By Gershon Veroba
I grew up in an atmosphere of musical extremes. Both my parents were career wedding performers — my mother specializing in opera and Yiddish, while my father was a chazan, working with Yossele Rosenblatt until he was 16.
Ironically, the talent he had that I tried to emulate, became a unique characteristic of my music, and actually contributed to our artistic differences. His ability to improvise in his davening, keeping it constantly fresh from week to week while perfectly maintaining the nusach, inspired me to develop a broad flexibility in musical taste that Dad would not approve of. Years later, similar conflicts in style would irreversibly change both Jewish music and shul davening in the decades to follow.
Having little choice in being born into the era of TV, Broadway, pop, and rock, I came to believe that the immense influence these musical extremes had on me was a rare occurrence in religious Jewish life.
A few decades before, chazzanus, a genre based on minyanim and mass participation, would eventually watch its audiences turn to newer genres fed by individual experience, styles from the diaspora, and eventually the new land of Israel.
On the lower end of the ticket-price spectrum, the poor Jewish musicians developed Klezmer street music from the chulent of Jewish influences and moods, creating a sound also uniquely similar to its geographic origins but appropriate to us. Add to that the role of chazzanus and nusach as a weekly reminder of the sound of tefilah. In the end, it all fit into our self-identification.
Is Jewish Music Jewish Music?
That many of the Chassidic zemiros from previous centuries were based on secular music of the time has always been debated, but the result actually created great Jewish music. The “blood money” of goyishe music from those regions was frequently “laundered” in liturgy, emotion, history, and hope by the talented ears of so many Chassidic teams like those in Modzitz, Lubavitch, Munkatch, Ger, Vishnitz, etc.
As years passed and the past got foggier, it became more difficult to trace what kind of music is considered “inherently Jewish,” and yet people still felt it was necessary to question it. The religiously-protective became suspicious as styles began to sound familiar, but still there was dignity in that music and it came to blend well with the Jewish experience. It blesses simchas and the Shabbos table, with crowds singing together and making unquestionable mental connections with their eyes closed, unaware that 19th Century composers like Julius Fučík, probably influenced that nigun.
When the phonograph came into vogue, supplying the world with new melodies, it was only a matter of time before the influence of secular structures affected Jews, zemiros, and prayer. Classical music was now even more available to the rabbanim, depending on whether or not they owned a Victrola. With it, they could maintain the 19th century in the 20th. Chazzanus started to become immortalized on 78rpm records and, in the late 40s, Israel would eventually follow. Next decade, Carlebach, next, Rabbi’s Sons, etc. Now we’re cooking.
By the time I was born, songs with an emphasis on melody, simplicity, and often a certain level of adherence to a style had evolved from so many places, yet based on our common faith. We defined the music as “Jewish,” but the reasons were gray, varied, undefined and often inconsistent from person to person, from Chassidic to non-affiliated. This gray area would last for generations and, while it still exists, is on shaky ground. Today’s world doesn’t like gray areas.
We’re The Ones Who Changed It
Even the ingeniously simplistic melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z’l, that suddenly refilled our repertoire over 40 years ago, were based on these limitations. People objected more to Shlomo’s free thinking than his songs, which were too simple to truly criticize. For Shlomo, that was fine, since he didn’t like complexity.
Why do these things change? New musical influences on the street? Lack of interest in learning musical instruments or reading notes at home? Avoiding word repetition? One definite problem had always been the centuries-old problem of Judaica shops, the only source for physical Jewish recordings and located only in cities of major population. Today, even online, shops that bother to carry CDs know the high cost of manufacturing for so few buyers promises little profit, so top sellers are favored on shelves and the public gets to see only a fraction of the music actually created.
Another interesting problem inherent to religious Jewish life is that we hear harmony at the Shabbos table, which is the only other accompanying music, since there’s no guitar or band. Hear it enough and you can forget which was the harmony and which was the melody. Over a few years in schools, weddings, camps, and other homes, the composer hears hundreds of people singing his song … but wrong. What can he do? I’ve experienced it myself and heard other composers say, “Oh, well … At least people are singing my song, even though that’s not how I wanted them to sing it. I’ll just put that kind of thing in my next song.”
Reb Shlomo did not think this way because he felt Hashem gave him these melodies to care for and share properly, just like children, which is literally what they were to him. “They were given to me by the Ribonoi shel oilam,” he said to me. “Please tell them not to sing it like this, Gershon, they’re mamish killing my babies.” Changing even a note or two interrupted the original flow of that melody, so he watched the destined purpose get interrupted, breaking the trance like the snap of a hypnotist’s finger. The simple and often circular nature of his songs were part of the magic, often getting stronger the more you repeat it, chanting you into that holy zone so powerful, the experience has changed people’s lives.
We can’t even blame the people who sing those songs incorrectly today; it’s how they learned it. They’re shocked when I show them the original, but many do recognize what’s been missing and they feel its affect when they try it, without any need for understanding music.
