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

Wedding intro
0:22-0:57 of this song is played at lots of frum weddings as the intro music for the chosson and kallah

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


  1. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that

    How about copyright violation? And chillul hashem when someone gets sued?

    Not an issue with the last song, since it's in the public domain.

  2. > How about copyright violation?

    I'm assuming that the Jewish groups got permission to use the tunes.

  3. and, for full circle purposes, another former yeshiva student, Regina Spektor, singing Leonard Cohen with his orignal lyrics:

  4. Or a better video at

    (BTW: the shockingly beautiful cello, plucked and then played the regular way, is played by Dan Cho who so tragically drowned in Switzerland last month while touring with Regina.)

  5. The famous mee shehnichnat adar tune was an old slave song.

  6. I wished I could've posted this one! :)

  7. > The famous mee shehnichnat adar tune was an old slave song.

    Yeah, I wasn't able to find a video of someone singing mishenichnas to that tune. Do you know of one?

  8. "Shir HaShalom" from MBD's early, groundbreaking Neshama/Soul album. In most cases, (Yidden being the prime exception) I knew the 'goyish' originals before the Jewish versions. This is one case where the Jewish version is arguably MUCH better than the original, which was My Melody of Love by Bobby Vinton, a pleasant but wimpy singer. MBD did a whole new take on it, not just another heimishe karaoke rip-off.

  9. First, Baruch Hagever and Asher Bara don't count as rip offs. Shlock Rock originated Baruch Hagever and he very freely admits that he uses secular niggunim (and credits them on his jacket art). Piamenta also credited Working Men for Asher Bara's tune (at least in the wedding album of theirs that I own).

    I found a Mishenichnas Adar vid on youtube:

    A very unknown one that my friend discovered was Lev Tahor's "Im Lavan Garti" actually taking from Lionel Ritchie's "Cinderella" - the "aiyaiyai" part could have been copied and pasted. Videos here:

    Im Lavan Garti:


    Lev Tahor has also done the Shrek Theme as a slow song, their Asher Bara is from Sting. Mama Rochel (at least the intro) is a take off of Disney's Hercule's "go the distance."

    This'll knock your socks off, though. "Deaf Man in the Shteeble" - that famous tear-jerker, is a total rip-off of "Blind Man in the Bleachers" - the best line, if you switch 'em up, is "The crowd can hear his coach yell, 'where the hell ya been!'"

    Deaf Man:
    Blind Man:

  10. Plus, the Maccabeats first did Lecha Dodi to the tune of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and credit it for it at every concert, even on their website. Ohad merely stole it from them without credit or admitting the original source.

  11. Shades of Grey, thanks for the links.

    Do you know which song is the Shrek theme?

    There’s also a song from Dedi (I first heard it on one of his albums, anyway) to the tune of “Flashdance.” It’s part of the “Baruch Hagever medley.”

    > First, Baruch Hagever and Asher Bara don't count as rip offs…

    I didn’t know Baruch Hagever was a Shlock Rock song. You’re right, that shouldn’t count. But I’m sure there are other people out there who also grew up singing it without knowing where it was from, and I don’t feel like taking it down, so I’m going to leave it.

  12. Shades of Grey said: "Piamenta also credited Working Men for Asher Bara"

    it's Down Under, by Men At Work

    G*3 said: "Do you know which song is the Shrek theme?"

    Hallelujah. I don't think it's the main theme song, but it's featured prominently in Shrek. Written & originally sung by Leonard Cohen (whose voice is not for everyone, but which includes a cool gospel-ly choir that suits the song), there've been many cover versions, including John Cale---featured in Shrek), Jeff Buckley (the most acclaimed, not sure why), k.d. lang (fantastic voice), etc....
    .....and Ohad, whose version loses points, IMO, for the same reason many Jewish songs lack genuine feeling; they're just shoehorned into a posuk that has little or no real connection to the melody, or the singer (phony kvetching notwithstanding). But Ohad's voice & range are fantastic, as good as the best of the above.

  13. G*3 said: "I didn’t know Baruch Hagever was a Shlock Rock song."

    Not sure it is. It appeared on the first Amudei Shaish album (if I'm talking about the right song). Back then, I'd hear guys say it was based on Elton John's Crocodile Rock, which was itself retro. It's like, and un-like, a lot of songs---not so much a direct rip-off, as it is a composite of many early-60s songs which shared a certain similar beat & sound. (Leslie Gore, Neil Sedaka, etc.)

