You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs
And we have something to say back!
Last week, Jody Rosen, one of the two musicologists behind our list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever, answered some questions about the list. The ensuing conversation was so good that Ari Y. Kelman, the Rodgers to Rosen’s Hammerstein, decided to throw in his two cents. His response follows.
First off, as anyone who has ever loved or hated or heard a song knows: The argument about the song is part of the fun. Whether we’re talking about riots after the debut of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or riots during screenings of Blackboard Jungle (the opening credits rolled to Bill Haley and the Comets), the riots are the fun part. The list, as all lists are, is just pretext.
Omissions, Egregious and Otherwise
Yes, there are omissions. Jonathan Richman? Philip Glass? Louis Lewandowski? Aaron Copland? Safam (whom I always found to be too didactic)? Reb Shlomo? And, yes, we tended to focus on songs by Jews that evinces something of their Jewishness—yet it would have been brilliant to include Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” (frankly, I can’t believe we misssed that one). The truth is: There’s lots of stuff that is both good and weird enough to make the list, and maybe some of that stuff should have made the list. Let’s argue about that, too.
The Quality of The Songs
We included these songs because they’re great songs, but also because they highlight the complicated ways in which the Jewishness of Jewish music is constructed. Dismissing them as “crap” or as evidence for some weakening of the collective Jewish spirit doesn’t take them quite as seriously as they deserve. I’d happily argue that Phil Spector had a greater impact on Jews of the late 1960s than any of the great cantors (Sirota, Rosenblatt, etc.) or great Jewish composers (Mahler, Schoenberg, and so on).
The great thing about songs is that they find ways into our subconscious and our biographies, and the ways in which they gather meaning with listeners is as important as—if not more important than—what the songwriter meant by the song. What I mean to say is, “Pata Pata” had a bigger impact at my summer camp than Reb Shlomo did.
You and Your Ashkenazo-centrism.
You are 100 percent right: We wrote from a largely Ashkenazic perspective, and the list reflects that bias. I regret not accounting for the great traditions of Sephardic and Mizrahi music in this list, and we missed many of the great songs from these traditions. And, yes, there has been a strong resurgence of Sephardic music over the past decades, and we should have accounted for it. All of those critiques are right on; maybe we should have called this entry “The 100 Greatest Ashkenazi-ish Jewish songs.” That would have been more accurate.
But how much more accurate? “Adon Olam” doesn’t fit that bill, and neither does Ofra Haza, whose music came to me via hip-hop. Plus, as some commenters have noted, a few of these songs aren’t even “Jewish” anyhow. So maybe we ought to have called the piece “The 100 Greatest Jewish Songs with a Strong Ashkenazi Bias, But, Importantly, Including Lots of Songs That Problematize That Distinction.” But then what do you do with “Pata Pata” or Slim Gallard? So, maybe we should have called it “The 100 Greatest Jewish Songs with a Strong Ashkenazi Bias, But With Other Songs That Were Not Written For or About Jews, But Somehow Found an Audience Among Jews.” You see where this is going.
The idea here is not about authenticity or inauthenticity. It’s not about exhaustiveness or perfect representativeness. These lists are pretexts for discussion, argument, conversation. I do, seriously and certainly, regret the omission of songs from Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, but my sense of the list is that it is here to be fought with and argued about, and to encourage perhaps even yet another list. You’re right to point out its boundaries, and I welcome the opportunity to keep the conversation going by compiling another list with other boundaries.
That’s part of the problem. It’s also part of the fun.