If we wrote a book of Hebrew music, how would we refer to the various compilations in our collection? There are many words in Hebrew that are used to describe Jewish songs depending on the location and intent of the song’s origin.
The piyyut, the pizmon, and the zemer are all poems designed to be sung or chanted. Many of them are very well known and have been sung for ages. There are subtle differences between the three terms, though. A piyyut is meant to be included in the prayers; examples include Adon Olam, Anim Zemirot, and L’cha Dodi. Pizmonim, on the other hand, are not part of the prayers; they may be sung after prayers or at special occasions in Jewish life. The term pizmon is of Eastern origin and is roughly equivalent to the Ashkenazic term zemirot.
Zemirot are not part of the prayers either. They are commonly sung on Shabbos and special occasions. Interestingly, Spanish Jews use the term Zemirot to refer to the first part of morning prayers, known as Pesukei D’Zimrah in Ashkenazic countries.
All these terms refer primarily to the content of the song, the lyrics. Nigun is a word that refers to the actual melodies attached to specific words.
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Hallel, be it full or only half, is the greatest expression of sheer gratitude in the lexicon of Jewish songs. The series of Psalms from the Book of Tehillim by King David are often attached to tunes at once soulful and joyous. Parts of Hallel are sung responsively, parts are sung only by the chazzan, and parts are sung by the entire congregation in unison.
Full Hallel is recited on Shavuos, Succos, the first days of Pesach, and Chanukah. Half Hallel, which excludes several of the psalms, is recited on the remainder of Pesach and on every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishrei. Some groups also recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, but that tradition is not universally accepted.
The content of the psalms in Hallel discuss the miracles G-d visited upon the Jewish people. We extend sincere thanks and praise to G-d for looking out for us every single day of our lives.
The stirring tunes used for Hallel complement this mindset by binding participants into a unified group, united by their love of G-d.
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What do earworms, musical imagery repetitions, and stuck song syndromes have in common? They are all terms to describe a condition where a particular song or snippet of a song is fixed in a person’s mind. Often, the hook of the song, which is designed to attract a listener’s attention, will be the snippet to cling to the memory. Interestingly, the fact that sufferers can typically only recall a few words is directly related to the span of short-term memory.
Earworms are a condition, but very different from people actually having hallucinations of music. There are no definitive cures for the condition, but some have suggested involving the memory in complex tasks while others recommend actually singing the whole song as a sure remedy. Numerous stories have been written about the drive to get a song out of one’s head. Jordan Roseman, popularly known by his stage name DJ Earworm, is a musician who promotes mashups of bits of popular songs.
Earworms can pass from person to person like wildfire. Overhearing another person humming in the elevator can be the impetus for days of earworm infestation.
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Trends in popular music are largely determined by current tastes and preferences. As such, they are subject to the short-term nature of popular thought. It is refreshing and noteworthy when a song survives for years, more so when it survives for decades. In Jewish music, songs are more likely to last if they become part of Jewish life in shul or at special occasions.
At a sheva brachot, there are several tunes which can be heard in most Ashkenazic and some Chassidic circles to fill the pause between one bracha and the next. Many congregations use a variation of the same tune for Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur eve.
Shlomo Carlebach composed thousands of Jewish songs, and many of them have become part of the songbook of a Jewish prayer service. Sometimes people will use one of his compositions without knowing that it was his creation.
The production of new music keeps things fresh and provides a larger repertoire of songs, yet having songs that become rooted in tradition is essential, as well.
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Musicians and singers are often looked up to by their audiences and bear a considerable burden for that stature. When they choose to bite the heads off of bats in concert or disturb sensible people with their antics, they do a disservice to the fans who have placed them on a pedestal.
On the other hand, when musicians invest themselves in worthwhile causes, the impact can be significant. Whether they promote ending genocide in third world countries, ending hunger in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, or saving the whales, a lesson of value is imparted to fans worldwide.
On October 27th, 2013, Our Place, the organization for teenagers in need of a caring hand, is orchestrating a fundraising race at Floyd Bennett Field. Aside from the sight of beautiful vistas and the exhilaration of a good run, the race will help this noble organization continue its efforts.
Jewish music star Lipa Schmeltzer will be running in the race to encourage others to get involved. After the race, he will be inspiring the gathered crowd with a special concert. Learn more about this amazing event at Our Place’s website!
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Where can one find hundreds of Jewish people swaying to the sounds of Hebrew music? The answer, dear friends, is far from simple. Jewish music is not just an entertainment form where people sit quietly and listen to a performance. It’s not reserved for those with the gift of artistic expression.
