What we learn from listening to and analyzing Jewish music is just as essential to understanding American Jewish life as is the data from the Pew report, asserts Lila Corwin Berman.
The 2013 Pew Study of U.S. Jews fashioned an empirical portrait of American Jewish life. Its exhaustive researh and indisputable numbers might lead a casual observer to think that the study contains all there is to know about Jews in the United States. It does not.
Indeed, a year into “Sounds Jewish,” a series of programs presented by Temple University’s Feinstein Center that broadly considers music as an agent of tradition and transformation in Jewish life, I am convinced that what we learn from listening to and analyzing Jewish music is just as essential to understanding American Jewish life as is the data from Pew.
To employ a turn of phrase from anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, music is “good to think with.”
In other words, as we examine the Jewish music scene, we examine Jewishness itself more broadly. We confront the hazy line that separates the secular from the religious in settings like a liturgical verse woven into a hip-hop song, or in the backroom of a bar filled with the sounds of a nigun.
We hear strains of political activism — about Israel or labor or the environment — in lyrics and melodies and instrument choices. And as we listen more closely to Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Arab and African Jewish sounds, we can hear traditions blur, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes discordantly.
Indeed, we turn to music for what it tells us that does not fit neatly into a pie chart or a graph. Its outcomes are not precisely measurable, and its purpose is more protean than any empirical question we might pose.
We could, of course, quantify elements of it: How many children’s songs invoke grape juice, for example?
And, certainly, music producers try to make a science of understanding the market and figuring out how to give people what they want to hear — or make people want to hear what producers give them.
But music also inspires us to ask different questions about the human experience: Does it sound good? How do we feel when we hear it? What traditions, histories and communities can we access through it in new ways? Do we want to listen to it by ourselves or with others? Does it make us want to dance or sway or tap or cry?
A year ago, I sat on a small stage at Boot & Saddle, a bar and music venue on South Broad Street, with four musicians and the co-founder of JDub Records, a Jewish music label that folded in 2011. Once I got past the initial thrill of being onstage at a bar — standing behind a lectern in a lecture hall just isn’t the same thing! — two things struck me.
First, I felt as if I were observing — and occasionally participating in — something quite intimate.
The musicians closed their eyes, moved their bodies and concentrated with singular intensity in a way that felt private and, yet, ushered the audience into that private space they were building through their actions. In other words, together we created an intimate sense of community.
Second, I found myself troubled by the economic calculation of producing Jewish music and culture more broadly. Each musician on the stage had received funding from private Jewish institutions, often foundations, along the way in his or her career.
Indeed, for a handful of years, the co-founder of JDub had access to a few million dollars in Jewish funding. But each person on the stage also had seen funding dry up, sometimes at expected times and sometimes unexpectedly.
As we prepare to conclude the Sounds Jewish series, I have thought often about how we might best discuss the intersections of culture, community and capital in Jewish life.
Money alone will not make good music or good community; and music or community alone likely will not generate self-sustaining capital. But a community or a public might decide that a capital investment in culture is well worth the risk.
The upside just may be deeper connections to histories, traditions, stories and experiences as well as worlds familiar and unfamiliar.
Lila Corwin Berman is the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and the Murray Friedman Professor of American Jewish History at Temple University. On Thursday, March 26, “Sounds Jewish: A Symposium & Concert” will include an afternoon symposium at Temple and an evening concert at the Gershman Y, curated by Joey Weisenberg, creative director of the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music. For registration, tickets and details, go to: cla.temple.edu/feinsteincenter/event/sounds-jewish-a-symposium-concert/.