.milkenarchive.org/articles/view/introduction-to-volume-1/
_______. 2011b. Liner notes to Zekher l’ma’ase by Lazar Weiner. Digital Audio recording.
_______. 2011c. Liner notes to Shiru Ladonai. Compact Disc.
Friedmann, Jonathan. 2012. Social Functions of Synagogue Song: A Durkheimian Approach. Lexington Books, Lanham, MA.
Kelman, Ari Y., and Jeremiah Lockwood. 2020. “From Aesthetics to Experience: How Changing Conceptions of Prayer Changed the Sound of Jewish Worship.” Religion and American Culture (Winter): 26–62.
Schwarz, Steve. 2008. Review of Gershon Kingsley (CD). Available at: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs59435a.php. Accessed 17 July 2020.
Smolover, Raymond. 1998. Interview by Neil W. Levin and Charles Davidson for the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.
Tischler, Judith B. 1989. “The Life and Work of Lazar Weiner, master of the Yiddish art song (1987?–1982).” Ph.D. diss. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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