Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman

Jewish Music: Chords and Discords on the Bima

Mar. 10, 2000

by Leonard Lehrman

[passages in brackets were cut by the editor]

When UAHC President Rabbi Eric Yoffie called for a "new revolution" in synagogue music that should speak "directly to the soul," was he encouraging the abandoning of the past two centuries' classics, from Louis Lewandowski to Ernest Bloch and Ben Steinberg? Writing "On One Foot" in this newspaper two weeks ago, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman said Kaddish for "the Germanic-Eastern European music that energized synagogue life for two centuries," proclaiming: "Its day is done."

Speaking on February 6 at St. Bartholomew's Church in the City of New York, following a "Choral Evensong in Celebration of our Jewish Heritage" which featured works by those composers and seven of his own, Dr. Jack Gottlieb, Past President of the American Society for Jewish Music, sincerely hoped not. Remarking on the "turmoil" in today's synagogue music, he demonstrated how Jewish liturgical music of the past had influenced both church and pop music in America, noting that now things seem to have come full circle: "American folk/pop idioms [e.g. Phil Ochs] are becoming liturgical standards [Debby Friedman et al]."

Loving performances of Jewish compositions not meant to be sung entirely in unison are becoming rarer in the synagogue. Thus Gottlieb's newest composition, "Grant Us Peace," was receiving its premiere... at St. Bart's! Lamenting the "dumbing-down" of synagogue music, Gottlieb noted that "every cantorial student is now recommended--and will probably soon be required--to learn the guitar," not the piano or organ, thus forcing simplification over sophistication in composition.

But there is hope. Lauding a B'nai Jeshurun service he had recently attended, for its devotion both to Hassidic-like trance-inducing repetition (compelling participation) and to variety, Gottlieb expressed guarded optimism for the future: Just because the frightful neglect of music education in recent years has rendered appreciating it more difficult for large numbers of people does not mean that the great musical heritage of the past two centuries must be jettisoned entirely. The Milken Archives are now recording 50 CDs worth of it, including four works by Jack Gottlieb, whose lectures and forthcoming book, Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish, continue to inspire and entertain.