    1. I don’t know about Amudei Sheish. But Lenny Solomon definitely sings Baruch Hagever in his live sets. I know, that doesn’t mean he wrote the song. But he definitely has made it one of his staples. Especially when he’s singing for kids.

  14. I have long thought that a lot of Jewish songs have their source in melodies of goyim that someone knew where to dig up. I heard as much on a plane trip once. I was sitting near some frum record producer of Jewish music. I overheard him say openly to his friend that he just finds obscure goyish melodies and puts them to Hebrew words.

  15. Umacha by Yehuda! and Chris De Burgh's obscure song "Snows Of New York".

  16. Snows of New York:

  17. Wow, dude. i totally agree with you... 100% i've been preeching this forever...
    i've been looking for the original to baruch hagever forever!! just to prove to people...

  18. Wow, hearing the originals of these songs blew my socks off!

    I now feel obligated to add ones so... the melody for Hatikva was derived from "La Mantovana"

  19. also many ppl sing dror yikrah to the tune of a beach boys song

  20. > also many ppl sing dror yikrah to the tune of a beach boys song

    Do you know which one?

  21. I think it's often sung to "Sloop John B" by the the Beach Boys.

    Here are some video's of ppl singing Dror Yikra to that tune (although not very well):

    And here's a video the Beach Boys' Sloop John B:

    1. The Beach Boys didn’t write Sloop John B. It’s an old folk song from Bahamas. The Beach Boys merely popularized it on Pet Sounds.

  22. Anyone know who, which and what was made as the kosher cover version of Kim Wilde's "You keep me Hangin on" I remember dancing to this at barmitzvahs in the 80's

    Original here


  23. Here's another one. Joe Damagio's Card from Abie Rotenberg on Journeys 3. And Billy Joel's Piano Man.

  24. Such a fun post! I added a link on my post, here:

  25. Just found this, and some of these are hilarious in their irony. there a problem per se with this (besides for any legal issues which prob are avoided by tweaking it a bit). Isn't it better for our kids to be earing about a deaf man in a shtiebel than a sportsman. And yes, I do agree that the latter is a most moving song. But, nosnu d'voreicha l'shiurim, we can't start saying this is 'good' non-Jewish music. There's got to be a clear chiluk. ANd when a child grows up, he can perhaps judge for himself what is and what isn't inappropriate to listen to...Just my $0.02.

    1. Fine, sing it and put in your own words. But then you can't turn around and vilify goyish music.

  26. > is there a problem per se with this

    It’s not a problem. But as I said in the post, it’s funny that people who hold that there’s something unholy about non-Jewish music ignorantly listen to these songs and have no problem with them.

    > Isn't it better for our kids to be earing about a deaf man in a shtiebel than a sportsman.

    You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t think that one is inherently superior to the other, except insofar as the former is a ripoff of the latter.

  27. Umacha- Snows of NY new link. Yours has since been copyright blocked.

  28. Oops, don't know what happened. Here's the link.

  29. One more thing- the low part of mama rochel is taken from Hercules. The high part is Schindler's list.

    1. And I think the high part is similar to a refrain in Whitney Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have it All". My opinion.

  30. "Tell him" by The Exciters [Kol Isha]
    = Baruch Haba by Piamenta

    Handel- Sarabande [classical]
    =MBD's "Wait the Crack of Dawn"

  31. There are a few mistakes here. Deaf man in the shteeble was first on Country Yossi and the Shteeble Hoppers. 9 out of 10 songs on those albums are parodies. It is no different than a Shlock Rock or Variations album and really should not count on this list. Lev Tahor did not give credit to either the original composer or to Country Yossi for the new lyrics. They simply credited it to C.Y. For all anyone knows that could stand for Chaim Yankel.

    Lenny Solomon told me via email that Baruch Hagever is an original Jewish composition that first appeared on Amudai Shaish. He bought the rights to the song and added the intro as a parody, which came from I Will Follow Him.

    As far as Mama Rochel, while there are similarities to other songs, it is highly unlikely that Abie Rotenberg did this intentionally, or that he even ever heard the original song. I see no similarity between Piano Man and Jod Dimaggio's card.

