Negotiating Jewish Identity in Dave Brubeck’s The Gates of Justice

By Kelsey Klotz, Ph.D.



n 1968, Rabbi Charles D. Mintz commissioned a Jewish cantata from an unlikely source: Dave Brubeck, a white, non-Jewish jazz musician and newly-minted composer of large-scale works. The Gates of Justice premiered in 1969 at the dedication of the new Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, following the Temple’s move from a predominantly Black neighborhood in the city to an overwhelmingly white suburb. The work was intended to mend the growing divide in Black-Jewish relations in the late 1960s by addressing themes many Reform Jewish communities understood as central to this relationship: 1) that both communities had experienced shared histories of suffering and oppression; and 2) that Jews had a moral imperative to become involved in the civil rights movement. However, the cantata’s texts and themes, Brubeck’s wide-ranging musical references and ensemble decisions, and its premiere at Rockdale Temple’s new, suburban location, also reveal aspects of Black-Jewish relations during the civil rights movement that some Black activists found to be increasingly problematic; according to Black writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Julius Lester, these include race and class privilege, gradual white assimilation, white flight, and unequal partnerships1. In other words, while The Gates of Justice was intended as an intervention that would strengthen a strained Black-Jewish relationship, it also serves as musical documentation of that relationship, as well as the relationship between Jewish communities and mid-century American whiteness.

Beyond the two soloists, Brubeck’s identity-focused approach is perhaps nowhere more clear than in movement X, “The Lord is Good,” which he describes as the “climactic section” of the entire cantata. The movement represents a “collage of sound,” and includes “texts from Isaiah, Martin Luther King, Hillel, and the Psalms, and music from The Beatles, Chopin, Israeli, Mexican and Russian folk songs, Simon & Garfunkel, improvised jazz and rock.”11 This movement uses juxtaposition (placing different genres directly next to one another in the score) as a compositional tool to heighten the sonic contrasts between a variety of musical traditions. Table 1 notes each of these stylistic changes; some are explicitly noted in the score, while others are referenced through the musical style, added text, and performing forces. For many of these, the referenced style is made so obviously as to reflect a caricature. Throughout this section, Brubeck chooses stereotypical musical representations of other countries that would allow his listeners to quickly (within 3-5 measures) recognize different countries of musical origin.

MeasuresGenre/Style (as noted in score)Changes in performing forces and other notes
1-23   Choir, both soloists
24-27 Israeli folk song Tenor soloist; cymbal/temple blocks
28-31 Gospel (baritone)/Rock (choir and accompaniment) Baritone soloist; African tree or gourd
32-35 Israeli folk song (repeat) Tenor soloist; cymbal/temple blocks
36-39 Gospel/Rock (repeat) Baritone soloist; African tree or gourd
40-47 transition  
48-50 Israeli folk song Tenor soloist; cymbal/temple blocks
51-54 Swing Baritone soloist; maracas, tambourine, cowbell Meter change to
55-56 Israeli folk song Tenor soloist; cymbal/temple blocks
57-62 Swing (repeat) Baritone soloist; maracas, tambourine, cowbell
63-67 Spanish/Mexican Choir; castanets text: "olé"
68-71 Classical (Baroque) Choir; triangle direction: "strict"
72-75 Russian folk Beatles reference Choir; Zither text: "all the lonely people"
76-80 "Oriental sing-song style" Simon and Garfunkel reference Choir; cymbal tree Text: "sound of silence"
81-97 Spiritual (baritone)/Gospel sound (choir) Baritone soloist text: "hah!": "a forceable expulstion of breath on any pitch, as in a worksong"
98-127 Blues Tenor soloist
128-139 (end) Abraham Ellstein Choir, both soloists

Table 1. Styles in Movement X, “The Lord is Good,” The Gates of Justice
*indicates description as noted in score

Through such juxtapositions, this movement explicitly presents musical difference as racial difference. Listeners witness abrupt juxtapositions between diverse musical styles as Brubeck relies on those musical contrasts to invoke racial contrasts. In doing so, he presents musical evidence of the strengths of non-assimilation: by maintaining unique group identities, and loving each other for those differences, relationships can be stronger, and all people can unite as one in love.

Why Brubeck?

It is impossible to hear this piece, based so much as it is in identity, without considering Brubeck’s own identity. If Mintz and the other rabbis had wanted a jazz composer to write a religious piece of music to address what they interpreted as failing Black-Jewish relations, why Brubeck—a white, non-Jewish jazz musician with just a handful of large-scale works under his belt, and even fewer religious works?12

Brubeck was not the only jazz musician to compose religious music in this period—and at this point, he had only completed one, the Christian oratorio, Light in the Wilderness. Certainly, Brubeck’s training with and connection to French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud may have lent Brubeck some credibility.13 But if Mintz and the Rockdale Temple rabbis simply wanted a jazz musician who could write about this shared history, why not someone like Duke Ellington or Mary Lou Williams, both of whom had composed religious works across the 1960s, and who could more compellingly represent a different perspective of Black-Jewish relations? The answer lies in whose idea the messaging of The Gates of Justice was, and for whom it was intended. The cantata’s message, cultivated by the Brubecks, Mintz, and possibly other rabbis in the Reform movement, was meant for Jewish congregations, and it was intended to inspire Jewish audiences to action. Consider the differences in the cantata’s origin story as told by Mintz and as told by Brubeck. Brubeck places responsibility for the cantata’s messaging with Mintz and the other rabbis: "They [Mintz and other rabbis] thought that with my background in jazz I could create something to heal the rift between the African-American community and the Jewish community that had at one time been so closely allied.”14 But in Mintz's re-telling of the cantata’s origins, it seems particularly important that Brubeck, an outsider to both communities, be understood as having believed in the historical connections between Black and Jewish communities, connections based in shared suffering and oppression, and further, that Brubeck be understood by audiences to be primarily responsible for creating the space in which Black and Jewish musical and historical similarities were faced: “Throughout all of our preliminary discussions, wherein we explored the possibility of his writing on a Jewish theme, Mr. Brubeck again and again alluded to the parallel between the historical experiences of the Jewish people and those of the black men in contemporary America.”15

