The World of Jewish Music

Cantor Rachel Spilker

Cantor Rachel Spilker

Last spring I met with the coordinator and the conductor of Twin Cities Jewish Chorale, and we began dreaming up a collaborative concert. We discussed many possibilities and settled on creating a program of Jewish music from around the world. We knew that this theme would enable us to assemble a really interesting program and show audience members what they many may not realize – that Jewish music can sound like a lot of things. We knew that we could debunk the myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.”

Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.

When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! There was an Italian Kiddush, a Yemenite tune, and a Moroccan one, to name a few. I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes (and that Cantor Schleiffer could chant them off the cuff!), and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.

I was grateful when the leadership from the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale met with great enthusiasm the idea to focus on Jewish World Music. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Among many other pieces, our adult choir is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and some Israeli music.

I look forward to presenting this concert to the Twin Cities community in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I hope there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.

It would be wonderful to see you at the concert on Sunday, February 22 at 3:00 p.m.

Samples of Jewish world music:
Yemenite Kiddush
Begins about 2:06 minutes into the video

Flory Jagoda singing “A Espana” in Djidyo, a Bosnian form of Ladino
About 11:38 minutes into the video

Yaakov Barchichat sings a Moroccan Piyut (liturgical poem)