Songs of Songs
What are the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever? Tablet Magazine’s musicologists rank them all, from sacred to pop to hip-hop, from Rabbi Akiva to Amy Winehouse.
What does Jewish music sound like? It’s been a vexing question for millennia—at least since the Israelites wept by the Babylonian riverbanks with harps in hand. A half-century ago, the great German-Jewish musicologist Curt Sachs came up with a litmus test. Jewish music, he wrote, is music created “by Jews, as Jews, for Jews.” You know the stuff: liturgical melodies, Yiddish folk songs, Zionist anthems, your Bubbe’s favorite lullaby.
But think of the music Sachs leaves out. What do we do with George Gershwin and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, with the songs belted out by Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies or Lou Reed at Max’s Kansas City—the whole messy sprawl of 20th-century American pop music history, which, from I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” to I’ve Gotta Be Me” to “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” has been inflected by the Jewish genius for passing and pastiche? And where, for that matter, does it leave Serge Gainsbourg, Israeli techno, Jonathan Richman, Yo La Tengo, or Ofra Haza? Or ”Hanukkah in Santa Monica”?
Perhaps a better answer to the Jewish musical conundrum is a famous quip. The story goes that the composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were discussing the possibility of a musical based on the life of Marco Polo. Hammerstein said to Kern, “Here is a story laid in China about an Italian and told by Irishman. What kind of music are you going to write?” Kern replied, “It’ll be good Jewish music.”
Here, then, is our list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Songs. Some were created by Jews, as Jews, for Jews. Some are by Jews pretending to be gentiles—or by gentiles pretending to be Jews. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Jewish music is a dizzyingly broad and fluid category, encompassing an extraordinary range of sounds and styles and ideas and themes, from the sacred to the secular—from the normatively Jewish to the Jew-ish to the seemingly not-at-all-Jewish. Our list includes a bit of everything: sacred songs and synagogue staples and Yiddish ballads and Broadway showstoppers. There’s even some disco and hip-hop. All of them are great songs—and good Jewish music.
1. “Over the Rainbow” (1939)
In 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote a strange, 259-page novel about a Kansas farm girl who travels to a magical land. Critics couldn’t help reading it as a Gilded Age political allegory, but Baum insisted it was simply a children’s fairytale. Thirty-nine years later, a movie mogul hired a pair of Tin Pan Alley pros—a cantor’s son from Buffalo and a Lower East Side lefty—to write a theme song for the novel’s film adaptation. The result was a grandly orchestrated echt-Hollywood ballad, crooned by the movie’s 16-year-old starlet to a little black doggie on a barnyard set filled with clucking chickens.
And it was the most beautiful Jewish exilic prayer ever set to music.
In formal terms, “Over the Rainbow” is flawless, lit up by Harold Arlen’s luscious chromaticism and startling octave leaps. Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a triumph of artful artlessness: “Somewhere over the rainbow/ Way up high/ There’s a land that I heard of/ Once in a lullaby.” Call that land Oz, if you’d like. Or call it Israel. (For that matter, call it Miami Beach or Shaker Heights or the Upper West Side.) Any way you slice it, the story “Over the Rainbow” tells is the oldest Jewish story of them all: There’s no place like home. (JR)
2. “Hava Nagila” (1918)
Harry Belafonte has sung it. So has Chubby Checker and the Boss. Dick Dale shredded it; Lionel Hampton swung it. It’s been Latinized, technoized, and Bollywoodized. It’s the Little Freylekh That Could—the Jewish party song that belongs to the world.
The history of “Hava Nagila” is shadowy. The tune is thought to have originated in 18th- or 19th-century Eastern Europe as a niggun, or mystical musical prayer, possibly among the Sadigorer Hasidic sect. By 1915, the melody had migrated to Palestine, where it was transcribed by the musicologist and folklorist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, who was then serving as a bandmaster in the Ottoman Army. Three years later, he played the song in a concert commemorating the British victory over the Turks. Idelsohn added a Hebrew text based on some biblical verses, and “Hava Nagila” was born.
To millions who know no better, “Hava Nagila” is Jewish music. Of course no musical culture, particularly one as rich and variegated as ours, can be represented by a single tune. Still, it’s hard to imagine another song doing the job so well. Like all great dance music, “Hava Nagila” puts the emphasis on joy and community—on the ecstatic fellowship forged by an infectious tune and insistent beat. “Hava nagila, hava nagila/ Hava nagila ve-nismeha/ Hava neranena, hava neranena/ Hava neranena ve-nismeha” (Let us rejoice, let us rejoice/ Let us rejoice and be glad/ Let us sing, let us sing/ Let us sing and be glad).” That’s not a half-bad philosophy of music or, for that matter, of life. (JR)
3. “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)
U.S. Highway 61, wrote Bob Dylan in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One, “begins about where I came from,” stretching from southern Minnesota, near Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, to New Orleans. “Highway 61 Revisited” begins a bit further afield. “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,’ ” Dylan sings in the opening measures, as the song settles into a bluesy lope.
