Jewish Art Song in America

A Composer’s Perspective

A Virtual Exhibit
Guest Curated by Ofer Ben-Amots

Art music is—almost by definition—a specialist's genre. It is nearly always composed and performed by individuals and ensembles specially trained in formalized institutions. And, especially in Western cultures, it is transmitted largely through print, requiring detailed knowledge of musical notation in order to compose and perform it. Some might argue it requires a similar level of education to fully appreciate it as well. It follows then that Jewish art music is even more specialized, requiring not only that which has already been mentioned but also some understanding of Jewish history and musical practice to fully grasp its significance and perceive its subtleties. In this virtual exhibit on Jewish art song in America, composer Ofer Ben-Amots demystifies things. In addition to insightful commentary on the unique history and role of language in Jewish culture, Ofer takes us deep into the music, with specific examples of how composers combine text and music in song—a form so seemingly simple we often take it for granted. He's also brought in two welcome outside voices, with songs by Max Stern and Alex Weiser.

—Jeff Janeczko, Curator

Jewish art songs are considered late-comers to the art song world. The genre traces back to the beginning of the Romantic era, most prominently in Germany during the early 1800s. The rise of this small-form chamber combination resulted from several cultural, social, and musical developments: the evolution of the piano as a ubiquitous instrument; the birth of Romantic poetry, with its intimate and emotional expression; and the spread of Hausmusik (home concerts), which allowed for small social-cultural gatherings among the European bourgeoisie. The term Kunstlieder (art songs) was used to differentiate the new genre from Lieder or Volkslieder (songs or folksongs) in that the piano was considered an equal partner in this vocal-instrumental ensemble. Unlike the harpsichord, its predecessor, the modern piano was capable of being as expressive and artistic as the voice, conversing with it and complementing it to create the appropriate mood and texture. Many art songs were written to collections of poems by the same poet and then grouped together into song cycles. Composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss composed poetry by leading poets such as Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Eichendorff, and others. The new genre was solidified and popularized throughout the 19th century and well beyond.

It wasn't until the early 19th century that the earliest Jewish art songs were published through the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, with composers like Joel Engel, Lazare Saminsky, Moses Milner, Alexander Krein, and Leo Zeitlin, among others. While most of this repertoire was inspired by Yiddish and Hassidic folklore, as well as modern Ashkenazi Hebrew poetry, it demonstrated nonetheless, a high degree of artistic and compositional craft due to the outstanding creative prowess of the composers. The appearance of Jewish art songs in America followed shortly thereafter, with the arrival of Eastern European emigrant composers in the early to mid-1900s, as well as the first generations of American-born Jewish composers.

There is something exceptional about Jewish art songs, which stems from a millennia-long diaspora experience: the nation that was forced to roam in exile between different countries and continents has adopted over the centuries several vernacular languages and modified them for their specific needs. These languages in their respective Judeo dialect, were used mainly for secular, day-to-day interaction, while Hebrew was preserved as the holy tongue for prayers and the study of Torah. Languages like Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Yiddish (Judeo-German), and Arabiyaa Yahudiyya (Judeo-Arabic) became the unique linguistic mark for different segments of the Jewish Diaspora, and each spawned their own mature and unique culture of poetry, prose, drama, chant, and various media forms.

“Gradually, the text starts responding in kind: it sings back and reveals the music concealed within.”

My involvement with art songs began with my studies at the Detmold Academy of Music in Germany, where the study of art songs was central to the curriculum in both analytic and creative terms. As a musician dedicated to the discovery, preservation, and creation of Jewish music, I have been fascinated by these diverse cultural treasures and have dealt with Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish legacies with the same kind of affection and attention. Working with different languages requires distinct sensitivities to the flow and rhythm of each one. The soundscape of the Eastern European shtetl is distinctly different from the Sephardic temperament of the Ladino Romancero, while Hebrew appears to be rhythmically much harsher and irregular than both. These respective idiosyncrasies must find their way into the composition to preserve both continuity and authenticity, especially when the music is based on folklore and traditional materials.

While popular opinion often holds that artistic creativity is a completely spontaneous enterprise, based solely on the free spirit and mood of the artist, many composers believe that working within certain guidelines and conceptual limitations enhances the creative process. The idea of applying restraint explains, for example, why composers have chosen, for centuries, to use the sonata form, or to compose variations based on a specific musical idea or explore new expressions through a strict twelve-tone row.

