Examining the Roots of Historical Jewish Music

Jewish historians and other researchers often examine Jewish music as a way of assessing the mood of a specific time, the personalities who lived during a particular period, and external events that were impacting on the Jewish community of the day. While the compositions and liturgies of the Jews who lived thousands of years ago is not generally known, tradition provides a comprehensive overview of the music of the Jewish communities which have existed over the past few hundred years.

Researchers recognize that, within the last three hundred years, even musical pieces which were not actually recorded can be regarded as authentic. In most cases each succeeding generation was able to authentically reproduce the lyrics and melodies of the preceding generations.

Jewish music relates information about specific incidents and historical episodes that occurred throughout Jewish history. It also provides more broad information about the Jewish community as a whole and the lives of specific Jewish community members. Language plays a great part in Jewish music since Jewish communities tended to incorporate some of the language of their surroundings along with their own particular linguistic patterns, especially in relation to the "Jewish languages" of Ladino and Yiddish.

There are a number of researchers who are examining the Jewish music of the last three hundred years as a way of documenting recent Jewish history and commemorating both those who influenced the era and those who were influenced by the Jewish music of their time.

Researching Jewish Music

The Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem documents, researches, and publishes Jewish music monographs, recordings, and scores as it provides online data about Jewish music for scholars, educators, composers, and performers. In addition to providing biographies of influential Jewish musicians, composers and performers, the Center offers a Thesaurus of Jewish Music — a search engine which aims to provide reliable information about all aspects of Jewish music. The JMRC carries out data mining that distills information and embeds it in a way that provides users with an accurate and comprehensive search for information about periods of Jewish music, music genres, music of different eras and languages, and individuals who were influential in the field of Jewish music.

The University of Wisconsin provides a research guide that focuses on Jewish music with data which includes print, multimedia, and online resources that are available for further study. It includes research material such as books, encyclopedias, recordings, and links to additional resource materials.

The American Society for Jewish Music was founded by Abraham Wolf Binder as the Jewish Music Forum, which in turn became the Jewish Liturgical Society of America in 1963. In 1974 it was renamed as the American Society for Jewish Music under the direction of Albert Weisser. The Society enables the performance, study, and dissemination of Jewish music through concerts, seminars, conferences, and other projects. Its website provides global access to Jewish music, research, and scholarship.

The Milken Archives was established by education reformer Lowell Milken (who also created the Milken Educator Awards) to document, research, and publicize the influence that music has had on the development of the American Jewish community. Sephardic Jews (from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) arrived in North America in the 17th century and by the 19th century millions of Ashkanazi Jews (from France, Germany, and Eastern Europe) had immigrated as well. Each community brought their own musical traditions while new compositions, liturgy, and melodies expanded in the developing culture of American Jewry. The Milken Archives contains recordings of many of these pieces including 17th and 18th century Sephardic prayers which are still heard in the synagogues of Spanish and Portuguese Jews and original recordings of Cantorial music of the 19th century.

The American Musicological Society was established in 1934 to advance research and scholarship in the field of music. The society maintains a subgroup that addresses the question of how to integrate Jewish topics into the historiography of American music. The group investigates various composers' ties to Jewish culture, both when the connections are unspoken as well as when the connections were over-emphasized. The AMS invites historians to submit papers that examines both "Jewish music" as well as general music that has been influenced by Jews.


Music from the Jewish culture allows historians and other researchers to discover Jewish history from a unique point of view. Jewish music provides insight into details not usually found in common historic artifacts. Many organizations, specifically created for the research and study of Jewish music, are providing a wealth of information not previously known in that field of study.

Jewish music Jewish Music - Devotional and Secular View [Moshe Denburg, copyright ©1995]

[ Published: June 20, 2013 ]

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