The Evolution Today
Jewish music has always varied in entertainment quality, but more recently we have seen some great, unprecedented changes. To attract the younger audiences as strongly as before, the music needed to freshen up. New songs are now reflecting more open minds, more developed talent, and great technologies to make them more accessible. The current Jewish hits have broader music influences, but the composers still take lessons learned from old Jewish songs we still use today.
As the 1970s rolled along, rock and disco styles permeated Jewish music into the 90’s. Now, Jewish music has finally won its freedom to accept broader musical influences, especially since CD sales have fallen and adults are less keen than their children to attempt the “complicated” process of downloading.
Original lyrics in Yiddish have always been accepted as a kosher alternative, but now the holy language of Hebrew has been given more rabbinical room. This allows the music to be composed freely as the words can be changed, something you can’t really do as easily with Tanach.
People have changed the old songs, anyway, due to changing tastes. They can’t help it … Moshe Shur’s cheerful “Sameach T’samach,” our standard “Od Yishoma,” Shlomo’s “Nigun Neshama,” “Shifchi,” and “Mileyim Ziv,” the Gerer “Lecha Dodi,” Ohr Chodosh’s “Bilvovi” … We could be here all day. None of these songs are being sung the same, because you are not the same.
What Inspires Us To Join In
Whether we wish to believe it or not, our uses for music have changed as much as our sources. Sure, Shabbos and yom tov still forces us to rely on songs with a definitive, attractive melody, but simple enough so we can all sing along. There is no sheet music at the Shabbos table to keep it consistently correct and not everyone is a musician, so who’s going to point out mistakes? Sure there’s always “that one guy,” but we tell him to chill out.
Group singing is our band. Even when the band plays at the wedding, the guys singing are off on their own anyway. And why? It’s not just a song, it’s what we’re singing about. In the case of Jewish music, it usually goes hand-in-hand with the words that have great, established ancient value that addresses our core, the reason we’re singing at the moment to begin with … Torah, tefilah, and life itself.
Over the years, there were periods I was quite worried. I still am in some ways, but I believe the new artists and composers have learned from many aspects of the older music, past audiences, their responses, and their habits in listening and singing.
As a musician and performer, it’s a constant, exciting challenge to keep up with the material and standards of the dozens of bands and artists that are out there. These great bands have helped so many of us grow musically, honed our instrumental skill, responsibly expanded our listening with less fear, and have provided invaluable lessons in compassion, patience, courtesy, reality, and professionalism.
Keeping It Israel
An interesting punchline to this interesting timeline is that, no matter how gray the area has been for what makes songs or music Jewish, if musicians have the right experience and sense of balance from the past, they can fuse the old and the new works while still keeping it Jewish. If your product sounded Jewish before, then you can use that same vibe inside you to blend it with the new songs.
I like to think of it as an accent from the old country. If you’re not a speech therapist or a linguistic anthropologist, you can’t easily explain your accent or expressive nuances, but you can still tell it’s coming from you and your home. New Yorkers can certainly attest to that, but it applies all over, different countries, different generations…It comes across when they speak to you. Just like you can tell when you hear your favorite singer, there’s that “something” that makes that same song just right for you.
I spent many years recording and singing revised copies of songs from secular and Jewish worlds and I’ve been given songs I regret singing because they didn’t serve a purpose stronger than “Hey, these words can fit.” Just because the words were from Tehillim, or said something Shabbos, Torah, or Mashiach, doesn’t magically make it useful.
I found one thing to be true: If the music and the words have a good reason to be matched, the song will work because it gave you something you didn’t have before. If, on the other hand, you force incompatible elements together, providing nothing appropriate or constructive as Jewish-related entertainment, then I don’t see the point. If you did it because the original song was cool and it goes nowhere in Yiddish, you might as well just buy the original, since it has little or no Jewish value. The same goes for the wrong Jewish song for the wrong part of davening. If the music from “that song” doesn’t work with Kel Adon, then you’re singing a different song during Kel Adon, which brings up halachic issues as well, but I digress…
Jewish music contains a purpose—to promote or reflect something in Jewish life, whether it’s prayer, comedy, dancing, history, or profound issues in our lives or communities. It’s for this reason that I believe people are waking up to the fact that it’s shouldn’t simply be the exact music, notes, instruments, or even underlying musical influences that define this song as Jewish or not. It’s the treatment, phrasing, playing, arrangement, and timing when it’s presented to you. Very simply, what comes out is more definitive than what goes in. If the message of the lyric — it could be Hebrew, English, Yiddish holy or not — is appropriate to the purpose of Jewish life, meaning, inspiration, and spirit, then you’re doing fine.
Next time: “Hiring A Band: Keep The Right Priorities.”
Gershon Veroba has lived in the Five Towns/Far Rockaway area for over 30 years. A composer, producer, musician, and singer since childhood, Gershon has been featured by major wedding bands since 1980. He has produced and appeared on over 100 albums, including over a dozen of his own, in concerts and festivals in around the world, including the annual Rockami shows in Jerusalem until 2012. His company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp., provides music and video production services worldwide, now featuring G-Major Events, an orchestra and event planning company for weddings and other personal occasions. Visit GMajorEvents.com for information, videos and social media. For more on Gershon, Veroba.net.