riting in 1841 upon the completion of a newly constructed synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, Reverend Gustavus Poznanski made a claim that might seem odd today: “This synagogue is our temple, this city is our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple, that city, and that land, so will our sons defend this temple, this city, and this land.” Though it was written a half-century before the first Zionist Congress and more than century prior to the establishment of statehood, Poznanski’s pronouncement of the U.S. as “our Palestine” simply reflected the views of many immigrant American Jews that America was as good a homeland as one could hope for.
In the nearly two centuries since, the Jewish populations of both America and what is now the State of Israel have grown and diversified exponentially. That growth has been accompanied by an array of opinions, perceptions, outlooks, and attitudes that have shifted over time. Put simply, the relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel has never been monolithic. This has been less so in the world of music. “Whatever the case has been at any particular historical moment,” writes Neil W. Levin in an essay for the Milken Archive, “the existence of a musical relationship between Israel and America has been a constant in a sea of shifting attitudes, trends, and sensibilities.”
That musical relationship is the topic of this virtual exhibit, which has been divided into four parts and contains musical works from the mid–late 20th century.
Part one, titled “Imagining Zion,” contains music inspired by the beauty of the land and the diversity of global Jewish traditions that exist there. “Sacred Ties,” the second section, consists of sacred services resulting from collaborations between American synagogues and Israeli composers. The brief third section contains two choral suites by Max Helfman, who promulgated Israel’s nascent musical culture through his work at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The final section includes musical works that deal, in various ways, with violence and conflict.
“...the existence of a musical relationship between Israel and America has been a constant in a sea of shifting attitudes, trends, and sensibilities.”
—Neil W. Levin
Today, as Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding, it stands on familiar terrain: divided over internal political matters and under pressure from various external forces. How the present situation will be resolved is uncertain. But the musical relationship forged over the past century shows no sign of abating.