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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.

Jody Rosen
Ari Y. Kelman
December 21, 2010

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.

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)

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)

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)

44. “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)

55. “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)

66. “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)

77. “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)

“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)

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)

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)

1111. “Adon Olam” (11th century)

It’s been sung to every melody from “The William Tell Overture” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the simple 4/4 meter of the poetry betrays the pretty serious philosophical complexity of this example of classical Sephardic poetry. But that’s not why “Adon Olam” makes the list. There is no song that makes millions of Jews happier each and every week, because when they hear it, they know that services are over—and kiddush is served. (AYK)

“God Bless America” was originally composed by Irving Berlin for his World War I revue Yip Yip Yaphank and then revised and published on the eve of World War II as a “peace song.” Through decades of jingoistic political convention singalongs and bloated seventh-inning stretch renditions, many ears have clapped closed to the song’s simple beauty. Hearing Berlin himself sing “God Bless America” sets the record straight: It’s not a national anthem; it’s singer-songwriter’s confession—an immigrant’s love song to his adopted “home sweet home.” (JR)

Socialism was supposed to melt away all of the ethnic, national, racial, and religious differences. It couldn’t. So, Jews sing their hearts out about the working masses uniting, but they do it in Yiddish. The socialist anthem captures how their politics couldn’t repress their accents or their Jewishness. It also captures how their Jewishness couldn’t silence their politics. (AYK)

Jeffry Ross Hyman—aka Joey Ramone—cobbles together four chords, a cheerleader chant, and a gratuitous reference to the Nazi war machine. Presto: Punk is born. (JR)

1515. “Avinu Malkeinu” (1st century)

Instituted by the famous Rabbi Akiva, this powerful piece of liturgy repeats “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, our King”) while asking for forgiveness, blessings, and a host of other things. The lyrics are a striking challenge of self-reflection and soul-searching, in which the supplicant asks for forgiveness, justice, compassion, and mercy, while admitting that he or she can claim no deeds of merit. In other words, the prayer challenges Jews to throw themselves on the mercy of the divine court without offering a word in their defense. It’s the ultimate performance of humility—and of chutzpah. (AYK)

A Jewish high-school teacher, Abel Meeropol—who would later adopt Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s two sons—wrote this searing indictment of lynching. A musical genius, Billie Holiday, turned it into a civil rights landmark, the 20th century’s most powerful protest song. (JR)

Sacha Baron-Cohen’s supreme stunt in his Borat guise was one heady piece of social satire: an incitement to pogrom (“Throw the Jew down the well/ So my country can be free/ You must grab him by his horns/ Then we have a big party”) sung by a British Jew disguised as a Central Asian bumpkin before a whooping, Bud-swilling audience at a Tucson, Ariz., honkytonk. It’s the ultimate Jewish punk song. (JR)

“My Funny Valentine” is at once the most romantic and anti-romantic of the great song standards, an impassioned ode to a lover bluntly described as “laughable, unphotographable.” The tune, rising and tumbling over a jazzy sequence of sixth and seventh chords, is Richard Rodgers’ most harmonically sumptuous. Lorenz Hart’s lyric is a typically sad, witty, and mordant—another day at the office for the American Songbook’s most brilliant dyspeptic. (JR)

1919. “Eli, Eli” (1896)

Written by Jacob Sandler in for a Yiddish historical drama called “Brokhoh” (Blessing), the song began as a showstopper and became a spiritual. Often identified as a liturgical number—Sandler even took legal action, but was never able to secure copyright—the song soon passed into popular consciousness, moving from Second Avenue to the Bowery, and eventually, through violinist Mischa Elman, to Carnegie Hall. But it was Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt who put his stamp on it, forever transforming it from a standard of the vaudeville stage to a prayer in the virtual siddur. Don’t confuse it with Hannah Senesh’s song Halicha L’kesaria,” which is known as “Eli Eli” to legions of Jewish summer campers. (AYK)

Groucho Marx’s romping Horse Feathers production number is the ultimate statement of Jewish contrarianism. “I don’t know what they have to say/ It makes no difference anyway/ Whatever it is, I’m against it.” (JR)

2121. “Ol’ Man River” (1927)

There had never been a showtune like the centerpiece ballad of Show Boat—a meditation on race, class, the suffering of humanity, and the indifference of nature. Jerome Kern’s melody is indelible. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric is philosophical. And the river in question—the mighty Mississippi—is eternal: It just keeps rolling along. (JR)