As always with Dylan, it’s impossible to untangle the strands of autobiography, mythology, and carnival barker gibberish. Many commentators have pointed out that Dylan’s own father was an Abraham—Abe Zimmerman—and that the songwriter’s retelling of the binding of Isaac may have personal resonance. But what is a Dylanologist to make of Georgia Sam, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, and the other cartoon characters that populate the song? And what about the burst of biblical mumbo-jumbo in the song’s fourth verse?:
Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you’re right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61
As always with Dylan, the meaning is blowing in the wind. What’s unmistakable in “Highway 61 Revisited” is the tone. Delivering Old Testament imagery and cosmic jokes in his most exaggerated nasal drawl, Dylan is part-prophet, part-provocateur, part-badchen, and full-time blabbermouth. In other words: He’s just so Jewish. (JR)
4. “Kol Nidre” (13th century)
It’s the “Stairway to Heaven” of Jewish liturgical music; just about anyone who has ever recorded a Jewish album or led a congregation in prayer has toyed with the idea of recording his or her own version of the annual Yom Kippur eve negation of vows.
The text is vexing, saying basically that one is not responsible for the vows one makes. Not surprisingly, it inspired centuries of anti-Semitic speculation about the shiftiness and general untrustworthiness of Jews in business. Jewish tradition suggests that it was written for Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity who might be looking for a legal loophole through which they could reclaim their connection to Judaism. Still, it’s a strange way to begin the Day of Atonement, when one is supposed to take serious stock of one’s shortcomings, not try to explain away one’s inability to make good on promises.
But it’s the music that really matters. Anti-Semites and Conversos aside, nobody comes to synagogue on Yom Kippur because they believe in those words—they come to hear that unmistakable opening cadence. Unlike much of liturgical music, Kol Nidre has no single known author. Musicologists suggest that Kol Nidre is less a proper composition than a mashup cobbled together from a number of different Jewish liturgical and folk motifs. Nevertheless, the melody of that first line is as heart-aching and moving as any melody in any liturgical tradition. Ever. (AYK)
5. “Hatikvah” (1888)
The Jewish national anthem was in wide circulation well before it unofficially became the Israeli national anthem in 1948. Part of a much longer poem written in 1878 by Naphtali Herz Imber, the text was shortened and adapted a few different times by early Zionist settlers before it became the anthem of political Zionism, concluding with the line: “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
The melody, however, took a slightly more roundabout route on its way to Jerusalem. Samuel Cohen, its composer, said that he adapted the melody from a Romanian folk song, “Carul cu boi.” The song’s central motif can be heard there, and it can also be heard in the Italian madrigal “La Mantovana,” and again in Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” his ode to Bohemia.
The song’s resonance lies somewhere between the obvious folk roots of the melody and the haughty and explicitly Jewish political aspirations of the lyrics: Critics hear Zionism-as-colonialism in the non-Jewish folk roots of the melody; Zionists hear the in-gathering of Jewish exiles echoing in the combination of notes.
Everyone else might just hear the unreconciled struggle between the two. It’s still an anthem, but one of a different kind—in some ways, it’s an anthem that captures the contradictions of modern nationalism rather than the bombastic heroism of rockets red glare. (AYK)
6. “My Mammy” (1918)
Before Frank Sinatra, before Elvis Presley, before Michael Jackson, there was Al Jolson, the 20th century’s first pan-media “rock star.” With his dynamic stage act and rafter-rattling voice, he was for millions of fans the embodiment of pop modernity—the poster boy for ragtime, which was unmooring America from its Victorian past one raucous song at a time. But Jolson was not just a New American; he was vividly, unapologetically a Jewish American, with a fearless devotion to schmaltz and a “tear in a voice,” his birthright as a cantor’s son.
