By Gershon Veroba
Music holds a very odd position with the Jewish community. Both feared and worshipped in the more Orthodox and Chassidic circles, Jews often maintain a strange relationship with music. On one hand it is considered a holy conduit at the Shabbos table or in shul, bestowing what you would think is a respectable position in Jewish life. However, many of those same people consider it a waste of time to create a dedicated music program in school, other than teaching a song or two to the children for differing reasons. They also fear its power, criticizing and even prohibiting musical styles and audiences seemingly not within the proper sphere.
Music In Schools: Not For Us?
In yeshiva, the first, second, and third graders may need a song for a play or assembly, the fourth and fifth graders learn the song either to perform in a choir or simply to kill a half hour while their regular teachers take a break. Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders? Well, if you can get their attention, you better have something exciting ready to keep them engaged.
As a teacher, I shared cartoons with my students, discussing how Carl Stalling of Warner Brothers or Scott Bradley of MGM used their genius to tell a story and maximize emotion in a 7-10 minute span of entertainment. They learned the history of how those cartoons preceded the big movie in theaters, how Stalling invented the “click-track” and how he used rhythm as a grid to the movie action. Fascination, discussion, and engagement followed, the time flew, and they wondered why they wasted so much time learning seemingly useless songs they didn’t like. So did I.
Meanwhile, after hours, the yeshiva’s custodians kept on ripping down the decorative music notes and instrument posters I hung up for atmosphere and discussion. State testing ejected us from my larger classroom to a different room downstairs with a broken piano, no electrical outlets, uncomfortable bench seating, and an echo seemingly imported from the Swiss Alps. I didn’t even need the piano since the kids and myself were expecting to watch the Houston Symphony Young People’s Concert video we were looking forward to. Kids loved those videos and we talked about them afterward, discussing the colors and moods of the classical music or even movie soundtracks they heard.
In short, the yeshiva saw the music teacher as a glorified babysitter, but the kids got the opportunity, for instance, to be assigned one or two Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoons for the week to discuss what you heard in the music. How cool is that?
Meanwhile, public schools go on trips to musical events, learn basic music reading, and have band practice for parades and the big game. It’s how so many of the musicians I know learned their instrument. For the Salute to Israel parade, we hire non-Jewish schools or professionals for bands, instead of our own. The few yeshiva parents that saw value in it, often came to me for private lesson referrals, but those were the few. It just wasn’t a “thing.” Music wasn’t much more than the radio in the car or MP3’s and free downloads. No involvement or understanding. Those days are not gone and we still suffer today.
The Religious Road Block
Not long ago, the tragic and permanent damage of the “takanas,” edicts and teachings from rabbis who mostly knew little about the culture they were condemning, approached music like gun control. They declared bans on bands of a certain size, music of certain styles (which they were entirely unqualified to define), and yet left it allowable to hire singers for thousands more, badchanim (chassidish comedians) and extra musicians for mitzvah dances that went on for hours, inviting guest lists of hundreds, without any regard to family or friendship. The ripple effect changed the band business permanently, depriving musicians, Jewish and not, of making a living that had previously worked fine. The music was the bad guy.
The shocking irony is when people with that outlook say “the music makes the wedding.” Suddenly, music has value, unless they really believe that shouting out passages of Tehillim and Gemara will make people dance even without musical notes or instruments. Over time, I came to understand that music contained so much volatility, that it was either “you’re with us or you’re against us.” If the music didn’t serve a specifically holy purpose, it was wrong. Songs about life and feelings were a waste of time, unless it reflected a mitzvah or Talmudic parable. Happiness was also rarely conveyed without contrasting it to tragedy and suffering.
The bandstand had long been the home of less-religious Jews and non-Jews because most Orthodox simply didn’t have those priorities. Only recently have we seen more religious people of all ages opening their minds to broad styles of music and seriously learning an instrument. Facing the fear has resulted in new revolutions in Jewish music. Yarmulkes, beards, and peyos are becoming regular sights on serious bandstands and these musicians are not slouches by any means. Still, a rare sight outside of weddings and Jewish videos.
Lyrics! We’ve never been allowed by religious leaders to compose lyrics in Hebrew, known as the holy language. I was threatened and had plates thrown at me for singing at some weddings without the right accent. Hebrew? Don’t even think about it. The lyrics that were accepted could only be from prayer and Torah. Since the phrases are fixed and done, you needed to find whatever natural rhythm they suggested to create a melody. Fitting it into decent melodies or vice-versa often required mispronunciation and repetition. The word “oy” changed its role from emotional expression to syllabic filler, used to make it fit by force, rather than by artistic lyrical flow.
Now, relatively open minds have allowed composed Hebrew lyrics, though the audience still unconsciously keeps their minds only slightly ajar because they want to check first who sings them. Famous Chassidism or yeshivish singers still get the advantage, providing more acceptable pronunciation and context, but we’re making progress.
The Band Business: Getting A Better Rap?
I’m in the band business and I try to pour as much of my musical life as I can into each gig I play. As I’ve explained here before, my experience is what makes my product and that has taken a lot of work to perfect. The life of a Jewish musician implied lower income and bad influences from “da goyim,” and music had no value if not connected directly to holiness by involving Torah or prayer, not worth distracting from “better” priorities in life.
This added to a disrespect all musicians have experienced. A quick version of an old joke: Arriving at the gates of heaven, a bunch of musicians individually approach to request entry. The jazz trumpet player admits a dark past but uncompromised dedication to his instrument and creativity… “Welcome, sir, right this way.” The concert pianist walks up, cites his many performances to royalty and fine audiences around the world… “Honored to have you, come in.” The wedding musician approaches and begins to describe his life, but gets interrupted, “I’m sorry…you’re with the band?” “Yes, I am…” “OK…The kitchen entrance is around that corner. Move away from the door, please. Next…?”
My best clients are those who respect music, even love it, seeing it as an all-important source of expression, celebration, inspiration, emotion of all extremes, able to convey it all, often in ways you can never duplicate through any other method. You can benefit by listening or playing. Even if you don’t consider yourself able to play an instrument, you can respond to music in ways many musicians may admire. The possibilities are endless.
My message: I ask you to revisit your love for music and to encourage your family to do the same. Whether you already love music or don’t care, music has an infinite amount of love to return. If you listen to the radio and enjoy certain kinds of music, then you are already on your way and should pay attention to its potential value in your life. If you see it as a dangerous tool, which many religious people do, that does not mean you should avoid it, like so many have. Find a way for it to serve you, your family, and your world in your own way. Like gun control, it’s not the instrument, it’s what you do with it.
Gershon Veroba has lived in the Five Towns/Far Rockaway area for most of his life. A producer, songwriter, musician, and singer since childhood, Gershon has been featured by most major wedding bands since the 1970’s. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with virtually all the top Jewish performers. He has produced and appeared on over 100 albums, including over a dozen of his own and in stage appearances around the world.
GV’s company, G-Major Events, provides full event planning and music services for personal and corporate occasions. It is a division of his production company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp, providing audio and video production and performance training.
He served as owner and editor-in-chief of the Five Towns’ first Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT. Visit GMajorEvents.com for information, videos, and social media. For more on Gershon, visit Veroba.net.