Shtetl nostalgia on Broadway. Daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum. (JR)

This snippet of the much longer paragraph that traditionally concludes the Amidah—the standing prayer—stands alone as a blessing for peace. Ironically enough, the song’s most popular melody did not come from any of the great composers of Jewish liturgical music but from Nurit Hirsh—who also wrote “aba-ni-bi,” the most famous song ever written in Hebrew pig Latin. (AYK)

“Hava Nagila” before there was “Hava Nagila.” The original Jewish party-starter. (AYK)

David and Bathesheba. Samson and Delilah. Bathing on the rooftop and bondage in the kitchen. Leonard Cohen’s 1981 ballad blends the biblical and erotic to create a Jewish gospel testimonial—a praise song to “the Lord of song” and, as Jeff Buckley once put it, “a hallelujah to the orgasm.” (JR)

This 1963 tour de force found four illustrious Brill Building songwriters—Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller—meditating on three durable Jewish-American themes: immigrant hopes and hardships, the lure of showbiz, and the promise of that Jerusalem on the Hudson, where “there’s always magic in the air.” (JR)

George Gershwin’s “negro spiritual” from Porgy and Bess was reportedly based on a traditional Ukrainian lullaby. But can we also detect a Jewish tinge in those bluesy intervals—generations of cantors wailing “fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high”? (JR)

2828. “Lekha Dodi” (16th century)

While Rabbi Isaac Luria, a Sephardic Jew living in Safed, gets credit for inventing the Sabbath eve service, props for its signature poem go to another Sephardic poet, Solomon Halevi Alkabetz. This song—which modestly includes his own name in an acrostic—cemented the image of Sabbath as bride/queen. (AYK)

Arguably the most famous Yiddish song ever. It was written by Sholom Secunda, who famously sold the publishing rights for $30. A few years later, Sammy Cahn allegedly heard it performed by two African American singers at a Harlem nightclub and quickly jotted down an English translation. Cahn kept the Yiddish refrain and interpolated the German “wunderbar,” because Al Jolson was then starring in a show of the same name. Cahn passed the song on to the Andrews Sisters, and the rest is a history of covers that spans the globe. (AYK)

From Brill Building titans Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this ’60s hit is an ecumenical prayer for peace, love, and understanding. It’s the Jewish “Kumbaya.” (JR)

3131. “Dayeinu” (9th century)

Nothing makes the maror go down easier than everyone’s favorite seder table sing-along. Even cockatiels love it. (JR)

Lou Reed sarcastically channels his inner Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who once famously said that “Stokely Carmichael is really the most radical kind of Negro Zionist. He talks exactly the language of those Jews who felt most violently angry at the sight of Hitler and most hurt by the good people who stood aside.” White Jewish guilt never hurt so good. (AYK)

“There’s a place for us/ A time and place for us.” Is Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story ballad an anthem of Jewish utopian longing? A plea, by two gay songwriters, for “peace and quiet and open air” where all lovers can breathe free? Or merely the prettiest love song you’ve ever heard? (JR)

This song, originally released on Ofra Haza’s album Shaday, earned the young Yemenite Israeli singer all kinds of popularity and acclaim across Europe, but it took rappers Eric B. and Rakim to bring it to the attention of American audiences nearly 20 years later. (Yep, that’s her singing the hook.) Madonna also sampled it on her 2005 song “Isaac,” but despite Esther’s taste for Kabbalah, she probably also first heard of Haza thanks to hip-hop. (AYK)

It was a hipster Jewish record producer, Rick Rubin, who brought Run-DMC and Aerosmith together—a shotgun marriage of hip-hop and hard rock that transformed popular culture. (JR)

The biggest voice, the most indomitable ego, the most unabashed allegiance to musical schmaltz: That’s our Barbra. Streisand’s most enduring hit is the string-swathed theme song from Sydney Pollack’s 1973 melodrama about the doomed romance of a Marxist Jewish activist and a goyishe god. The song is a nostalgia trip, awash in gooiest sentimentality—Streisand material par excellence. All together now: Mist-eee water-color’d mem’ries … (JR)

Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the Christmas song-as-Jewish-wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s the story of a social outcast with a funny schnozz who saves Christmas, earning the love of the goyim and a place in the history books. (JR)

Written by Abraham Goldfaden, the self-proclaimed Father of Yiddish Theater, for his operetta Shulamith, this song became one of the first big hits of the Yiddish theater. It embedded itself so deeply in the musical culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews at the turn of the 20th century that it was widely referred to as a folk song or a lullaby. Translated into English as “Raisins and Almonds,” the song has become a standard of Yiddish musical performance. (AYK)

