Avi Finegold contemplates the definition of Jewish music—with a playlist you can listen to now

The words beneath the Spotify playlist also appear in the Summer 2024 issue of The CJN’s quarterly magazine. You can also listen to the playlist on Apple Music.

Most people have some idea of what Jewish food is—or, at least, they think they do. They probably even have some opinions about it: which versions of certain recipes they prefer, which are more authentic. But the truth is there is hardly any food that is natively, inherently Jewish. Whether you think of Ashkenazi classics like matzah balls, smoked meat, or bagels, or staples of Israeli cuisine like falafel and hummus, the foods we think of as Jewish have all come from the lived environments Jews found themselves in. These foods became incorporated into Jewish culture simply by being there at the right moments in time and hanging around for long enough.

The same argument can be made for Jewish music. When we tend to think of klezmer or the Middle Eastern modes that typify Jewish music, it is not a far leap to point to existing sounds in the folk or art music of whatever milieu that music was made in.

The inherently Jewish aspects of “Jewish” music are generally related to the lyrics rather than the music itself, that are borrowed from prayer or psalms. But the rest of it—what the music actually sounds like—is influenced by our surroundings.

Much of what is described as Jewish music today is a continuation of this trend. We still, typically, hear artists grafting Jewish lyrics onto existing musical genres. Thus we have Matisyahu performing middling reggae with lyrics pulled from Hasidic teachings, or Nefesh Mountain, an ace bluegrass band with Jewish summer-camp vibes.

Does it matter that a casual listener of the music might not even be aware that it is Jewish? The very fact that we can ask the question highlights the reality that lyrics and intent aren’t enough to make music Jewish.

Zale Newman, a Toronto hedge fund manager with deep roots as a Jewish music performer and producer, argues that the way music is used—the context in which it is played—defines its Jewishness. “We only use music at very particular occasions,” he said to me recently. “So we use it for dancing, for a wedding, and things like that. We use it for serious times, like parts of the davening… we want to reflect happiness or sadness or seriousness.”

As someone who has had headphones of some kind of another firmly planted onto my skull long before iPods existed, I wonder about what this means about all the other music that we listen to. Most Jews nowadays, even those who “do Jewish” in much of their lives, do not exclusively listen to Jewish music; this, I would argue, says something about how integrated the sound of music has become both inside and outside the Jewish community.

Which brings me, perhaps surprisingly, to the matter of haredi music.

Here are some truths about contemporary haredi music: it is one of the only genres of music that has listeners who listen to it exclusively, it has managed to create a specific sound that is immediately recognizable, and it can be irresistibly catchy despite its unrefined melodies and lyrics that are often beyond trite. All of which makes it a great lens through with to examine some of the questions raised above, about what makes music not just incidentally, but characteristically Jewish.

If you’re unfamiliar with the genre I’m calling Contemporary Haredi, it is a distinct sound that has been building momentum for over 30 years. As with other genres, it has its superstars: Mordechai Ben David, Yaakov Shwekey, and Lipa Schmelczer are some of the biggest names. Lyrically, the music draws primarily on biblical and liturgical sources, layered with original lyrics in English that are begging for a rewrite. Contemporary Haredi has its origins in cantorial music and Hassidic songs, blended with the folk and rock sounds of the 1970s and ‘80s. As time passed, technology became more advanced, and synthesizers became both more complex and less expensive, the sound evolved. Today it has not only become ubiquitous in the haredi community but has often crossed over into the general Jewish population (you know if you’ve ever danced to “Mashiach” at a hora) and occasionally gone globally viral as well (look up the Miami Boys Choir on TikTok).

This is, decidedly, not just music that is reserved for simchas and prayer; it has crossed into everyday life. Contemporary Haredi music is a soundtrack for people’s lives—the sonic wallpaper in many Jewish stores and homes. I like to imagine the writers of these songs as they pen what they hope will be the next big hit, wondering if it will sound good at a wedding or during The Musaf service—but also if a 14-year-old will connect with it alone in their bedroom, or a middle-aged parent will feel impelled to turn it on while driving their kids to school.

This is a good example of creating a framework for the idea of Jewish music as such. For many Jews, much of the time, when they listen to Jewish (or “Jew-ish”) music, they are doing so more out of a sense of nostalgia and tradition, or a sense of obligation, or in virtue of circumstance. This doesn’t negate the Jewishness of that music, but it doesn’t bode well for it as a living, evolving part of culture, either.

