Ethnomusicologist Rachel adelstein Has the (Jewish) music in her
When people think of Jewish music, a handful of things come to mind: Klezmer, Barbara Streisand, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” But these are only part of a wide tradition of Jewish music that is as old as the religion itself and as diverse as the people who constitute it. Rachel Adelstein, an ethnomusicologist who recently received her PhD from the University of Chicago, says diversity is what makes Jewish music so special.
“It is representative of the world,” she says. “Jewish music has forever been about sharing influences with different cultures.”
That sharing has been going on for centuries, says Adelstein, who will be teaching a four-part mini-course on Jewish music in Highland Park this summer for Spertus Institute’s “Spertus in the Suburbs” initiative. It started with the earliest mentions of music in the Jewish religion.
“In Genesis 4:21, it is written ‘Jubal was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe,” said Dr. Adelstein, “so Judaism has been engaged with music from the very start.”
According to Dr. Adelstein, music was an integral part of ancient Jewish life, especially during Biblical times.
“Not many people know that the first temple in Jerusalem had a full orchestra,” she said, “complete with lyres, flutes, drums, and shofar.”
“In fact,” she added, “the shofar is the oldest instrument in history that can be linked to the Jewish people.”
When the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people dispersed around the world, they took their musical traditions with them. Music in the diaspora became about borrowing as much as giving, and some of the most iconic Jewish melodies emerged as a result of the collaboration between Jews and non-Jews in global communities.
“A lot of people think Klezmer is exclusively Jewish,” said Adelstein, referring to the style of music that originated in Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. “But it’s not. There is a huge Roma (Gypsy) influence on Klezmer music as well. It came about through collaboration.”
Even melodies we thought we knew – like L’Cha Dodi (a song to welcome the Sabbath) – received new musical treatment as they traveled across the globe. As a result, Jewish music emerged in places in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In Uganda, the Abadyudaya Jews take traditional Jewish prayer melodies and sing them in their native language, adding extra vowels to Hebrew words so that they are easier to pronounce. In Southwest India, the Cochin Jews of the Malabar Coast follow a tradition in which women sing and lead Shabbat services.
Jewish music also had huge influence in America, where Jewish melodies were often used as inspiration for Broadway show tunes during the Tin Pan Alley era.
“Most of the great Broadway melody writers were Jewish,” said Adelstein, referring to iconic songwriters like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein, who helped define the American songbook in the early 20th century.
And like many aspects of Jewish culture, Jewish music continues to change with the times.
“Today what we’re seeing is popular music beginning to influence traditional Jewish prayer,” said Adelstein. “Reform and Conservative synagogues have begun using harmonies from modern music in their services. I’ve even seen Jewish hip-hop artists.”
Music has long played a role in Jewish worship, and one of the things Dr. Adelstein studies is how Jews use music to cope with tragedy, for example how music plays a part in Holocaust memorials.
“Music is often tied to memory,” said Adelstein, “so obviously music will come into play when we remember something like the Holocaust.”
As an ethnomusicologist – someone who studies the intersection of music and culture – Dr. Adelstein has had the opportunity to delve into Jewish music like very few scholars can. What she found was that, despite the wide variety of melodies, lyrics, and rhythms across the Jewish diaspora, there are elements of Jewish music that tie us together.
“The fact that Jews use music to chant the Torah applies to all Jewish communities,” she said. “It’s universal.”
Dr. Adelstein’s mini-course will take place at North Shore Suburban Synagogue Beth El, 1175 Sheridan Road in Highland Park. Each of the four sessions will focus on a different theme, which range from world Jewish music to the growing influence of pop music on Jewish hymns.