You want to get a group of Jews dancing in a circle? This never fails. (AYK)

Brooklyn-born proto-hippie Eden Ahbez lifted a tune from Yiddish musical composer Herman Yablokoff, added a woozy lyric about “a very strange enchanted boy,” and gave the song to Nat “King” Cole. The result was another Jewish musical milestone: a counterculture anthem at the top of the pop charts, two decades before the summer of love. (JR)

4141. “Some of These Days” (1910)

They called Sophie Tucker the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” but in truth she was one of the first—a proudly zaftig, unapologetically bawdy, indomitably leather-lunged vaudeville diva who established a Jewish showbiz archetype and helped usher in pop modernity. Her first hit, recorded a century ago, can still peel back your ears. (JR)

4242. “Rumania” (1925)

Aaron Lebedeff set the standard with his 1925 recording; everyone else is just trying to live up to it. But the song is almost always a tour de force no matter who performs it. With its intense delivery of nonsense syllables and its rapid-fire Yiddish, it’s one of many Yiddish songs about the Old Country, yet it’s neither particularly sentimental nor syrupy. And there are few Yiddish numbers that can set an audience on fire quite like this one. (AYK)

“I didn’t know just what was wrong with me/ ’Til your kiss helped me name it.” It took a couple of Jews—Gerry Goffin and Carole King—to put the mystery of female orgasm in the Billboard Top 10. Aretha Franklin may have helped a little, too. (JR)

4444. “Los Bilbilicos” (Medieval Spain)

One of the most popular Ladino folk songs, this one makes the list because of its strange passage from the world of Spanish folk songs to the American folk revival. Folk singer Carolyn Hester included a version of this song on her self-titled 1960 release, which is best known for the contributions of a then-unknown harmonica player: Robert Zimmerman. A few years later, Hester’s husband, Richard Farina, translated, adapted, and re-recorded the song as “The Swallow Song.” Meanwhile, in Israel, everyone who recorded anything in Ladino took their shot with its sweet, swooning melody. (AYK)

“Here’s a foreign song I learned in Utah,” drawls Bob Dylan over the opening chords of his savagely funny “Hava Nagila” deconstruction. But what is he sending up, exactly? His own Jewish passing act? Bar mitzvah boys phonetically chanting their haftorah portions? The Hebrew language? The goyim? (JR)

Written and produced by Jewish teenagers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1952, this salty 12-bar song topped the rhythm and blues chart four years before Elvis Presley turned it into a generational anthem. The lyric, Leiber later confessed, was code for “You ain’t nothing but a motherfucker.” (JR)

Issachar Miron’s hit song made it to No. 2 on the Billboard charts, thanks to the uber-American-blue-blood stylings of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. The song, a peppy number that Miron originally wrote for the graduation ceremony of a Jewish brigade in the British army in Palestine, found its way to Seeger and into the hearts and minds of folkies and American Jews, who were eager to hear the sounds of the young State of Israel. (AYK)

Judaism was merely Irving Berlin’s ethnicity. His religion was showbiz. (JR)

Has romantic angst ever been more vividly dramatized? Phil Spector, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weill’s ballad certainly struck a chord: According to performing rights organization BMI, it received more radio airplay than any other song in the 20th century. (JR)

Debbie Friedman’s adaptation of the Biblical “Lekh Lekha,” the command God gives to Abraham to go and find his destiny, is one of the few songs written in the last century that has reached near-liturgical status. Sung at graduations, confirmations, and bar and bat mitzvahs nationwide, this song is guaranteed to reduce any group of parents to tears within the first few bars. (AYK)

5151. “Mein Shtetele Belz” (1932)

One of many of the shtetl songs written by and for American Jewish immigrants that framed a deep nostalgia for the good life of the Old Country, the song appears prominently in the 1937 Moishe Oysher vehicle The Cantor’s Son. In the film, Oysher is tempted by a career of singing in nightclubs and on radio, but in the end, it’s his little Ukrainian town of Belz that lures him back. Well, Belz and his childhood sweetheart. (AYK)

The pièce de résistance of the little-remembered 1938 Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday was this heart-rending ballad from Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill, the finest, saddest, most moving pop musical meditation on aging. “The days grow short…” (JR)

Before they discovered Tibetan Buddhism, yoga, and enlightened sexual politics, the Beastie Boys were just three snotty Jewish kids from New York, bellowing about getting wasted and “taxing little girlies” over cheesy rock power chords and a clobbering 808 drum machine downbeat. (JR)

