Where To, Jewish Music?

For centuries, Jewish communities have adopted the music of the surrounding culture and made it their own. Some popular Shabbos zemiros are reported to have their musical origins in Russian or German taverns, and are sung alongside those composed by Chassidische Rebbes at many a table. But for several decades, Roshei Yeshiva have complained that the use of modern rock music is inappropriate — and yet the “market” has moved ever further in that direction, following modern tastes.

What is interesting is that today’s examples of rock excess are for the most part not borrowed, but written from scratch as Jewish rock songs. Meanwhile, the “borrowed” songs are pretty mild by comparison.

Recently adopted is Lipa Schmeltzer’s “Abi Meleibt,” using the tune from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was the #1 hit in the U.S. when sung by “The Tokens” in late 1961, but many people don’t know that the song was originally recorded in 1939 as “Mbube,” in the Zulu language, and released in Swaziland, South Africa. Proof positive that songs don’t retire when they turn 65 — and also, perhaps, the most unusual origin yet for a Yiddish-language recording.

Compare it with, for example, “L’cha” by The Chevra. See what I mean? If a group of yeshiva students were to produce a mock “Abi Meleibt” video during their break, I don’t think it would look like this one for L’cha. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t do a mock video for Abi Meleibt, and that’s the point. If the music itself hardly matches the lyrics (in translation, “to You, G-d, is the greatness, the strength, the splendor, the eternity, and the glory”), the video isn’t even close to what you might imagine accompanying those words.

I mentioned to Ezzie that I was planning to write about this, and he responded: “As long as it’s original (or they think it is), even charedim don’t seem to care. It’s weird – I raised eyebrows at some stuff my cousins loved when I was in Israel.”

I’m not sure he’s right. I do remember the wedding of a fellow yeshiva student in Israel, where our Mashgiach (“spiritual dean”) put a halt to the playing of “Baruch HaGever,” and then had no objection to “Asher Bara” by the Piamentas shortly thereafter. I said at the time that the Mashgiach probably recognized the non-Jewish origins of the former (derived, at least in part, from “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March, 1963), but was in Israel and no longer listening to secular music before Men at Work produced “Down Under” in 1982.

But on the other hand, “Asher Bara” is a hora — the dancing is likely to be less wild than that for “Baruch HaGever” — so there are other reasons, besides the origins, that he might have objected to “Baruch HaGever.” And, at that time, much of the most excessively “rocked up” tunes were the borrowed ones, such as Mordechai Ben David’s “Yidden” — taken directly from “Dhenghis Khan,” Germany’s 1981 entry in the Eurovision song contest.

So is the problem the borrowing, or the spirit (or lack thereof) of the tune?

P.S. See my brother-in-law’s note about the harmony between Ma’oz Tzur and a certain other tune from roughly this time of year. It’s true…

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12 Responses

  1. HF says:

    i agree with Yitz about the koach of neginah Thank you for you your link. as for the article itself, what bothers me the most is the links you have here. why link to sites of non jewish music, regardless of what the nigun is – the lyrics are horrible. they certainly have no place on a jewish blog.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    R Wein in one of his books has a classic observation that Jewish music is almost an oxymoron because of its inherently inclusive
    and culturally oriented definition. I think that one easy test should be whether you can daven and dance to the niggun. Think of R Shlomoh Carlebach ZTL and other composers such as Yivadleinu LChaim the Bostoner Rebbe, the Modzitzer Rebbe and the groups that
    formed Dveikus and other similar groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Their music can be davened and danced to.

  3. mb says:

    Yet Another,

    It’s fairly well documented, for example.

    Maoz Tzur’s melody can be traced back to the 15th century. Though there is a slight difference of opinion amongst leading Jewish musicologists, the consensus is that the musical origins of this Hanukkah song is from German folk songs dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Evolving in sections, the final one was linked with a popular German song, made famous in a musical setting in approximately 1560. It is interesting to note that while the music of our people has, throughout the centuries, been influenced by the music of the communities in which we lived, the same can be said for some of the Church music composed during this period. It has been documented that the same German folk songs that evolved into our Maoz Tzur can be found in Protestant chorales. Both Martin Luther, one of the 16th century’s first Protestant reformers, and the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote four-part chorales based on these same tunes.

  4. yet another says:

    “The common melody for Maoz Tzur is an old German folk tune co-opted by Martin Luther and made into a church hymn.”

    mb: I’m very interested to see the source for this claim. Care to provide a reference?

