In May, I wrote about my favorite anti-Semitic song, which led some readers to understandably inquire: enough with the anti-Semites—what about your favorite Jewish songs?
Given Judaism’s thousands of years of rich musical heritage, spanning continents and cultures, answering that question would take far more than a blog post. So rather than offer a greatest hits list, which would necessarily include songs many already know, I thought it would be more fun to collate some Jewish musical artists most readers generally haven’t yet heard—but should. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I encourage you to be in touch with your own recommendations.
Yossela and Atira Ote
By day, he serves as the educational director of the Israel gap year program Shalem, and she as a Hebrew translator and artist. But Rabbi Yossela and Atire Ote are also musical collaborators. Their album of original duets features this beautiful rendition of Adon Olam. The traditional hymn is typically sung as an upbeat march at the conclusion of prayer by congregants celebrating their escape from services, but its words—”In His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake/As my spirit dwells in my body, God is with me, I shall not fear”—are actually far better suited to the Otes’ poignant melody.
An Israeli trio, Kol Achai is one of the better kept secrets of Jewish music. With elaborate vocal harmonies and complex compositions that genuinely reflect the contents of their biblical lyrics, the group’s four albums tower over much of contemporary Jewish religious music. Below you can listen to their rendition of Ruth’s famous words: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay / Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
Originally founded back in the mid-2000s, but only reconstituted recently, Except Saturday and its lead singer/composer Erez Cohen have brought a pop sensibility to the traditional Jewish liturgy. Their first album offered fresh new melodies for Sabbath prayers. This past month, they re-entered the scene with a single to the words of Psalms, “If I forget thee Jerusalem,” with more promised in the months ahead.
Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble
Mechon Hadar and its affiliated Kehilat Hadar are known for their trailblazing egalitarian prayer services in the heart of New York City. But instrumental to this success has been composer Joey Weisenberg, the director of Hadar’s Center for Jewish Communal Music, whose original melodies enliven the congregation’s prayers. Weisenberg has recording many of them with a talented team of Hadar musicians and vocalists. In the video below, Deborah Sacks sings Weisenberg’s composition for a stanza of the central Sabbath prayer Lecha Dodi:
Born in New York but raised largely in Israel, 43-year-old singer-songwriter Razel is one of today’s most skilled musicians when it comes to infusing traditional Jewish lyrics with new life. His albums include original melodies for everything from the penitential prayers of the High Holy Days to the lines of the Passover Haggada. His 2007 debut album won him Singer of the Year and Song of the Year from Ynet, Israel’s most read media outlet—a particularly impressive achievement for a religious artist. His videos have millions of views on YouTube, and several of his songs have reached American shores, including his composition for the Sabbath song D’ror Yikra, which was featured on the hit Israeli sitcom Srugim.