Is there another song that links the Barry Sisters, Dean Martin, and Santana? Alexander Olshanetsky’s Yiddish standard is a classic torch song—a hard-bitten plaint about the fine line between romance and masochism. (JR)

Two nice Jewish boys—Burt Bacharach and Hal David—write a working girl’s version of the Great American Love Song. (JR)

Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg’s ballad is the rare 1930s pop hit that met the Great Depression head on. Harburg was a confirmed lefty who was later blacklisted; his lyric was a proletarian cri de coeur: “Once I built a tower to the sun/ Brick and rivet and lime/ Once I built a tower, now it’s done/ Brother can you spare a dime?” (JR)

Because it rocks. (JR)

And the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest is: Israel! (AYK)

6060. “America” (1980)

Written by Yiddish poet Mark Warshawsky, this Yiddish song is one of the most loving paeans to the Hebrew language, combining the honey-sweet taste of Hebrew letters and the syrupy sounds of Yiddish folk music. (AYK)

The saga of Jewish-American immigration, narrated by Neil Diamond: relentlessly, pummelingly, loudly. “Free!/ We just want to be free!” (JR)

6161. “You’re So Vain” (1972)

Guessing the identity of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” protagonist remains a favorite pop music parlor game. Who is this preening lothario who watches himself “gavotte” in the mirror and flies his Lear to Nova Scotia to see the solar eclipse? Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? David Geffen? Does it matter? Not really. The fun here is listening to Simon wield her velvet hammer—a deceptively soft and sweet character assassination. (JR)

The first big hit for the great songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had a distinct Jewish flavor, from the cheeky shout-outs to Lower East Side pushcarts and “fancy … Delancey Street” to the Yiddish inflections that lurk in the rhymes: “The city’s clamor can never spoil/ The love of a boy and goil.” (JR)

6363. “La Rosa Enflorece” (16th century)

One of the many Ladino romanceros from Jewish Medieval Spain, the ballad is basically a tragic love song: “The rose blooms in the month of May. My soul darkens, suffering from love.” After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, romanceros, often sung by female singers, became part of the symbolic world of resettled Sephardic communities, in which love, loss, longing, and romance served double duty—both romantic and national. (AYK)

6464. “Popcorn” (1969)

Originally recorded by Moog synthesizer pioneer Gershon Kingsley, the song became a global smash in 1972 when it was covered by a band called Hot Butter. The first synth-pop hit, “Popcorn” quickly became a staple of the Jewish summer camp dance repertoire. And so it makes the list less because Kingsley is a Jewish composer than because for years it was, essentially, the Jewish macarena. (AYK)

The massive journalistic and cinematic epic Exodus, Leon Uris and Otto Preminger’s Zionist sales pitch, received the soundtrack that it deserved. Uris’ book pumped up Ari ben Canaan as the romantic hero of the nascent state, so the film matched that romantic urge by casting matinee idol and not-so-Jewish-looking Paul Newman in the lead. Meanwhile, the soundtrack received its over-the-top treatment from none other than soft-rock pioneer and born-again crooner Pat Boone. (AYK)

6666. “Yo Ya” (1973)

Israeli rock supergoup Poogy’s biggest international hit is riddled with biblical puns and nonsensical lyrics. What better way to express the disaffection and dissatisfaction of Israeli teens during the early 1970s? And it features a killer guitar riff that was subsequently, er, adapted by Lenny Kravitz in his Are You Gonna Go My Way.” Poogy was one of a few pathbreaking Israeli bands in the early 1970s, and, along with a few other bands, they eventually gave rise to some of Israeli popular music’s most prolific and influential songwriters—including Dani Sanderson, Gidi Gov, Alon Olearczyk, and Yoni Rechter. (AYK)

Adam Sandler’s 1994 novelty hit is the greatest Hanukkah-themed power ballad in rock history. But behind the goofy rhymes, there’s a mischievous agenda: pinning figurative Stars of David on Jewish stage-and-screen luminaries who hide behind goyishized names. (JR)

His name was Barry. He was a showman. And his No. 1 hit was kitsch-disco heaven. (JR)

The orgasms were simulated—we think. But the spirit of impish Jewish provocation was very real indeed. Serge Gainsbourg’s 1969 smash was banned by BBC radio and denounced by Pope Paul VI. Everyone else was titillated. (JR)