The tailoring together of music and poetry provides a built-in boundary that requires a full understanding and sensing of the text at its most intimate levels. It is the actual feeling of the poetic rhythm, the flow, the direct textual meaning, its inner-metaphoric implications, and its imagery that can aid the successful merging of words with music. In my own experience composing art songs, I have always followed a few indispensable steps: first and foremost is to identify a text that truly resonates with me. Whether a poem, dramatic script, or a biblical verse, I must feel an instinctive desire to set it to music. The next step is to read the text repeatedly until I sense that it has sunk in, and I completely retain it internally. Gradually, the text starts responding in kind: it sings back and reveals the music concealed within. Thus, my approach has been to never force my own musical ideas upon a text, but rather let the words don their musical outfit in a slow but natural process of creative discovery.

The following collection presents arts songs in four languages—Ladino, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English—by twelve Jewish-American composers. While the virtual exhibit is arranged according to these four languages, in the end it is meant to represent the distinct, diverse, and shared sound of the Jewish experience.


Ladino is a unique phenomenon within Jewish culture in that it developed and prospered outside its place of origin. It was after the 1492 expulsion from Spain that Sephardi Jews began clinging to their Sephardic heritage, partially for nostalgia and partially to maintain their cultural identity with pride. Since the great majority of expelled Jews arrived in the wider Balkan and Mediterranean regions, these regions became important sites for the development of Sephardic cultural heritage. During the 17th century, several groups of Sephardi Jews emigrated from Turkey to Jerusalem and settled primarily in the Ohel Moshe neighborhood. Since then Ladino has been an ever-present language among old Sephardi Jerusalemite families. Since the early 1950s and especially through the aliyah of Bulgarian-Sephardi Jewry, Ladino has been heard and spoken regularly throughout Israel. The 1968 play "Bustan Sephardi" (Spanish Orchard) was the longest-running show (twenty-eight years) at the National Theater of Israel, Habima. It brought about the revival of Ladino and introduced the larger Israeli public to the rich Sephardic cultural legacy. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Spain in 1986, as well as the creation of the National Commission for Ladino Language and Culture in 1996, pushed for a wider interest and brought about major Ladino festivals, dedicated radio programs, and the appearance of new literary publications. Among these publications are several collections of short Ladino folktales, known for their wit and morality, as well as an updated Ladino-Hebrew dictionary intended to codify and solidify the mostly aurally transmitted heritage. One of the most significant results, however, was the spread of the romancero as a popular and treasured musical form, which became part of the wider Israeli culture.

In the United States, Ladino has been more of an oddity: with the majority of American Jews descendants of Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi Jews, Ladino has not been widespread or used as a primary language. While America's first Jewish congregations (such as Shearith Israel in New York, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, and Congregation Jeshuat Israel in Rhode Island) have practiced Spanish and Portuguese Jewish rituals, most of the liturgy has been recited in Hebrew. Just a small part of the service has been preserved in its Judeo-Spanish origin, as for example the Bendigamos al altisimo, used regularly both in the Hallel as well as Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals.) The 1992 commemoration of the 500th year of the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula had an obvious impact on American Jewry and created increased interest in the background of this dramatic historical chapter and its related culture. Looking forward, it is entirely possible that the status of Ladino could change in the future: the growing use of Spanish in the U.S. and an increasing number of online resources have already inspired scholars and cultural enthusiasts to engage with Ladino and to revive Sephardic culture.

Yitzhak Navon (1921–2015), author of Bustan Sephardi and Israel's fifth president. 
(Fritz Cohen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Simon Sargon’s song cycle At Grandfather's Knee contains contemporary arrangements of selected songs he found in Alberto Hemsi’s anthology, Cancionero sefardi. In these straightforward arrangements, Sargon displays great respect to the tradition by preserving the original tune in the vocal part. His compositional craft is displayed in the piano accompaniment, which is original and sophisticated, and which adorns the songs with perfectly matched tone-painting. In El Punchon y La Rosa for example, Sargon uses the word “punchon” (thorn) as the leading idea for the accompaniment, integrating a punching sound of a short cluster in the piano, which evokes the uncomfortable feeling of a piercing thorn. The song Los Arvoles Llorossos is full of water imagery: the falling rain, the dripping water from the trees, and the soaked streets all join together to a describe a large body of water which ultimately comes from the mourning beloved’s eyes. The piano accompaniment depicts the rolling down rain and tears through a four-note falling and rotating pattern to reflect the deep sadness of the ballad. Finally, in the third song, La Burracha, the uneven rhythmic pattern in the piano accompaniment instantly suggests the unstable feeling of drunkenness.