A kumzitz is an opportunity for Jewish people to sit and sing songs of inspiration. Candles are a necessity and instruments are a plus, but a mind open to absorb the heartfelt sounds is essential. A tish is a Chassidic custom where people of all ages come together to sing songs and hear words of wisdom from a Rebbe.
Jewish people view music as a powerful tool that can impact mood, feelings, and even behavior. Rock concerts inspire a freedom from responsibility and so does the kumzitz or tish. However, the freedoms are markedly different in action and result. For example, there are rarely reports of violence at a tish.
Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t saying that music should only be used at a kumzitz or tish. Every venue of music has a different purpose and effect on its participants. We are saying that it is important to realize the effect and not enter anything blindly.
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It is easy to lump all music with any connection to Judaism or Jewish values under the common umbrella of Jewish music. While technically accurate, such a generalization ignores the sheer variety in Jewish songs.
In truth, like many artists, Jewish singers take existing genres and combine them with lyrics that reflect a cultural, societal, or religious emphasis. Thus, there are Jewish reggae artists like Matisyahu, rockers like Rick Recht, and a capella groups including the well known Maccabeats.
It is important to note that Billy Joel or Bob Dylan tunes are not necessarily Jewish simply because these artists are Jewish. The content of the lyrics determines the so-called Jewishness of a song, not the artist’s religious affiliation.
If we were to insist on defining a genre of music that is Jewish in the strictest definition, it would only include songs that are directly from prayers or the Torah. However, if we allow for a more general definition, we would say that any song that emphasizes a Jewish theme or ideal as a means of promoting it or elucidating it is a Jewish song, no matter the genre.
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In the 21st century, nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of a parody. A parody is generally defined as an imitation that provides a counter to a work of art either through presenting an opposing view or through ridicule. The term likely comes from two ancient Greek words that mean “counter” and “song.”
Parodies are found in every aspect of art from music to literature. Some parodies, such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and daily show The Colbert Report poke fun at news and current events.
Parody plays a significant role in the world of Jewish music as well. Artists take the tunes and lyrics of popular or classic songs and imbue them with a cultural twist. Often these artists take songs that focus on secular themes and use more spiritual topics instead.
Jewish songs that serve as parodies run the gamut from friendly children songs to humorous takes on pop music. For example, the artist Country Yossi has created several albums of catchy tunes that turned famous oldies into teaching moments for Jewish children.
The Maccabeats are an a capella group who spin well-known songs into humorous compositions focused on Jewish themes such as the holidays.
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Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, residents of Boro Park in the vicinity of 12th Avenue were treated to uplifting Hebrew music from a passing truck decked out with large speakers. Such an occurrence is less common than it sounds since the truck was a Hachnosas Sefer Torah mobile escorting a Sefer Torah to Yeshiva Meor Hatorah.
The Hachnosas Sefer Torah is a pivotal moment in daily Jewish life as it allows people of all ages to express their joy in Judaism, show their love for the Torah, and dance wildly in the streets. It is truly an amazing sight to behold people from all walks of life dancing together over a common goal, a common purpose.
A combination of factors makes the Hachnosas Sefer Torah such a unifying event and each has significance. One factor is the choices of Jewish songs that have become part and parcel of this celebration. An individual need only hear a particular tune emanating from two blocks down to know exactly what’s going on.
While we are on the topic of this particular event, we’d like to point out that it was really cool how organized the dancing was considering how many people were involved.
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The recently released movie When Comedy Went to School serves as a tribute to the start of Jewish comedy in the Catskills. The film features famous comedic stars including Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, and Sid Caesar.
The plot tracks the Catskill Mountains’ beginnings as a haven for Jewish immigrants looking to escape the heat and bustle of New York City during the summer. It describes the creation of resorts, many of which still exist today. It was at these resorts that Jewish people fell in love with comedy and perfected their bits.
These resorts, commonly known as the Borscht Belt, made great such celebrity comedians as Soupy Sales, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, and the Marx Brothers Chico, Harpo, and Groucho or Leonard, Adolph, and Julius, as they were originally known.
History is a little foggy about what really attracted Jewish immigrants to comedy and theories thrive. Perhaps laughter’s function as a source of catharsis helped the immigrants overcome the hardships of life at that time. Perhaps Jewish people are naturally funny. Who knows?
Whatever the reason, it is certain that Jewish humor played a significant role in advancing comedy across the United States. To this day, Jewish comedians continue to delight audiences with original jokes and wit.