He was also, infamously, history’s most famous practitioner of blackface minstrelsy. Today, we are rightly repulsed by Jolson’s blackface act. But to shunt Jolson to history’s margins is to betray history. Listening to his signature song, “My Mammy”—the 1918 hit that he reprised in the landmark first film talkie, The Jazz Singer—we confront the sheer weirdness of pop music’s early days, when beauty and vulgarity, Jewish immigrant striving and primordial American racism were inextricably enmeshed. Jolson was a pop vocal genius whose art most majestically took flight when he slathered his white skin with burnt cork, affected a broad “darky” accent, and belted out an Oedipal ode to his little old Jewish mother. It’s not a comfortable story, but it’s a true one. (JR)
7. “Shema Yisrael” (19th century)
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The English translation of this central prayer leeches the deep spirituality of the original Hebrew—which powerfully asserts that all is unified, connected, related, intertwined, one. It’s about as close to a theo-national pledge of allegiance as we get.
It’s been crammed into mezuzot and tefilin, and—apart from Tzvika Pik’s 1972 uptempo version (shunned by many for being too poppy for prayer)—it has, to Ashkenazic Jews, only one melody.
Many treat that melody as if it had been handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the lyrics. In fact, written grandly in 3/4 time by the Austrian cantor Salomon Sulzer, it’s from the early 19th century. Sulzer is credited with helping to modernize Jewish worship by introducing a choir and a handful of other updates to suit his Viennese congregation.
As it’s sung by millions of Jews across the world, it sounds a little uptight, even when belted with big gusts of meditation-y breaths punctuating the text. But the irony is that what now sounds uptight was once considered both radical and modern, an exalted sentiment set to a Viennese waltz. In this way Pik’s 1972 version was just doing what Sulzer did 150 years earlier, giving the “watchword of our faith” a little sonic makeover. And what’s so bad about a little syncopation in the face of the unity of everything? (AYK)
8. “White Christmas” (1942)
“Not only is it the best song I ever wrote,” said Irving Berlin when he finished writing “White Christmas,” “it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” There’s certainly a lot in it. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives’ wintry landscapes and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The melodicism is pure Broadway and Hollywood sophistication, but the maudlin sentiments—that vision of snow-blanketed yuletides “just like the ones I used to know”—has deeper, homelier roots, drawing on Stephen Foster’s antebellum nostalgia and Victorian parlor ballads, and ladling some Jewish schmaltz over the top.
“White Christmas” was released in the middle of World War II, in November 1942, the first Christmas season that American troops spent overseas. It stirred such homesickness that it became the definitive pop hit of the war—a “why we fight” song that never mentioned the fight. And that was just the beginning of its success. It’s doubtful any song has generated more total record sales. Bing Crosby’s definitive version stood as the top-selling pop single for more than a half-century.
Tonally “White Christmas” stands apart from the cheeriness of most Christmas songs: It’s as dark and blue as it is “merry and bright.” Some have attributed this plaintive quality to Berlin’s Jewishness—to the seasonal melancholy of a man doomed to view the holiday from a distance. But “White Christmas” is sneakier than that. “God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin … ‘White Christmas,’ ” wrote Philip Roth in Operation Shylock. “If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” (JR)
9. “Be My Baby” (1963)
It starts, literally, with a bang: the thunderclap rumble of Hal Blaine’s drumbeat, among the most famous opening salvos in rock ‘n’ roll. That’s just the beginning of the bombast, as hand claps, castanets, swooping strings, braying brass, and background vocals pile on, inflating the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” into something like pop Wagner.
Of course, it isn’t Wagnerian—it’s Spectorian. Phil Spector, a diminutive studio geek from the Bronx, was 23 years old in 1963 when he co-composed “Be My Baby” with two Jews from Brooklyn, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. To realize Spector’s “Wall of Sound” vision took weeks of rehearsal, 42 studio takes, and saintly patience on the part of lead singer Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, who would marry Spector later that year. On paper, the song’s sentiments are insipid: “Won’t you please/ Be my little baby?/ Say you’ll be my darlin’/ Be my baby now.” But bolstered by a rousing melody and the full fathom force of Spector’s production, they become sublime, proof that a 3-minute-long declaration of puppy love can be as overwhelming—sonically, emotionally, spiritually—as any symphony. (JR)
10. “I Got Rhythm” (1930)
As American credos go, the Gershwin brothers’ most famous chorus is hard to top: “I got rhythm/ I got music/ I got my girl/ Who could ask for anything more?” For declarative brashness, it’s right up there with “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And it’s got a more danceable beat.
Composed in 1928, “I Got Rhythm” became a hit in the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, thanks in no small part to the performance by Ethel Merman, just 22 years old but already a human wind turbine. Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are a study in compression and pithy interior rhymes. (“Ol’ Man Trouble/ I don’t mind him/ You won’t find him/ ’Round my door.”) But it was George’s chord progression, soon to be known simply as “rhythm changes,” that made the song musical holy writ, the basis of countless jazz songs in the swing and bebop eras. (JR)