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You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs

Our musicologists answered

Dan Klein
December 23, 2010

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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