  5. Bob Miller says:

    I have mixed feelings about putting popular or even classical tunes to lyrics from Tanach, our liturgy, etc. Probably, each situation has to be judged specifically on its merits. I have often wondered why precisely the worst, most boring, most inane, most tuneless tunes have been given the favored by many Jewish musicians in recent years. Even in rock and roll, there is good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate.

    Also, how many “authentic Jewish” tunes were really ours from the start, or were many borrowed too long ago for us to know their sources?

    In any case, I noticed some years ago that “Kah Keli”, the piyyut before holiday musaf, works very well to the tune of “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester (1970, in the album named after himself).

  6. Harry Maryles says:

    I have no problem with “borrowing” melodies from host cultures. This is in fact all Jewshh music is.

    I have always contended that there is no such thing as Jewish music …or at least what we think is Jewish music. It is …ALL… borrowed. How do I konw? Well let’s look at Sefardim. What does their music sound like? Is their music less Jewsih… more Jewsih? I think both genres areinauthentic. Perhaps the onky senmi Authenmtic music is the Torah cantialltion… the Trop. That at least has some semblance of orignality. If you listen to Sefardim and Ashkenazim ithere is definitely a basic melody that rubs through both versions of cantialtion.

    Other than Trop, I contend that all Jewsih music is borrowed.

    “Yidden” is a particularly eggregious “steal”. There is a difference between taking music from relatively innocuous songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and songs like “Genghis Khan”. Here is the english translation of the words from that song:

    They rode the fastest horses left the wind behind thousand men
    and one man led the way the others followed blind Genghis Khan.
    They galloped over mountains and desert sands
    they carried desolation throughout the land
    and nothing there could stop them in this world.

    Geng Geng Genghis Khan hey rider ho rider go rider let us follow
    Geng Geng Genghis Khan go brother drink brother dance brother hear us holler
    you can hear his laughter ho ho ho ho
    now and ever after ha ha ha ha
    when he drinks his jug up at one draught.

    He was the greatest lover and the strongest man of his day
    and we have heard that all the women fell for him so they say
    and he bred seven child in one long night
    he had his foes a-running at his very sight
    and nothing that could stop him in this world.

    Geng Geng Genghis Khan

  7. R. Brand says:

    The riff from The Final Countdown is played to introduce almost every chassan and kallah. Winds of Change by the Scorpions is popular, as well as many, many goyish songs. I suppose most listeners simply don’t recognize them.

  8. yitz says:

    There was a lengthy discussion of this at the “Blog in Dm” weblog a few months ago, I think it was in June 2005.

    It’s amazing how naive some people can be about music, though. Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu of Zvolin, father of the first Modzitzer Rebbe, said:
    “A person takes on a tremendous responsibility when he plays/sings [mashmia] a tune. The elevation or descent of the soul [nefesh v’neshama] depends on a niggun. It all depends on the performer [hamenagen] – what he plays, and how he plays. A niggun can elevate one on high, or lower him to the depths [Sheol Tachtis].” — sefer Imrei Shaul, p. 316.

    This is but ONE reason why I have started a weblog of AUTHENTIC Jewish music. You are most welcome to view us at:
    http://heichalhanegina.blogspot.com

  9. Ezzie says:

    First, thanks for getting rid of the verification. It chewed up my last comment. :)

    Second, L’Cha was never intended for everyone to see. A few very talented guys put together a great, fun video, showcasing their talents. The lead guy is a very nice, quiet-ish (except when entertaining), humble person who apparently was somewhat embarrassed by the notoriety the video has gotten.

    Third, I think it far more likely that your first reason (they reject the tunes they recognize) is true.

    Fourth (woah), MiShenichnas Adar is a favorite, being an old Negro spiritual called “Bale of Cotton” from when blacks were slaves in the South. “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton…” Listening to my charedi cousins who don’t know English sing “Dzump down, tern around, pek a bayel of cawton” is hilarious.

  10. David Gerstman says:

    Have you ever noticed how many wedding bands play riffs from “Layla”, Eric Clapton’s ode to another man’s wife?

  11. mb says:

    The common melody for Maoz Tzur is an old German folk tune co-opted by Martin Luther and made into a church hymn.

  12. Rivka W. says:

    Why is either the problem? I enjoy both “Abi Meleibt” (which I had heard before but never seen the video of) and “L’cha” (which I have never particularly cared for the video of, but very much enjoy the song).

    IMO, the problem is not the music. It would be perfectly possible to make a video to “L’cha” that actually had something to do with the beautiful words — and still in time with its rhythm and beat. One whose primary theme was not “Yeshiva guys gone wild.” One could even use about 30-40 seconds of the existing video’s footage.