    In their desire to see similarities between Jewish and non-Jewish songs, people often will look for any small similarity as proof of a rip off. This is simply unfair. It is not uncommon at all for two songs to have some similarities. The fist 6 notes of God Bless America are identical to another older song. Part of Shwekey's Birshus is identical to Tov Lehodos. There are many Carlebach songs with similarities to each other. I could go on. It's just the nature of music and songs that you will find similarities between different songs.

    1. > As far as Mama Rochel, while there are similarities to other songs, it is highly unlikely that Abie Rotenberg did this intentionally,

      Very possible, but it’s more than just a similarity.

      > or that he even ever heard the original song.

      Why do you think so? Abie Rottenberg doesn’t watch movies? Schindler’s list was/is a very popular movie, and nearly everyone put on Disney movies for their kids.

      > I see no similarity between Piano Man and Jod Dimaggio's card.

      I agree, which is why I didn’t put up videos for it.

      > In their desire to see similarities between Jewish and non-Jewish songs, people often will look for any small similarity as proof of a rip off.

      Yes, true, but most of the ones I have here are blatant rip-offs. They’re note for note the same songs with different lyrics.

  32. I heard the Pianoman and it touched me that I know this from somewhere. I found it in Joe Dimaggio's cards". Actually after I heard it again I saw that it"s not necassarily the same song but very very similar.

  33. The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" as "Pretty Fly (for a Rabbi)".

  34. If you're interested in the halachic/hashkafic view of incorporating non-Jewish melodies in our liturgy, see Shu"T Yechaveh Daas 2:5 of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt"l, where he justifies the practice, basing himself off of countless gedolim who have done just so. After reading that, one may come to the conclusion that your rebbeim were justified in condemning the practice of listening to non-Jewish music, while at the same time, the Jewish composers/singers you listed above are also justified in their attempt to use these tunes for a higher purpose than their original intent.
    As for the Lubavitch use of the French National Anthem for davening, this was specifically instituted by the Alter Rebbe when he saw Napoleon and his army march into St. Petersburg, thinking that this anthem/march is the perfect way for us to proclaim the true King of Kings, if it could do such an effective job for a mere imitation.

  35. Check out "Country Yossi" (Yossi Toiv)- he used lots of tunes popular in the 50s and 60s to appeal to a wide audience and has been extremely popular especially using humor in the songs!

  36. Deaf Man in the Shteeble is originally a Country Yossi parody of the Blind Man in the Bleachers (and Country Yossi's is much better IMO.

    Shlock Rock's Baruch HaGever only ripped off the intro and Lev Tahor's version ripped off some more instrumental stuff (Iike the Heathcliff theme song!).

    What I find most surprising about this post that any of this was a surprise to you. When I was growing up much of this was well known. Yidden especially was mocked as having been taken from a Eurovision song. The only one here which I was surprised about was Mama Rochel, especially because I have heard the Hercules song and never realized.

    1. I guess I was more sheltered than you were. Every now and then I tell people about this phenomenon, and the reaction I get is always, "No way! That's so funny!"

    2. I see from the bio that you are from New York. I grew up in a "liberal Yeshivish" (although I hate that label) household too, but I grew up "out-of-town." I wonder if there was a difference between New Yorkers and out-of-towners. It always seemed to me that my hometown was 10-15 years behind NY for almost everything religious and social (for good and for bad).

  37. Misirlou/Mitzvah Gedola.

  38. In the spirit of YEA's comment: "This is simply unfair. It is not uncommon at all for two songs to have some similarities", I present the following: Yesh Tikvah by Ari Goldwag has some parts that are reminiscent of a song by the German symphonic metal band, Xandria. Check out their song, "Sisters of the Light."

  39. I heard a lecture about this very subject, and here is how the Marseilles became a Niggun. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was an extremely educated man, was told that some French Jews had just walked into a gathering (maybe a Ferbrengen?). In order to welcome them, the Rebbe hummed the tune from the Marseilles. Others, not knowing the origina, picked it up and started humming along, and that is how the Marseilles became a "heiliger Niggun".

  40. OK, this is years late, but I don't think the deliberate parodies should be on this list. For many of these, like the CY songs, the listener was supposed to know the original; seeing what CY did with it was half the fun. It's like acting shocked that Weird AL Yankovic's songs are not original.


  41. Rasputin by Boney M appears on a frum album. I won't say who...
    It's a good song whoever sings it.

    1. I recognize the tune, but I can't place it. Which song is it?