Of all the early MTV icons who have been through bad haircuts and band breakups over the 20 years since the original Live Aid benefit, perhaps none has undergone a transformation as striking as Madonna’s. From charismatic yet vapid 1980s pop bunny, she has aged gracefully into a middle-aged mystic. As she sang the spiritual dance anthem, “Ray of Light,” at Live 8, snatches of Aramaic texts and other kabbalistic symbols flashed behind her on a towering screen.
Whether or not Madonna’s embrace of nouveau Judaism is genuine, her public performances, which turn medieval Jewish religious esoterica into MTV visual exotica, suggest another kind of fascinating conversion, one that appears to be taking place more broadly in pop music today. Jewishness is becoming less a musical mark of ethnicity and religion and more a pliable pop culture symbol.
There is a long history of American popular music borrowing from Jewish religion and culture. Already in 1927, The Jazz Singer featured Al Jolson mixing Jewish liturgy and American popular song to celebrate the tension between his Jewish roots and American crooner persona. By the time of Neil Diamond’s 1979 remake, it was not uncommon to find the occasional Jewish musical theme cross over into the mainstream. But most of these instances were explicitly ethnic and often heavily ironic, even comic in intent. So too were the innumerable versions of “Hava Nagila” recorded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by everyone from Harry Belafonte to Dick Dale.
In the past decade, however, cartoonish irony has yielded to a range of less flippant treatments of Jewish musical themes in American pop music. In the 1990s, the jam band Phish began to perform the classic Yom Kippur liturgical hymn “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, Our King) and the Israeli political hymn “Jerusalem of Gold”—which became an ethereal epilogue to “Demand,” a song describing a tragic car crash, on their 1994 album Hoist. The same was true when Ben Folds Five invited the Klezmatics to add a Jewish musical flavor to their signature mix of punk piano, Broadway harmonies, and cynical geek sensibility on the 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen. New York’s top klezmer band who pioneered a new anti-kitsch creative approach to Jewish folk music, joined in on a number of tracks, most notably the jazzy swing number “Stephen’s Last Night in Town.” Neither Ben Folds nor Phish bothered to explain these little musical references as Jewish. There was no tongue-in-cheek allusion. These musical symbols simply appealed to a postmodern sensibility hungry for a diet of musical multiculturalism.
More recently, we’ve entered a new phase: As pop musicians engage in mixing and matching, Jewishness continues to pop up in the fray. This reached a critical point with the release of Gwen Stefani‘s hit single “Rich Girl” last year. Stefani, who rose to fame with the California pop-ska band No Doubt, issued what is a very loose cover version of “If I Were a Rich Man.” Like many of the classics from “Fiddler on the Roof,” the song drips with self-conscious self-pity. It also lends itself very easily to parody, as generations of summer-camp spoof sketches testify. Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” however, neatly lifts the melody and lyrics of the song without irony or schmaltz. Instead, in the hands of the legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre, the hummable shtetl hymn becomes an insouciant melody hook over a funky, angular dancehall beat, punctuated by Jamaican toasting delivered by rapper Eve. In place of the quaint East European imagery, Stefani whines about Hollywood mansions, Beverly Hills fashion, and London townhouses—and lots and lots of money. All of these, she tells us, she would give up for love.
What’s most remarkable about Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” however, isn’t that it strips the original song of its ethnic identity. Nor is it the shift in the meaning of the lyrics from eye-winking piety to cynical tough-girl empowerment. Rather, “Rich Girl” is in fact a second-generation cover. In the 1993 Jamaican dancehall tune, also titled “Rich Girl,” Louchie Lou and Michie One borrow not only the melody and some of the lyrics to the original “Rich Man” but also weave in the theme from the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” all as part of an unlikely ode to social justice and community harmony. With no hint of religion or ethnicity, Jewish or otherwise, the Jamaican vocal duo reinvented Tevye’s “Rich Man” as a pop hit. Stripped of its patina of Third World idealism, it has now been revived as an ode to First World materialism—and this past season’s American dance club groove of choice.
We have reached a new stage in the vanishing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews in American popular culture. Rather than merely the disappearance of American Jewish ethnic and religious identities, we are also seeing the fading of the very Jewishness of Judaism and Jewish culture in American society. A dash of Yiddishkayt or a flicker of Jewish mysticism are now fair game for American pop musicians in search of new ideas, new images, and new sounds. Like bagels and Yiddish words, Jewish music has evolved into common cultural property.
James Loeffler is the author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire and co-editor of The Idelsohn Project.