What I’ve been calling Haredi Contemporary includes a couple of different sub-genres, as it were. On the one hand we have music that melodically is firmly rooted in the arena-rock and power ballads of the 1990s and early 2000s. This feels simultaneously current enough (in that it isn’t ‘60s folk music) but also retro enough to not be too contemporary and, by extension, “goyish.” With its emphasis on strong melodic hooks, it’s also very singable: someone leading Mussaf or a group at a Shabbat table can really get into it. Interestingly, Jewish versions of this subgenre sound remarkably similar to Christian
Evangelical worship music. Haredi Jews and Evangelicals are generally not aware of this, but are quick to hear the similarities if you play each a sample of the other’s music. The similarities make sense: both have origins in late-20th century popular music and share the goal of inspiring people to worship.

Then we have music for weddings and other joyous occasions. This has been heavily influenced by electronic dance music (EDM) and other genres originally intended as club music. This is music engineered to be danceable and visceral, and its translation to the haredi world makes a certain amount of practical sense. It is often producer driven and created at a computer and keyboard rather than with a full band in a studio. In a world where cost-effectiveness is a virtue, having music that can be created by one person and performed at a wedding without requiring a full band (or any band at all) has its merits.

A certain amount of sense—but not entirely. In the non-Jewish world, EDM is the last thing you’d expect to hear at a wedding. But maybe that’s what makes it interesting. Perhaps this is a community of young adults showing where they might be if not for religious boundaries—maybe wayward haredi youth actually sneak away to raves, or the weddings they dance at serve as a kind of analogue for that experience. It is, perhaps, a telling example of how culture can reveal a community’s actual preferences over their stated ones.

A few words about gender are warranted here. If all you knew about haredi music was what was played at weddings and in stores, you might well think that this world is male dominated. While the public-facing music is certainly exclusively male, there is a growing segment of haredi women that are making music to be listened to by other women. These women feel bound by the halachic concept that a woman’s sung voice should only be heard by other women, and are creating music within those boundaries, accepting traditional constraints but not being fully silenced. The book For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through the Arts in the Digital Age, by ethnomusicologist Jessica Roda, was published earlier this year; in it, Roda discusses how these women are being empowered and choosing to perform, even if for a limited audience.

Some of these women—singers like Bracha Jaffe, who has YouTube videos with slick production values and plays large concerts—have significant followings in the community. Others choose to remain understated, circulating their music on private WhatsApp groups and using only their first names to avoid scrutiny. The remarkable thing about the phenomenon is that this genre of performer exists because of a confluence of factors both old and new, communal and secular. Historically, when women gathered for prayer in Ashkenazi communities, there was a chazente, or female prayer leader, who guided services even if they weren’t including parts of prayer that were traditionally limited to male minyans. Orthodox girls’ schools also have a long history of putting on plays or musicals, which is where many of the current crop of performers got their starts. But it would be impossible to ignore the role of feminism in society more broadly in supporting these performers, empowering many of these women to find their voices.

Music can be both a mirror held up to a society, revealing its values, as well as a doorway between cultures. The haredi community likes to think of itself as insulated and practicing unchanging, ancient traditions. But haredi music paints a completely different picture: one of a community that assimilates new ideas, sometimes slowly and sometimes with remarkable rapidity. However many rabbis might decry the sounds that are played at Jewish weddings—and certainly some do—those sounds aren’t going away. The community’s desires are clearly outweighing any edicts. Then again, the sounds that have filtered in are selective: the absence of hip-hop influences in Contemporary Haredi telegraphs the community’s deep uneasiness with African-American culture. None of this exists in a vacuum.

These writers and musicians know that their audience is aware of their greater cultural world. They may not be the most sophisticated creators of music, but they definitely have a knack for hearing sounds that might not be part of the culture and bringing them into the fold.

There is a term that Jewish musicians and especially cantors like to use: Niggun MiSinai. This term, which translates to “a melody that comes from Sinai,” is used when a tune’s composer is no longer known due to age or other vagaries of transmission over time. I used to think this was a cute way of approaching these songs, especially as many of them are fairly ubiquitous. Then I heard a haredi
rabbi, in a presentation about high holiday prayer, describe these as the very melodies that the Israelites sang at Sinai. I resisted the urge to go up to him afterwards and ask if he really believed that these people, at their greatest moment of national revelation, were listening to songs based on 17th century folk scales from Eastern Europe. I now realize that the true answer to such a distorted understanding is to let the leaders theorize and condemn all they want. The people dancing at weddings know the truth. The teenager listening on her AirPods knows the truth. The Chassid who decided to learn the bass knows the truth. The klezmer and hazzanut of the future is the dance and synagogue music of today.