As I explore in the larger version of this project, Black leaders and activists diverged from Jewish leaders and activists on a number of key issues throughout the 1960s—issues Jewish leaders continued to believe were important motivators for continued activism on the part of Jewish congregations. If a white, non-Jew like Brubeck, a musician who publicly supported the civil rights movement, recognized that relationship, then surely that could be an important signal to the cantata’s Jewish audiences that even if their physical proximity to Black communities had shifted, their emotional and historical connections had not. In another context, this cantata could have been used by its commissioners to position themselves more securely within whiteness and its privileges—as a performance of whiteness, perhaps of enlightened white liberalism. Instead, the cantata reflects a community uncomfortable with newly granted elements of white privilege, and searching for a way to distance themselves from that whiteness. Brubeck offered an opportunity to do just that, primarily because he was white. By selecting Brubeck as messenger of a particularly Jewish approach to Black-Jewish relations, Mintz drew an implicit comparison between the predominantly Jewish congregation in the audience and Brubeck. If Mintz had asked Ellington to compose a cantata, the comparison between Ellington as a Black composer (likely composing for and performing with a Black band) could potentially have magnified the differences between Black and Jewish communities, exacerbating an already tenuous relationship. Using Brubeck offered the congregation a chance to draw a contrast between Jewishness and Brubeck’s whiteness; in doing so, the Jewish congregation in attendance could be reminded, possibly reassured, that even if they had achieved some of the benefits of whiteness, in terms of neighborhoods, education, and class relationships, they could still maintain their Jewish identity, and thereby stand somewhat apart. As Loeffler argues, maintaining a particular place as Jews in the world was crucial for Jews’, and especially Reform Jews’, continued work for human rights in the civil rights movement.

To some extent, then, the cantata offers an examination of whiteness as separate from the Jewish experience. However, for many of the Black communities for whom Mintz and the Brubecks fought to win justice and equality, The Gates of Justice documented a history of oppression that no longer, and perhaps never, felt shared. Another read of the cantata might be that it, along with Mintz and the Brubecks, risked the trope of (white) moral heroism—acting in the interest of oppressed others, while at the same time benefiting from that action. But still another would interpret any action that inspired empathetic action in the civil rights movement, no matter the means, as operating against structures of white supremacy; indeed, many in the audience of Rockdale Temple may have been working to recognize their privilege and put it to the work of supporting Black Americans. Ultimately, the cantata’s performance of, in, outside, and against whiteness reflects the increasingly complex understandings of American whiteness, and of Reform Jews’ relationship to whiteness, as the 1970s began.

About the Author

Kelsey Klotz is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received her PhD in Musicology with a certificate in American Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Dædalus, the American Studies Journal, Jazz Perspectives, and the Journal of Jazz Studies. She is currently working on a book project titled Dave Brubeck and the Performance of Whiteness, under contract with Oxford University Press. 

1James Baldwin, “From the American Scene: The Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948,” Commentary Feb. 1948; James Baldwin, “Negroes are Anti-Semitic because they're anti-white,” New York Times 9 April 1967; Julius Lester, “A Response,” in Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (New York: Richard W. Baron, 1969); Julius Lester, “The Lives People Live," in Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, ed. Paul Berman (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994); Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945).
2Philip T. And Helene Cohen, interview, in Sarna and Goldman 1986, 174.
3Jonathan D. Sarna and Karla Goldman, “From Synagogue-Community to Citadel of Reform: The History of K. K. Bene Israel (Rockdale Temple) in Cincinnati, Ohio,” in American Congregations, v. 1, ed. James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 205.
4Philip T. Cohen, “Our History," Rockdale Temple, July 14, 2017. Accessed June 21, 2020:
5Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 206.
6Albert Vorspan, “Blacks and Jews,” in Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (New York: Richard W. Baron, 1969), 209-210.
7James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 296-299.
8Loeffler, 296. As Loeffler writes, citing philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The phrase ‘[to] be human as a Jew’ reads like an oxymoron today. It smacks of special pleading or relativism. Human rights are supposed to transcend difference, not affirm it. Yet this is not the only way to define human rights. The Jewish political tradition…recognized national politics as a precondition of international justice. To survive as a minority required political self-definition, which in turn meant collective politics. Arendt wrote in 1942, “A Jew can preserve his human dignity only if he can be human as a Jew.” Hannah Arendt, “A Way toward the Reconciliation of Peoples,” in Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 261.
9Dave Brubeck, Liner notes, Gates of Justice, 1969.
10Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
11Dave Brubeck, program note, The Gates of Justice, 1969.
12As Charles Hersch notes in Jews and Jazz, there were also a number of Jewish jazz musicians, or Black jazz musicians with a particular affinity for Jewishness well-known in the jazz field. Any of them might have made an interesting choice for the commission. Charles Hersch, Jews and Jazz: Improvising Ethnicity (New York: Routledge, 2017).
13Erin K. Maher, “Darius Milhaud in the United States, 1940-71: Transatlantic Constructions of Musical Identity,” PhD diss. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2016), 111.
14Dave Brubeck, Interview with Howard Reich. “Summer Music Interview,” Moment Magazine July-August 2010.
15Nels Nelson, “Brubeck: From Jazz to Cantatas,” Philadelphia Daily News 24 Apr. 1970, A29.


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