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You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs

Our musicologists answered

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All week we’ve been talking about Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman’s wonderful, if controversial, thoroughly annotated list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs of all time. A lively and sometimes heated debate has sprung up over the choices on the list—in the Scroll, in the office, at 3 AM when my family in other time zones call to yell at me, and, of course, among our excellent commentators. We gleaned a few questions from the conversation and posed them to our musicologists. Jody Rosen answered.

Why are there so many secular/Ashkenazi/American songs? Why isn’t there more orthodox/Sephardi/other place/Israeli/whatever music?

Ari and I knew going in that there were be strong reactions to the piece—that there would be lots of people upset by our choices and omissions. That’s part of the point of lists like this: They’re conversation starters. What’s more Jewish than a good argument? You know the adage: two Jews, three opinions. There’s a reason that I put the Groucho Marx song “I’m Against It” at #20!

There’s simply no way to make a definitive list of 100 songs that captures the sweep and scope and richness of a musical culture that stretches back thousands of years. We don’t pretend to be definitive. Like anyone who would undertake an exercise like this, we were limited by our own tastes and predilections and areas of expertise.

That said: I agree that the lack of Sephardic music on the list is a problem. It is undeniably an Ashkenazi-centric list. Again, I simply plead ignorance. Neither Ari nor I are steeped in the Sephardic musical tradition. (Ari’s far more learned than I about Jewish music generally.) I’ve read the reader comments with interest; I’m eager to hear more about Sephardic songs that readers feel are especially egregious omissions. This is a learning opportunity for me. For everyone, hopefully.

As for the inclusion of so many secular pop songs: I stand by all those choices. Look, people, the fact is, in historical terms—in terms of impact, influence, and global reach—American popular music is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of civilization. That sounds bombastic, but it’s true. What other art has reached more people, in more places, than pop and jazz and soul and rock & roll and hip-hop? (Maybe Hollywood movies—another Jewish invention.) Jews have played a disproportionate role in pop music, in both its creative and commercial spheres. I wanted the list to acknowledge that achievement.

What’s more, as I argue in the list, many of these so-called “secular” pop songs aren’t especially secular. I called “Over the Rainbow” a Jewish exilic prayer. That’s the way I hear it. Many of the pop songs on the list are, to my ears, manifestly Jewish, and not just because they’re written and performed by Jews. Listen to the Gershwin’s “Summertime”—its bluesy intervals are the same that you hear in dozens of Jewish liturgical melodies. This is true of many of Harold Arlen’s great songs, too. One of the signal accomplishments of Jews in pop music is the way they’ve smuggled Jewish culture, Jewish musical tropes, Jewish themes, into the mainstream—a stealth Semiticization of American culture.

Shouldn’t a song being about Christmas disqualify it?

The modern Christmas holiday is in no small part a Jewish creation. Jewish department store moguls helped make Santa Claus the “star” of the yuletide season. Jewish movie studio bosses were behind It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, and the other major seasonal films. And of course the popular songs that are fixtures of the “traditional” Christmas celebration—as “holy,” in their way, as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Silent Night”—were largely composed by Jewish songwriters in the years before, during, and immediately after the Second World War. This is a fascinating example of both Jewish-American assimilation and American-Judaization. Anyway, I stand by the explanations in the blurbs for the two Christmas songs included here, “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

If a non-Jew writes a Jewish themed song, shouldn’t they be included?

Yes, of course. There are a couple of examples on the list of Jewish-themed songs by non-Jews. (Madonna’s “Ray of Light” is one.) Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” was supposed to be on the list. It was left off because of a production error on my part. (Ooops!) There’s a long tradition of pop philosemitism, the most famous practitioner being Cole Porter, who once said he’d discovered the secret to musical greatness: “write Jewish tunes.” Porter’s “Jewish tunes” are among his most famous—songs like “Night and Day,” with its Orientalist “Jewish” sound, those brooding minor keys. I thought long and hard about including some reggae and ska—songs with biblical themes like Bob Marley’s “Exodus” or the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” or Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites.” But I was concerned about construing Rastafarianism as some kind of bastardized crypto-Jewish tradition: those songs are Christian songs, Rasta songs, not Jewish songs.