Bruce Adolphe’s cycle Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering is unique for two reasons: first, Adolphe chose to use the text but to drop the well-known traditional melodies of the romanceros. The other difference is in his instrumental choice, replacing the piano accompaniment with French horn and guitar. Both choices are daring and meaningful: romanceros such as Noches, Noches and La Rosa Enflorence are among the most extensively performed and their original melodies have become well-known. Dropping these melodies allowed the composer to take a fresh look at the lyrics and reinvent the concept of the Judeo-Spanish ballad. And by combining the guitar with the distant prolonged sounds and short melodic gestures of the French horn, Adolphe achieved a sense of timelessness. Despite its original compositional language, extended tonality and surprising harmonies, the cycle evokes a strong Judeo-Spanish sound.

Much like Sargon’s work above, my first Ladino song cycle, Songs from the Pomegranate Garden, was based on traditional material. For my second cycle, Kantigas Ulvidadas (Long-forgotten Chants.) I chose to set contemporary Ladino poetry by living Israeli poets, including Miriam Raymond and Shlomo Avayou. The music, while original, is much inspired by the traditional style of Judeo-Spanish folk ballads and tries to grasp the old romancero sound. In Yo kon amor, the piano imitates the persistent and repetitive sound of an imaginary Arabic oud or Spanish guitar, while the voice offers a wailing-longing tune over the drone-like instrumental part. Sivda de mi chikez, is heavily nostalgic, as the poet remembers her birthplace and bitter-sweet childhood memories. To replicate the sense of nostalgia, I chose a chanson-like, almost Chopinesque piano accompaniment.


While Ladino was preserved predominantly as aural tradition, the millennia-old Yiddish has flourished over the centuries and produced a great body of fine literature, poetry, liturgical commentaries and polemics, drama, movies, and even a few operas. Although Yiddish culture suffered a significant defeat through the Holocaust, earlier waves of immigration contributed to its survival and continued growth in the United States. It is interesting to compare the status of Yiddish in the U.S. against its standing in Israel: whereas Ladino has been embraced in Israel, responses to Yiddish have ranged from the cold shoulder to near-militant resistance. With the return to Zion and the renewal of a Jewish homeland, Yiddish was often looked upon as a symbol of exile, the ghetto, defeatism, and weakness. Of course, most Yiddish speakers kept using it as primary language in the privacy of their home, but the new image of a free, proud, strong, Hebrew-speaking sabra prevailed.

With numerous waves of Eastern European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yiddish language and culture prospered in the U.S. and continued to develop until recent years. Over many decades, generational change, the emergence of the State of Israel, and cultural politics relegated Yiddish to a thing of the past for many secular Jews, while remaining the lingua franca among in Hassidic communities. For the orthodox communities, daily newspapers as well as other Yiddish periodicals are still published regularly. Torah and Talmud studies are often conducted in Yiddish as, for example, studying the late Lubavicher Rebbe’s commentary (R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson) at the Chabad-Lubavich Center in Brooklyn is done entirely in Yiddish to this day. Among non-orthodox Jews, Yiddish has been preserved through organizations like the Arbeter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle (a secular-cultural organization whose slogan is “Jewish Culture for a Just World”), as well as through a small but active community of enthusiasts, artists, and activists who identify strongly with Yiddish culture’s history of social and political activism as well as its rich body of musical traditions that developed in both Eastern Europe and the U.S.

Music has always been an important part of Workmen’s Circle activities. During the mid-20th century, many of the local Arbeter Ring chapters included community choruses, which successfully preserved and disseminated Yiddish songs. And contemporary chapters support musical artists through grants and fellowships, and regularly include Yiddish music in their programs, events, and activities. Against the backdrop of such vibrant activity, it is no wonder that other fine arts could flourish, with drama, prose, poetry, and art music. An excellent example of this success was the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to the Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. This event was not only a global recognition of Yiddish as a legitimate and expressive literary language, but asserted that fact that Yiddish was far from being “dead,” as many might have considered. Finally, one of the most important hubs for all things Yiddish is the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, with its extensive library and archives, and which aside from research as its main mission also serves as an institution of higher learning, adult education, and as an Eastern European Jewish cultural center.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), rabbi, philosopher, poet, and civil rights activist.