With lyrics by Itzik Manger and music by Abe Ellstein, “Yidl” is the theme song to the eponymous 1936 Molly Picon vehicle, which features the star in full comic, cross-dressing force. Shot “on location” in Poland, the film followed Picon as the title character, a girl who dresses as a boy to play in her father’s klezmer band. The song captures the sense of lightness and levity from interwar Jewish Europe. “Hey, Yidl, Fiddle, Shmiddle! Life is just a joke!” (AYK)

7171. “My Yiddishe Momme” (1925)

This sturm-und-drang mother song, popularized by Sophie Tucker in both English and Yiddish versions, marks a crucial turning point in American-Jewish life: the moment when the immigrant past became a source of nostalgia, not shame. (JR)

Written in the months preceding the Six Day War, this song has become Israel’s unofficial national anthem, but it was revealed right around the time of singer Naomi Shemer’s death, in 2004, that the melody was “borrowed” from a Basque lullaby—a revelation that strained Israel’s cultural memory and the deep resonance of the song. (AYK)

The deathless American anthem about the great American pastime is a wheezy waltz co-composed by vaudeville star Jack Norworth and German-Jewish immigrant Albert Von Tilzer, né Albert Gumm. (JR)

CORRECTION: Von Tilzer was not an immigrant; he was born to German-Jewish parents in Indianapolis.

Allan Sherman’s Grammy-winning novelty hit introduced Middle America to the delights, and perils, of Jewish summer camp. “You remember Leonard Skinner?/ He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.” (JR)

“Flash Light” is where funk history meets your cousin Gary’s bar mitzvah: In fact, it was at the bar mitzvah of a childhood friend that Parliament-Funkadelic frontman George Clinton heard the melody that he adopted into this song’s famous niggun-like vocal refrain. Black-Jewish relations have never sounded better. (JR)

Paul Simon looks at middle-age—through a beer glass, darkly. It’s a wistful, funny, eerie Manhattan nocturne, from pop music’s quintessential New York Jew. (JR)

This song, first put out by the early-1970s Israeli Army Performance troupe, took on special resonance after it became bound to the legacy of Yitzchak Rabin, who sang it at the November 1994 rally at which he was assassinated. Though the original song was fairly upbeat, it’s become something of a memorial—a peppy song about peace that, in peace’s absence, has turned darker and more troubling. (AYK)

Miriam Makeba’s hit somehow found its way into the dance repertoires of Jewish summer camps and into the vocabulary of Israeli folk dance. (AYK)

Whatever you think of Matisyahu’s music—not to mention his Lubavitcher-cum-Deadhead ragamuffin reggae stylings—there’s no denying the powerful novelty of his shtick. As Jewish minstrelsy, it’s eyebrow-raising: In The Jazz Singer the immigrant striver Al Jolson wore blackface to cast off his Jewish patrimony and become American; three generations later, Mastisyahu dons Old World “Jewface” and becomes “black.” And how can you not stand in awe of man who rhymes “Fire blaze” with “Hashem’s rays”—and who put the lyrics “I want Moshiach now” and “Torah food for my brain” on MTV? (JR)

This song, about the perils and problems of immigration, is hardly celebratory about the prospects of a new, “green” immigrant in America: “A pretty cousin came to me, beautiful as gold she was, the ‘green one’/ Cheeks like red oranges, feet just begging to go dancing/ Under her pretty blue eyes, black lines/ The cheeks, those red oranges have already faded in the street.” Depending on how you hear it, the song is either a tragic tale or a comic warning to those arriving to find their fortune in the “goldene medine.” (AYK)

8181. “Ray of Light” (1998)

Madonna—sorry, Esther—wafts out of the Kabbalah Centre, trailing sparks of divine light. (JR)

A simple song about playing tunes on a mandolin, it’s the folkiest of Jewish folk tunes. (AYK)

8383. “Rehab” (2006)

No, no, no: Don’t even try to take away Amy Winehouse’s booze and dope. The Jewish woman as immovable object. (JR)

One of many “letter” songs of Yiddish popular song, the tune dramatizes the familial stress of immigration and relocation. It’s overly sentimental and it canonizes the Jewish mother as the heart of Jewish domestic life, but still: a Yiddish song, written in the form of a letter to one’s mother? Can’t lose. (AYK)

A brilliantly dopey party anthem by history’s greatest Jewish glam-rockers, Kiss. Over hefty power chords, Haifa-born U.S. émigré Chaim Witz (aka Gene Simmons) and Queens-native Stanley Eisen (aka Paul Stanley) offer their variation on the eternal Jewish dream: a land flowing with milk, honey, vats of face paint, and easy sheine maideles. (JR)

