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Reviewed by:
  • Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack: Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America by Judah M. Cohen
  • Alon Schab
Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack: Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America. By Judah M. Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. [318 p., 42 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-253-04021-3. $25]

Many topics in music history are strewn with prejudice and received wisdom. Jewish music, especially nineteenth-century Jewish music that lies outside the perceived central-European 'mainstream', is a clear example of such a topic. Judah M. Cohen's new book succeeds in transcending received wisdom and sketches a convincing and, in many ways, pioneering narrative. To test the freshness of the narrative, one needs only to count Cohen's references to Abraham Z. Idelsohn's Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (New York: Holt, 1929)—four fleeting mentions in the main text, (excluding the Introduction and Conclusion). Idelsohn's absence from a book on nineteenth-century Jewish music has been almost inconceivable until recently, and Cohen earned this independence after having critically studied Idelsohn's legacy ('Rewriting the Grand Narrative of Jewish Music: Abraham Z. Idelsohn in the United States', The Jewish Quarterly Review 100, no. 3 [2010]: 417–453).

While the focus of the study is on a chain of pathbreaking tune books that were published along the second half of the nineteenth century, the bulk of primary sources consists of newspaper reports, letters, and contracts. The book is, therefore, useful not only for musicologists, but also to historians, historians of American Jewry, historians of religion, as well as for those who seek to understand some of the undercurrents in contemporary American-Jewish culture.

Cohen's book follows seven 'scenes' in the development of Jewish music in America, telling the stories of individuals who, in their careers and published works, demonstrate the various forces that operated on Jewish synagogal music during the formative nineteenth century. Obviously, the main forces that shaped music making in that period were theological and liturgical—the struggle between orthodox and reformed tendencies (which rarely went consistently in one direction, as Cohen convincingly shows). But the picture was, of course, much more complicated and also included the tension between the conflicting ideals of professional and congregational singing; between following revered central-European models and the will to break free from these models; between unity and independence of communities; and issues of prestige (both communal and individual).

It is not easy to follow the plethora of synagogue names (and their cities), cantors and rabbis, publication titles, dates of birth, immigrations, installations, publications, and deaths. I found it useful to take notes as I read through the book, listing all those details in a way that allowed me to grasp the chronological and geographical connections between the various scenes. And yet, Cohen makes 'no claims at comprehensive [End Page 188] overview', but 'seeks to create a structure for further correction, critique, and detail' (p. 14). He confesses that the South and the West deserve their own studies, that his narrative begins only in the 1840s, and that women's significant role in the described process cannot be properly assessed based on the primary materials he used. Properly stated at the outset of the study, these limitations do not invalidate the essence of the book's narrative.

Cohen's story begins with the shift from British-influenced models for choral singing to central-European approaches to synagogal music. The adoption of German hymn singing (and its wider social and philosophical implications) is discussed through the work of Wilhelm Fischer. Gustav M. Cohen aimed his The Sacred Harp of Judah (1864) 'for the use of Synagogues, Schools, and Home', a Bildung ideal that differed significantly from professionalised tune books like Sulzer's and Naumbourg's. The discussion of the Bildung-influenced tune book is complemented by a review of the works of Gustav S. Ensel and Simon Hecht. The following chapter is short but dramatic, as it can be seen as a real watershed point in which American leaders of synagogue music emerged as a significant branch in the spread of Sulzerian style (and authority). This brings Cohen to discuss the four-volume Zimrath Yah, edited...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2471-156X
Print ISSN
0015-6191
Pages
pp. 188-189
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-22
Open Access
No
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