The name Lazar Weiner is virtually synonymous with the term Yiddish art song. With over two hundred songs in Yiddish, each with its own unique texture and character, Weiner has become the standard by which subsequent generations of composers of Yiddish songs are measured. Weiner’s Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel date to 1973 and are among his last contributions to the genre. A great theologian, profound Jewish philosopher, and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Heschel was also a brilliant and sensitive poet in Yiddish. As with his other art songs, Weiner’s original music flows completely naturally, as if Yiddish is meant to be the most lyrical art song material. A mixture of tonal and post-tonal techniques allows for a compact, almost expressionistic nature, yet at the same time exudes deep sense of Yiddishkeit. The first song in the cycle, Got geyt mir nokh umetum, starts with a long and embellished melody. A persistent set of chords in the piano accompaniment indicates a slow walk with the sound of ever-moving steps. Interestingly, with only three lines in each of the verses, Weiner completes the “missing” or imaginary fourth line by continuing with the piano alone. The music reaches its dramatic climax in the middle of the song at the line, “Rise up”/The desire in me is for rest/the demand within me is: Rise up, and is followed by sense of doubtfulness. The last part of the song returns to the earlier pacing tempo, this time with some “reverie” in the dreamy like gestures in the piano. Khoyves (Debts) offers a similar structure with a steady motion leading to an intense climax in the middle. Interesting in this song is the way by which Weiner musically differentiates between questions and answers. Question are portrayed with an upward melodic gesture while answers remain on the same tone or point downwards. The third song in the cycle is the most philosophical one and deals with questions like “What does G-d want?” “What shames him and what causes him joy?” Appropriately, this poem is treated differently from the previous two: the harmonic language is more complex and dissonant, the melodic line is post-tonal, and the piano accompaniment emphasizes polyphony and contrapuntal imitative gestures.

Helen Greenberg’s Yiddish song cycle Froyen shtime (Women’s Voice) is another example of contemporary setting of Yiddish poetry which is both imaginative and exciting. The vocal lines are lyrical, moving between prayer-like modes and expanded tonality. The piano accompaniment tightly follows the vocal line but, at times bursts into its own solo parts in response to the vocal gestures. Most intriguing about Greenberg’s composition is her conscious choice to select poetry by female poets, and to shape Froyen Shtime as an exclusively feminine creation. This serves as a reminder that the main carriers of the centuries-long folksong tradition were women (this is true for both Yiddish and Ladino). Thus, lullabies, love, courtship, gossip, and a variety of other secular songs were primarily preserved by women over many generations. In the poem Mit a nar (With a fool) it remains unclear whether the fool is an outside character, or an inseparable part of the poet herself. The choice of a clownish, free-spirited piano accompaniment works perfectly to depict that “fool.” The second song, Vayber (Wives) is a bitter-sweet gossip song, where words in the first part of the sentence are constantly repeated. Greenberg uses these repetitions as resonating echoes in the vocal melodic line, and often reiterates the same motive without words in the piano, to emphasize the echo effect.

My composition, Shtetl Songs, is a set of contemporary arrangements of traditional Yiddish folksongs, each carefully selected for a particular musical reason. The original tune of Royz, royz (Rose, Rose) was allegedly a Hungarian-Carpathian shepherd tune that was “purchased” by a passing-by Hassid, who then turned it into a mournful cry to G-d. The original text “Rose, Rose, how far are you? Forest Forest how vast are you?” became a metaphor for a deeper spiritual query: “G-d, G-d, how far are you? Exile, Exile, how long are you?” The difference between the two parts of the song, the earlier nature-inspired parable versus the latter, which is an actual supplication is validated through the musical arrangement: the parable verse is simpler with traditional tonal and folk-like harmonization, while in the second verse, tonality is disrupted in a dramatic way to express the anguish and questions of despair. The second song, Di dray neytorins (The Three Seamstresses) is a tragic poem by Y. L. Peretz. However, the melody’s tempo, ceaseless motion and drama were immediately reminiscent of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) to a poem by Goethe. Thus, the incessant rhythm of the sewing machine became the leading element in the piano accompaniment.

While it is clear that Yiddish is far from a dead language, it has been particularly encouraging to see how artists of younger generations are inspired by the sway and splendor of the millennia-old tongue and seek to engage with Yiddish poetry and literature with a renewed sense of artistic innovation. Alex Weiser’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-nominated album, And All the Days Were Purple, is an extensive song cycle combining Yiddish and English poetry for an ensemble of voice, piano, percussion, and string trio. Out of the six vocal selections, four comprise Yiddish Poems by Anna Margolin, Abraham Sutzkever, and Rokhl Korn.