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Tough Guy Levi), the greatest Jewish cowboy song of all-time is Kinky Friedman’s rollicking tale of a “little Hebe from the heart of Texas” who punches out a redneck. “They ain’t making Jews like Jesus anymore,” Friedman drawls, “We don’t turn the other cheek the way we done before.” (JR)

Anthony. Mama Leone. Sergeant O’Leary. The dramatis personae in (half-Jewish) Billy Joel’s 1977 hit are all goyim. But the kvetchy narrative voice is unmistakably bridge-and-tunnel Jewish: “Working too hard can give you a heart attack/ You oughta know by now/ Who needs a house out in Hackensack?/ Is that all you get for your money?” (JR)

Formally called “Salaam,” this song has become the “Oseh Shalom” of the 21st century—one of the most popular anthems for peace. Written by Mosh Ben Ari, its chorus interchanges “salaam” and “shalom.” It’s not universally popular, but it comes close. (AYK)

The most ardent pop musical ode to Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine comes not from a Jew, Ashkenazi or otherwise, but from African-American guitarist and novelty song specialist Slim Gaillard. Bagels dunked in coffee, gefilte fish, pickled herring, and “lox-a-rooni,” all served up over a sprightly jump-blues beat. Tasty. (JR)

Or, the Disco Aliyah. Written and produced by Steve Greenberg, Lipps, Inc.’s 1980 chart-topper blends period-perfect dancefloor thump with timeless Zionist yearning. “Gotta make a move/ To a town that’s right for me/ Well, I talk about it/ Talk about it/ Talk about it/ Talk about it/ Talk about, Talk about/ Talk about movin’/ Won’t you take me to Funkytown?” (JR)

9191. “Bashana Habaah” (1968)

It’s a kid-friendly song of Zionist longing and eternal deferral, with romantic visions of sitting on porches, counting birds, and watching kids play tag: “You will see, you will see, just how good it will be, next year.” (AYK)

Funny Girl Fanny Brice brought down the house at the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies with this tale of a Lower East Side pawnshop owner’s daughter, sung in thick mock-Yiddish dialect. (JR)

Sammy Davis Jr.’s answer to his Rat Pack confrere Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: “Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong/ Whether I find a place in this world or never belong/ I gotta be me.” A deliciously bombastic piece of self-mythologizing from pop’s most famous convert to Judaism. (JR)

Critics were taken aback by Bob Dylan’s militantly pro-Israel allegory, released just two years after his Christian Shot of Love album. “He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin/ He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in/ He’s the neighborhood bully.”

Laurie Nyro debunks the myth of the nice Jewish boy: “Eli’s comin’/ You better hide your heart/ Hide your heart, girl.” (JR)

From singing satirist Tom Lehrer, here’s a jaundiced Jewish spoof of American race relations: “The Protestants hate the Catholics/ And the Catholics hate the Protestants/ And the Hindus, hate the Muslims/ And everybody hates the Jews.”

A perfectly postmodern paean to Diaspora Jewish identity with lyrics by playwright Tony Kushner and music by the Klezmatics, the song is a celebration of exile and a challenge to anyone who finds himself comfortably at home anywhere. Its damning description of the Statue of Liberty as the “Queen of Exiles” could well have been written by anyone of any generation trying to get a leg up and out of the Lower East Side. (AYK)

Randy Newman’s autobiographical ballad recounts a childhood train trip with his mother to “the land of dreams”: New Orleans. “Her brothers and her sisters drove down from Jackson, Mississippi/ In a great green Hudson driven by a Gentile they knew/ Drinkin’ rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat/ Tryin’ to do like the Gentiles do/ Christ, they wanted to be Gentiles, too!/ Who wouldn’t down there—wouldn’t you?”

Yiddish songbird Nellie Casman’s signature number. (AYK)

100100. “Loser” (1993)

Technically speaking, Beck Hansen is barely Jewish. (His maternal grandmother was a tribe-member.) His 1993 debut single, though—now that’s Jewish. Often described as a song of Gen X malaise, “Loser” is actually a headier concoction: some folk, some hip-hop, and some Dylanesque doggerel, all mashed-up with the nebbishy neurosis of Alexander Portnoy and Alvy Singer. It’s not a “slacker anthem”; it’s a schlemiel’s lament. (JR)

Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

Ari Y. Kelman is Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.