Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jewish Music

Recently a friend of mine was telling me about a new (for him, anyway) song from Ohad. In his words, the tune is, “Mamish beautiful. It’s so moving…” He played the song for me, and after a few bars I started singing along – with the original words. The song he thought was such a beautiful niggun was this:

If you don’t recognize it, this is the original:

Now my friend is right, it is a beautiful tune. But it’s not exactly the holy yiddeshe niggun he thought it was.

As a kid, I never listened to “goyishe” music. Both my parents listened to all kinds of music as kids, and my mother has a collection of records from the ‘60s and ‘70s of groups like the Bee Gees and the Mammas and Pappas. For some reason, though, once they were married they stopped listening to music on the radio and never played anything except “Jewish” music. (That is, music produced by Orthodox groups.) As a teenager, I was told by my rabbeim that goyishe music consisted of lyrics about sex and tunes that aroused unholy feelings in one’s body. Not having any firsthand knowledge of non-Jewish music, I believed them.

In my early twenties I started listening to music online, and I discovered that what my rabbeim had told me just wasn’t true. Most songs aren’t about sex, and many of the tunes were beautiful, moving, stirring, and/or happy. It wasn’t all sex and jerky dance tunes.

Then I discovered that many songs passed off as “Jewish” are actually covers of pop songs. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. What makes it odd is that many of the people who like the Jewish versions of these songs would never dream of listening to “goyishe” music. And it’s not just the lyrics. Many of these same people won’t listen to Jewish groups that explicitly create parodies of pop songs, like Shlock Rock and Variations. According to my rabbeim, groups like Shlock Rock were only for kiruv or kids who nebech listened to goyish music. It wasn’t good, but it was marginally better than listening to the songs with their original lyrics. Clearly, they believed there was something unholy about the music itself.

Later yet I discovered that what I had heard from malcontents in yeshiva was true, that many traditional songs were adaptations of folk songs and that there really is no such thing as “Jewish” music as wholly distinct from “goyishe” music.

All pretense of there being a clear separation between Jewish and non-Jewish music vanished when I davened in a Lubavitcher shul one Rosh Hashanah and heard them sing one of the tefillos to the tune of the Marseilles. I asked someone I knew there why they were singing the French national anthem, and he told me that one of the Rebbes had taken the tune and stripped it of its tumah so it could be used for the elevated purpose of Rosh Hashana davening. My reaction was, “Riiiiight.” It remains one the most ridiculous and unnecessary justifications I’ve ever heard.

Just for fun, I put together a side-by-side comparison of some of the songs circulating in the Yeshivish community that are widely accepted as authentically Jewish next to the original versions. I know that there’s a lot of original music produced by Orthodox groups, and I’m not trying to suggest that it’s all or even mostly co-opted pop tunes. It’s just that I find these really funny. It’s probably the unexpectedness of hearing a completely different version of a song I grew up with and knowing that version is the original.

Yidden / Dschinghis Khan

Asher Bara / Land Down Under

Kol Hamesameach / Simarik

Translated into English

Baruch Hagever / I Will Follow Him

Dip the Apple / Darling Clementine

Mishenichnas Adar / Pick a Bale of Cotton

Im Lavan Garti / Cinderella

Deaf Man in the Shteeble / A Blind Man In The Bleachers

Mama Rochel / I Can Go The Distance (low part) / Schindler's List theme (high part, slightly sped up)

Umacha / Snows Of New York

Rabbi Nachman / Numa Numa

D'ror Yikra / Sloop John B

Russian folk songs in contemporary Jewish music:

Hashem Melech /C'est la vie

Lichtiger Shabbos /Close Every Door To Me

Father Dear /Little Child

Shir Hashalom /My Melody of Love

If anyone knows of more, put them in the comments and I’ll try to find videos to embed in the post.