Born and raised in New York City, Weiser explains his attraction to Yiddish and the decision to use it as both a matter of cultural heritage and identity as well as a historical lineage and responsibility: “I decided to use Yiddish in my song cycle and all the days were purple (…) as a way to connect with my heritage and contemplate what it means to me. I found in setting Yiddish poetry to music a variety of ways that history, language, and culture can provide access to a rich lineage of which I’m proud to be a part, and a particularly personal way to contribute to the art song genre.” A graduate of Yale University and New York University in music composition and theory, Weiser has been dedicated to the creation of contemporary art music. However, through his role as the Director of Public Programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, he has been exposed to the rich repertoire of Jewish art music. The steady interaction with this musical material has helped him find his voice as a Jewish American composer.

The songs Mayn Glik (My Joy, to a poem by Ana Margolin) and Poezye (Poetry, to a text by Abraham Sutzkever) stand out for their candor and simplicity. The text constantly stands in the foreground, highlighted by the melodic contour, while the accompaniment is kept to a minimum, providing fitting shades of color through unique harmonization. Each song portrays a certain concept or imagery: in “My Joy” the accompaniment consists of a constant pendulum-like toggling between two chords. This constant back and forth motion is a depiction of walking across the square as mentioned in the second verse: “No, rather, this was my happiness: To go silently back and forth/Across the square with you.” In Poezye (or Poetry), Sutzkever compares poetry to “A dark violet plum, the last one on the tree, thin-skinned and delicate as the pupil of an eye.” The song’s texture suggests a slow recitative, moving gently through the words with occasional note repetition, and accompanied by soft, sustained chords. For Weiser, “Poetry” is the lyrical centerpiece of the cycle. He remarks: “I tried to capture the delicate, sweetness of the plum that the poem describes with a similarly simple, delicate, sweet, lyrical musical setting.”

Background Image Source: Steven Pisano


In a world where almost half of all languages are considered endangered and where one of roughly 7,000 world tongues disappears every two weeks, Hebrew has been a unique and miraculous phenomenon. Its rebirth in the late 19th century, from a near-dead tongue for 2,000 years into a vibrant, day-to-day useful language is unprecedented in linguistic history. In Israel, where Hebrew is the official language (along with Arabic) over 9 million people use it in their daily interactions. The Hebrew revival started as part of the early Zionist movement with the work of journalist, scholar, and visionary Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) who labored tirelessly on updating and disseminating the millennia-old tongue for a modern-day use. For generations, Hebrew had been dubbed “Leshon HaKodesh” (the holy tongue), preserved for worship and Torah study, but considered too sacred and unfit for ordinary life. To change its status, it was necessary to invent hundreds of new words and to transform the archaic biblical grammar into a useful contemporary language. While Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was indeed the first activist, he was quickly joined by other grammarians, teachers, and enthusiasts, who in 1889 established the Va’ad Halashon (Language Committee). The Va’ad was active until 1953, when it converted into the state-sponsored Academy of the Hebrew Language. Since its foundation, the Academy has enriched the language with countless words and expressions. However, due to various dialectal layers, ranging from slang, through prosaic use, to higher poetic and scholarly expression, there has always been a tension between the academic tendencies of the institution and the colloquial uses by the public. Some of the new expressions created by the Academy were at odds with the natural development of a living tongue and thus, not accepted by the public. On the other hand, much of the prevalent jargon which seemed improper and deemed unacceptable by the Academy, was heartily embraced by the public, and became an essential part of daily speech. For instance, it would have been unimaginable to the Hebrew revivalists, that one of the most common expressions, “Shalom” (for “Goodbye!”) has been recently replaced by “Tov, Yalla, Bye!”; a short phrase, combining three different languages: Hebrew for Tov (good), Arabic for Yalla (let’s go), and the English Bye.

The story of Israeli folksongs is tightly connected with the evolution of modern Hebrew. The early groups of alutzim (pioneers) who arrived during the first waves of aliyot (from the first through the fourth aliya) were filled with ideology and vital energy. Being historically indigenous to the region, sustained by spiritual ties to the land, and deeply inspired by biblical images, the alutzim developed a distinct lifestyle, radically different from their previous diasporic existence. The new social-economic system was strongly inspired by socialist philosophy. It was strictly secular, gender-integrated, and aspired to create a just, equal, productive, and ultimately a utopian society. Daily life for the pioneers combined hard physical work throughout the day and social gatherings with recreational activities at night. Thus, the hard labor of draining swamps, growing crops, and tending livestock, was complemented by communal pastimes like sitting around the bonfire, singing freshly created songs, and dancing blazing horas until the wee hours of the night. The nocturnal singing of the alutzim has remained one of the most characteristic and consistent pastime activities in modern Israeli society: the shira b’tzibbur or sing-along. It has become a favorite social trend, where various groups meet regularly to spend hours singing through dozens of songs. These get-togethers usually start with the early pioneer songs and move on through a familiar repertoire, mostly marked by the major wars: the War of Independence (1948), the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and so on.

