Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America

Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack

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Judah M. Cohen
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the later decades of the 20th century, scholars began to develop an increasing interest in the re-evaluation of traditional musical and musicological canons, whether through examination of excluded female composers, through a questioning of hegemonic western paradigms, or through a realization that popular music could, and indeed should, be taken as a serious object of study. Each turn towards a previously marginalized area of study has brought with it new paradigms for analysis and understanding, offering not only new areas for investigation but new methods for studying them.

In Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America, Judah Cohen seeks both to address a particular area of neglect and to shift the center of analysis towards questions which enable that area to be brought into focus. Cohen argues that Jewish Music in 19th-century America has a tendency to be dismissed in discussions of Jewish musical history and, in doing so, shapes his analysis around the musical values and practices of congregations as one of the most helpful lenses for illuminating a period of significant debate and innovation. Cohen suggests that recent attitudes tend to dismiss this period of musical practice either because the compositions are considered to be second rate, or because the composers are considered uninformed, overly commercial, or unconnected to Judaism. Such neglect stands at a complex network of concerns, partly to do with the construction of Jewish and national identities in relation to tradition and authority, but also partly due to a musicological preoccupation with certain kinds of aesthetic evaluation which focus on “sophistication” and “greatness” to the neglect of traditions which are based on other sets of values and priorities. The musico-religious priorities of this period don’t match up well with existing modes of evaluation and are, therefore, often neglected as objects of study.

Cohen tells his narrative largely through the figures of cantors and their relationships with the congregations where they obtained positions or influence. He describes debates over the relationship between cantor, rabbi, paid singers and congregation, and the varying ways in which such relationships were negotiated as congregations sought to forge musical pathways appropriate to the different situations in which they were becoming established. As contracts were renegotiated, roles undertaken, and publications produced, the values of communities were contested and developed, according to Cohen. Should singers come from within or beyond the congregation? Who should be paid? How well should they be able to sing? What kind of music would enable this to happen? And how should congregations respond to changing musical styles? These questions relate to pragmatic decision-making, to religious ideals and priorities, to organizational hierarchies and to beliefs about music. As such they help to address music as a matter lived religion, showcasing the twists and turns that can take place as priorities shift and a multitude of arguments are resolved in a variety of disparate directions.

As a history, Cohen’s narrative treads important ground, however it can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic in its focus around the details of individual lives, appointments, and congregations. There is rich material here that could easily open out onto broader analysis of cultural shifts, and which could also have a significant impact on the theoretical framing of music and religion if Cohen had chosen to develop it further in such a direction. Cohen tends, on the whole, however, to remain close to his figures and sources as he stands up for the importance of this period of musical history by narrating its twists and turns in detail.

Whilst an argument is made that analysis of 19th-century Jewish music affects how we understand devotional patterns in the early 21st century, on the whole such implications remain somewhat implicit, and Cohen could easily have set out a more ambitious agenda as to how the paradigms he is proposing might help to reshape the frameworks within which we understand religious musicking more generally. I have some instinctive discomfort, too, regarding the focus of the narrative on prominent musicians. A more radical approach might have attempted further to foreground a wider range of figures from within the musical ecologies which such figures occupied. However, in his analysis of sources it is understandable that greater documentation exists around figures of musical leadership than around other participants, and the legacy of sources is thus a constraining feature in this analysis. All in all, Cohen tells an important story, and it is hoped that this kind of focus on congregational music and the musical practices of religious communities sees further fruit within scholarship of Jewish music more generally. Cohen’s narrative only takes us so far, however, and there is still further to go.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Porter is a Junior Fellow in Congregational Music at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Date of Review: 
December 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Judah M. Cohen is the Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Musicology at Indiana University Bloomington. He is author of The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment and Through the Sands of Time: A History of the Jewish Community of St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.



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