What They Did on Their Summer Vacations Changed Reform Music

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The Hilltoppers of Temple Sholom in Broomall — a 55-plus group, which holds monthly events, along with book clubs and day trips — hosted “Sing a New Song Unto God, or How Come the Cantor Doesn’t Sing the Traditional Mi Chamocha?” in which Cantor Jamie Marx discussed how some summer camp tunes sparked the Reform music movement of the 20th century.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Temple Sholom Cantor Jamie Marx was one of the few Jewish kids he knew who didn’t go to summer camp. That fact becomes even more notable and ironic when Marx expounds on his belief that the melodies, rhythms and tunes that originated in camps actually sparked the Reform music movement of the 20th century.
On Jan. 20, the Hilltoppers of Temple Sholom in Broomall — a 55-plus group, which holds monthly events, along with book clubs and day trips — hosted “Sing a New Song Unto God, or How Come the Cantor Doesn’t Sing the Traditional Mi Chamocha?” During the presentation, Marx discussed how the style and sound of Jewish worship music, particularly in the Reform movement, has changed.
“When I choose music for our worship, I’m looking to make a religious experience,” Marx said. “I am making an educated guess based on what I learned about the people in the Temple Sholom community.
“Within the synagogue, music is not an end in itself, but a means of religious experience,” he added, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Even after five years as a cantor, Marx told the audience, it’s still difficult to know how the congregants will react to a melody. Still, it’s his job to determine what tunes people enjoy and when to introduce new ones.
He began with an anecdote before diving into the history of Reform prayer music. In 2006, when he was a student cantor at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, N.J., a woman asked him why he never sang the traditional “Mi Chamocha.” He then sang five or six versions of the prayer, none of which she liked.
Confused, he asked the rabbi what the congregant was looking for. The rabbi revealed the previous cantor was a lawyer who didn’t know melodies and sang Broadway show tunes instead.
“Once something is in your kishkes, it feels natural,” Marx said. “It’s a very fascinating conundrum for cantors: to change or not to change.”
According to Marx, classical Reform music — played on the organ — originated between the 1830s and 1930s in Western Europe. He best described it as “formal, dignified, austere — grand with a Protestant sound.”
The rise of the Jewish summer camp in the ’30s and ’40s sparked a movement in Reform music. One pioneer of that era was Cantor William Sharlin, recognized as the first professional Jewish camp song leader and the first to play a guitar in the synagogue.
“He began the process of making music an educational tool in camps,” Marx said. “He began to teach music and the values behind it. Ask any camper — they will tell you that song session on Shabbat will be their highlight of their camp experience.”
As camp enrollment grew, so did the love for Jewish music. Marx told the audience this new form of music gradually became standard in shuls.
Another shift in the music came in part from the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. Campers learned many non-Jewish songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” by Peter Paul and Mary, which — contrary to popular opinion — did not have a Jewish basis.
“The music reflected the social sociological transitioning,” Marx said.
In the 1970s and ’80s, these campers grew up to become rabbis and cantors. They started playing the music they had learned at camp in their congregations.
“The reason folk music took over is because it’s what people want,” Marx said. “It’s not to say folk music is any better than classical Jewish music. There’s an emotional and spiritual connection to Judaism and an emotional spiritual connection to folk music.”
For many decades, seminaries have only taught classical traditional music. Beginning in the 1990s, they started offering classes with folk and pop music.
Looking ahead, Marx believes Reform music will continue to have a folk and pop base, with technology having a strong influence. Since most people have the ability to record and edit music, it figures to only get better.
“Summer camp is the best thing we have going for us in the Reform community,” Marx said.
Each week, Marx introduces a few new melodies on Shabbat, but never more than he feels his congregation can handle.
Among those in attendance at the event was Steven Granoff, who came with his wife, Beverly, because of their fondness for the cantor. Granoff, a member of the choir, started off by only singing on the High Holidays, but has since expanded his repertoire to include Shabbat. He added he enjoyed learning about the history of the Reform music movement.
“I find him one of the most inspiring wonderful cantors,” said Granoff of Marx. “He inspired me to become a better singer.”
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