Some of the finest composers of the Yishuv (early settlements, pre-1948) were also part of the collective and active members of the kibbutzim (communal settlements,) or moshavim (cooperative farming communities.) They often found greater satisfaction in creating a new shared folklore rather than focusing on their own individual artistic aspirations. Collaborating with likeminded poets, these composers served as cultural pioneers, documenting the rebirth of a nation through words and music. At the same time there was a sincere attempt to link the new culture with its ancient origins in the land of Israel. This effort was manifested in the work of ethnomusicologist A. Z. Idelsohn, especially through his ten-volume collection of various Jewish music traditions, titled Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Idelsohn’s objective was to find a common origin to the many diverse Jewish musical traditions, which could not only show a connection between the scattered diaspora communities, but also clarify the nature of music in ancient Israel and the Holy Temple’s sacred service. One of the theories advanced around the 1930s was that Yemenite Jewish musical practices were the closest to that of ancient Israel. It was believed that the millennia-old, isolated community of the Arabian Peninsula truly preserved the ancient biblical tradition, and the exotic nature of Yemenite music and dance, based on unique modes and unusual rhythmic patterns, amplified this impression. Later research proved that Yemenite Jewish tradition, unique as it is, was just as influenced by its surroundings as any other musical tradition. Nonetheless, the treasure of Yemenite song and dance became an essential and cherished part of contemporary Israeli folklore.

Alexander Penn (1906–1972). Penn's poem Lammidbar sa’enu provides the text for Herbert Fromm's Bammidbar.

Herbert Fromm’s Yemenite Cycle was possibly inspired by this romantic notion after his 1960 tour of Israel. The establishment of the State of Israel, just over a decade earlier, felt like a fulfillment of prophetic promise and triggered a great excitement. Thus, composing the Yemenite Cycle was an opportunity to creatively connect with Israel both spiritually and culturally. Moreover, it enabled the composer to use folk material in an artistic musical context. The cycle is partially based on Yemenite Jewish material found in Idelsohn’s Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies and in part on other sources. For example, the second song in the cycle, Bammidbar, a popular camels’ caravan song from the early 1930s (known as Lammidbar), is based on a traditional Bedouin tune. Lammidbar is written within a narrow range of a perfect fifth, using only a five-note scale. The limited range does not diminish any of the melody’s charm, but still evokes a sense of an ancient musical culture. The orchestral sound is intended to augment the feeling of ancient eras through the predominant use of the flute, harp, and bells. The musical language of Fromm’s arrangement is largely in the Mediterranean neo-classical style, one frequently used by early art music composers such as Paul Ben-Haim, Alexander Boskovich, Marc Lavry, and others. In Yemenite Cycle it is easy to identify the middle eastern rhythmic and melodic patterns, combined with European compositional techniques such as imitative counterpoint, voice leading, and well-structured motivic work.

Hag habikkurim, also known as the Hag HaShavuot or the Feast of Weeks, is the second of three pilgrimage festivals, between Passover and Sukkot. Aside from celebrating the day on which the Torah was given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, it also signifies the end of Sefirat HaOmer (sheaf of grain) and the bringing of the first fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though most farming settlements of kibbutzim and moshavim were secular, the agricultural significance of the holiday intrigued them to celebrate it with parades, songs, dances, and a procession of decorated farming tools. These festive ceremonies became an important part of Israeli culture and spread throughout the land in schools and kindergartens. Special pageants reenacted the delivery of the first fruits and harvested grain to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I still have vivid childhood memories of this wonderful annual ceremony, celebrating with other children in my class, all wearing white cloths and garlanded with flowers, carrying large woven baskets on our heads, filled with fruit and bundles of wheat, and singing our favorite Shavuot songs.