Why are the Maccabeats missing?

Why is Mickey Katz missing? Why no “Zog Nit Keynmol”? The answer is obvious: we had 100 slots to fill, and had hard choices to make. Everybody will have his or her own version of this list. Make your own list, put the Maccabeats at #1. I’ll post a comment telling you why you’re off your rocker!

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Moshe Pesach Geller says:

You’re most accurate statement is about your ignorance. You’re reason is worse than specious. It betrays first and foremost a lack of a connection with anything substantively jewish. You turn Jewish tradition into an Amerikan commercial piece of vacuous, well, commercialism.

Your definitions of that which is Jewish is tragic and sophomoric. The Tablet is becoming a magazine for the most washed out people who happen to be that uniquely Amerikan/Hellinistic creation: “Whatever I do, is an authentic expression of an alternative Jewish lifestyle.” You know what a lifeSTYLE is? When I have no real life, I got a get a style.

I would be surprised if anyone at Tablet could compete with the average 10 years old in Jerusalem as to anything Jewish that is beyond the narrow Amerikan experience. And it surely will never stand the test of time, which is the only ultimate barometer of what is efficacious to the jewish Journey.

But I will give you this: You provide excellent fodder in my lectures about the demise of American jewry.

Bianca says:

Love the list!

Love the recognition of Jewish Culture interacting with 20th century Pop Culture.

And yes, it’s American. So what?

- Bianca of the Antipodes

Daniel Steinmetz says:

Go down moses would have been a worthy inclusion. Many of us sing it at our sedorim. I love the Paul Robeson version.

Thanks for being forthcoming about your ignorance. Next time, just call it 100 Best Ashkenazic American Jewish Songs. Don’t try to make a definitive list when your personal knowledge is limited. Or… get others involved. I appreciate the effort but I am kind of getting tired of Jewish always being associated exclusively with Ashkenazic.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I don’t get it. If the overwhelming majority of American Jews are Ashkenazic, what is wrong with emphasizing songs written by Ashkenazic Jews?

And what is wrong with most of the songs being secular? I would think liturgical music should be a separate category altogether.

Bravo to the creators of the list. You used your imaginations. And to your critics…lighten up!

But next time…. more Alan Sherman! “Harvey and Sheila” to the melody of Hava Nagila is hilarious and priceless.

RACHEL B says:

I hated the list for the many reasons I expressed in the Comments section.

But I take personal offense at this condescending followup by Jody Rosen. Might I point out that Ms. Rosen was MUCH, MUCH WORSE than her co-author… Her contributions were the most idiotic, her arguments always trying to be “cute”, and her lack of concern for the non-Ashkenazim was unfair to the extreme.

Now she maintains that same level of “cute” self-rightousness and condescension by her choice of words, essentially labeling all that isn’t American Ashkenazi as “other places”… Another way of saying “WHATEVERRR”.

And so she continues to insult the readers with her followup. What a load of garbage.

Essentially what she’s saying is:

-Our list was a load of crap, but we stand by our crap.
-You guys made a bunch of valid points, but they’re not really important.
-We are basically, ignorant idiots when it comes to Jewish music (but we compiled the list in spite of that, hahaha).
-We knew we were gonna piss you off, and we succeeded.
-We stand by our load of crap.

A NEW LOW FOR TABLET.

A new Christmas song with fabulous lyrics written by a Jew:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uK3jAzSv9c

Can’t believe so many people wrapping themselves around the axle. Over what? Chill. Enjoy a glass of wine…Mogen David?

OK, we’ll remove Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman’s “peace” from Pulitzer nominations.

Love Adina’s suggested Xmas song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uK3jAzSv9c

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Geller’s comments. Complete ignorance combined with a righteous smugness about that ignorance is a poor combination, but sadly very typical of Tablet’s attempts at “journalism” these past months.

I think the analysis of “Over the Rainbow” is absolutely correct. Not original in the least, it’s been the conventional wisdom on this song for years, but entirely true.

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Sam Intrator says:

I ask you again why Shlomo Carlebach was missing. His music is sung in more synagogues cross denomiationally then most if not all composers/singers,that in itself should count for something . I noticed that others questioned last time why he was missing. I would appreciate it if would respond.