In Hag habikkurim, composer Max Helfman created a nine-movement arrangement of Israeli songs related to the joyful celebration. These sophisticated arrangements are much more stylized than the unison sing-along style I remember from my childhood. In fact, Helfman’s choral-orchestral score beautifully blurs the boundary between folk and art music. Helfman’s greatest achievement in this piece was how he produced rich, complex, and delightful arrangements, while leaving the original tunes completely unchanged. Only two songs in this cycle are directly related to the day of bikkurim. As stated by Neil Levin in the liner notes, however: “All of [the songs] relate in some way to the reclamation and rebuilding of the ancient land; to the reestablishment of a Jewish communal structure there; and to the forging of a revitalized national spirit in the context of 20th-century Zionist sensibilities and aims.” Beyond sharing the spirit and excitement of rebuilding the old-new homeland. Helfman's composition introduced the American Jewish community to the enormous talent of Israeli composers such as Yedidia Admon, Mordechai Zeira, Matityahu Shelem, and Nahum Nardi, who are cherished and credited as the creators of the Israeli folksong genre.


For most composers, writing songs in their own native tongue is both comfortable and effective. The closer they are to the language, the easier they feel and hear its music. Thus, for the American composers featured in the next section, it is the English translation of literature written in other languages that has helped them connect with their Jewish roots on a creative level. The creation of Jewish art songs in English is a powerful artistic statement for several reasons. First, it is the composer’s assertion of their Jewish-American identity; they belong to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel and, thus, feel comfortable expressing their art in their native language. Second, the music in this section is unabashedly modern: it avoids any nostalgic echoes of a long-lost diasporic past. America has been a haven for Jews for over 360 years, and while it is still a diaspora, it is a new kind of diaspora with its own unique qualities: safe, proud, and thriving. Finally, through their poetry, these songs present important universal Jewish concepts, philosophies, and literary ideas. Sharing this gift is through music and through our generation’s lingua franca, the English language, ultimately renders them accessible to a wider audience.

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Celebrated Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) has been widely translated into English. 
(Yair Medina (יאיר מדינה), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Psalm of the Distant Dove (subtitled Canticle in Homage to Sephardi Culture), Hugo Weisgall uses biblical, Talmudic, and medieval Hebraic literature in English translation. The literary content is the only trace of Sephardic culture in this work. The music, while melodic, is non-folkloristic in nature. It is original, contemporary, atonal, condensed, and intense. Weisgall’s use of tone-painting throughout the work is evident. For example, the first song, My Lover Called, opens with a clear and confident “call” or a shouting phrase. This is immediately followed by a rhythmically energetic and fast-paced piano part, imitating the call: “rise up! rise up!” The vocal part complements with its own a melodic contour, which depicts both the rising and inviting ideas contained in the verse line “Rise up my love and come with me.” The next line, “The rains have passed” is accompanied by a drizzling rain texture in the piano part, which adds an additional layer of interpretation to the text.

Weisgall’s musical treatment of Birds Struggle is of particular interest; one the most noticeable elements is the drawing out of the first word, "birds," to an extreme length, and applying the same to the last word, "day." Another is the repetition and emphasis on select words from within the macabre text. For example, repetition of the words, "like Israel," and later: "for your sake," create a strong emphasis in a supplicatory manner. Similarly, the final phrase: "We are slaughtered all the day," is also sung twice. However, Weisgall chooses to echo once more the last three words, "all the day," as if to indicate the never-ending state of the dove being slaughtered. Knowingly or unknowingly, this song turns into a deeply personal, alternate version of the Sh’ma– the Jewish credo of total devotion and self-sacrifice.

Vivian Fine’s harmonic language in Canticles for Jerusalem for voice and piano ranges in scope from free tonality to stark atonality. The vocal part, while melodic, shows rich and expressive contours, as if painted with a big coarse brush. In her text choice, Fine mixes the new, the old, and the ancient: a modern text by the famed Jerusalemite poet Yehuda Amichai, with a poem by Yehuda Halevi from medieval Spain, along with selected verses from Psalm 129. While much of this cycle is sung in English, some Hebrew and even some Aramaic can be also heard sporadically. The song Light Against the Tower of David uses a poem of the great modern Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew. The main idea and the most frequent words in the poem are “light” and “lighted,” which are repeated twelve times, and then one additional “lightning” that ends the poem. Inspired by this luminous imagery, Fine matches the idea by creating a rapidly flashing and flickering texture in the piano accompaniment, bring to life the vibrant scenes of Jerusalem. By the Rivers of Babylon is written as a slow and mournful elegy, and thus stands in stark contrast to its two encompassing songs. Inspired by the verse “we hung our harps on the willows” Fine chooses to use an extended piano technique, of strumming and plucking the piano strings. This, rather contemporary playing technique produces a unique sound effect reminiscent of an ancient harp (or Aeolian harp.) The concluding song in this cycle, Ode to Zion, is distinctly multilingual. Each verse is first sung in the English translation, then followed by the original Hebrew. To accentuate the difference, most of the English verses are unaccompanied while the Hebrew repetition is accompanied by the piano. It is only later in the song that English and Hebrew are both accompanied by the piano. This sudden change creates a powerful vibrant sound of many voices joining together in song to depict the verse: "From far and near they greet you from all sides."

Bruce Roter's Three Short Songs on Poems of Judah al- Ha'rizzi, was also inspired by Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain. Here, again, we may assume that the ease and comfort of working with his native tongue and the quest to communicate directly with an English-speaking audience, compelled him to use the English translation rather than the original Hebrew. Some fifty years younger than both Weisgall and Fine, Roter’s music reflects a newer, less restrictive style. In fact, despite its brevity, the compositional language can be described polystylistic; the two outer songs, which are written in a post-tonal expressionist style, are separated by a contrasting lyrical and noticeably tonal song. In the first song, The Sun, Roter, uses the interesting composing technique of accumulation, which means a gradual build-up of the text, creating thereby more drama and suspense.

The second song, The Lute, is lyrical and tonal. By using strumming and plucking in both string instruments, Roter evokes the gentle sound of the lute while letting the vocal line span the poetry above the instrumental ensemble, in a poised and measured motion. The third song in the cycle, The Lightning, picks up the energy from the opening song. This time, however, Roter uses tone-painting in a double manner: a glissando motive in the viola and cello depicts the down-shooting contour of a thunderbolt, while the sliding motive sounds like the instruments are shouting the word itself: “lightning!”

Max Stern’s Three Songs of Terezin dates to 1968 and includes three settings of poems—in English translation—composed by children interred at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp. Originally scored for piano and soprano, Stern later arranged the cycle for a small ensemble of flute, clarinet, guitar, and cello to accompany the voice. The two songs selected from this cycle could not be more contrasting: Birdsong is markedly tonal and melodious. Reflecting the lyrics: “The world is full of loveliness” and “You’ll know how wonderful it is to be alive,” the music stirs the feeling of endless beauty throughout. In contrast, I want to go away is harsh, atonal, fragmented and desperate, perfectly articulating the text: “I want to go away alone, where there are other nicer people… Somewhere into the great unknown, there where no one kills another.”

Stern’s composition—which appeared the same year as Charles Davidson I Never Saw Another Butterfly (also based on poetry from Terezin)—followed his residency at the Masters-Fellows Program for the Arts in Judaism in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a gathering of artists, composers, writers, dancers, and scholars seeking creative responses to the Holocaust.

Background Image Source: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

Links & Credits

Visit Ofer Ben-Amots's Artist Page

Featured Recordings:

At Grandfather's Knee
Ladino Love Songs of Love and Suffering
Kantigas Ulvidadas
Three Poems by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Froyen Shtime
Shtetl Songs
Yemenite Cycle
Ḥag habikkurim
Psalm of the Distant Dove
Canticles for Jerusalem
Three Short Songs on Poems of Judah al-Ha'rizzi

Featured Composers:

Simon Sargon
Bruce Adolphe
Ofer Ben-Amots
Lazar Weiner
Helen Greenberg
Herbert Fromm
Max Helfman
Hugo Weisgall
Vivian Fine
Bruce Roter

Max Stern, was born in Valley Stream, NY, in 1947. After his musical studies at Eastman School of Music, Yale University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, he emigrated to Israel in 1976 where he served for many years as a professor at Ariel University and music critic of the Jerusalem Post. His contribution to the Jewish music repertoire—with emphasis on biblical themes, Psalms, and other liturgical sources—has earned him some of the most prestigious cultural and musical honors in Israel.

Alex Weiser was born and raised in New York City and describes his music as an “acutely cosmopolitan” approach that “combine[s] a deeply felt historical perspective with a vibrant forward-looking creativity.” He holds degrees from Yale University and New York University and has studied with Martin Bresnick, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, among others. In addition to serving as Director of Public Programs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Weiser is an active composer who has received multiple commissions. His song cycle, And All the Days Were Purple was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in music. (


Exhibit curated by Ofer Ben-Amots.
Edited by Jeff Janeczko

Photo Credits: Milken Family Foundation (except where indicated). 

Ofer Ben-Amots: Andy Colwell ‘18/Colorado College
Yitzhak Navon: Fritz Cohen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Abraham Joshua Heschel: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander Penn: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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The playlist below includes selected tracks from the works featured in this exhibit. Much more is available on our Spotify Channel.