Sam Intrator is right. You should have admitted that Shlomo Carlebach this was a really big omission.

And I don’t recall that anyone suggested that Candlelight should be on the top 100 list. Only that it is a little arrogant of Tablet bloggers not to have done a story about it. It was a happy, big deal, feel good Chanukah story. Everybody wrote it up except Tablet. Instead of covering it, this is the second time a Tablet blogger has made a nasty, put-down remark.

It sort of says something about the nature of your Jewishness that you couldn’t bring yourself to just post a link to the video and write Happy Hanuka. Even if it isn’t on the level of Over the Rainbow or Kol Nidre.

After all, not that many Hanuka songs make the billboard charts and CNN. And it’s not like Tablet has ignored the song. Tablet has attacked the song. I can’t quite figure out why you actually seem to hate a cheerful little song by a bunch of nice Jewish boys.

Joe Zoller says:

What a delightful list. And I agree that the main purpose of this exercise is to stimulate our minds for truly active discussions. I had passed the list on with the comment that it would be great starting point for a regularly scheduled group who love to parse the Jewish influence on various aspects of American cultural life. Whether it is music, comedy, literature or art, there is a disproportionate Jewish influence. That it is what this is all about.

Dan Klein says:

@Rachel B,

I have to let Jody at least partly off the hook, since I’m the one who asked the questions. Didn’t mean to suggest that “other places” aren’t great.

@Moshe

Always glad to help.

Jeffrey Sultanof says:

Having been asked to participate in the compilation of such lists in music and film, I’ve never read a top anything list that didn’t have biases, quite a few items that just shouldn’t be there, and just as many titles that should have been included that are shockingly forgotten. So the lesson is, you can’t take these lists seriously.

The nice part: there were songs that I’d never heard of, never heard before, or several I’d just plain forgotten. And even better: the positive and negative responses reminded me of even more songs. So let’s look at it positively. One list of songs isn’t going to kill anyone, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the religion is going down the drain (Irving Berlin still remembered his yiddish till the day he died.)

Allan Leicht says:

Look, okay, you’ve done it, you should not have but it’s okay that you did. Don’t do it again. Balanchine, Bill Cosby never took prizes or even nominations for prizes. Because that’s for sports, not art. We must obliterate this “Academy Awards” foolishness. Simply: there are no bests and no lists of bests. Please, let’s not play football with songs! No more. Stop. Okay?

Moshe Pesach Geller says:

@dan klein Spoken like a true washed-out, empty souled Amerikan who can’t do better than celebrate his emptiness. Reb Shlomo Carlebach: “empty people are filled with themselves.” You only affirem and confirm what I’ve written. I’m sure you smugly gleeful about being an ass-hole. Or is gleefully smugfull. Wait. Trust me. Wait. One day when all your possesions are in a plastic bag and can’t escape to Israel. You will indeed cry. But there will be no one to hear or care. Remember there’s August 31, 1939 and nthen there’s September 1st. Coming to an Amerika near you. Pay attention to the ongoing coming attractions. I wouldn’t really care except you leave your droppings in the public sphere.

Marilyn Cohen says:

Lighten up, people. It’s only one list and it’s not carved in stone. Give the authors of the list a break and enjoy the fact that Jews have contributed so much to the world, whether it be arts and entertainment, science, medicine, or what-have-you.

Michael Krauss says:

As usual and to paraphrase…100 best and 1000 opinions!

Graham Lawson says:

Well, I’m only just weighing in here.. but your Jolson pick, I seem to remember reading somewhere that he did’nt actually write his songs. Apparently he’d insist on songwriting credits though, because of royalties.. Having said that, I thought you could have come up with something a little less cliched than “Mammy”..

Buddy Fox says:

probably the second most airplay of a christmas song would be The Christmas Song co- written by those 2 nice bar mitzvah boys Mel Torme and Robert Wells or in a previos life as Melvin Tormer and Robert Levinson

Haters gotta hate.

Instead of hurling invective, make your own list and post a link!

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Our musicologists answered

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